The bus left us in a large gravel lot in front of the visitor’s center. A grandmotherly woman waited for us inside. I purchased tickets like I would for an amusement park and handed them to my traveling companions, Bert (short for Roberta) and Jeanne.
I said, “See that group over there? They’re English and they get a tour guide. Want to blend in with them?”
“How are we going to blend in Jen?” Jeanne asked. “There’s nobody under the age of sixty five and they’re clean and nicely dressed. We look like crap.”
Jeanne was a Barbie look alike, so if she thought she looked like crap, it must be so. I ran a hand through my unruly brown hair and attempted to smooth the wrinkles from my shirt. I realized that we looked like three college girls experiencing the ultimate freedom of traveling Europe with nothing but a backpack and a Eurorail pass. It had been two days since our last shower and longer since we washed our clothes. But still, it was my idea to visit Auschwitz and I was set on having a guide.
I stopped attempting to primp. “I’m not saying we need to walk arm in arm with them. Just act casual.”
“Those are famous last words aren’t they?” Bert said, but she was already gathering her jet black hair away from her round, native Alaskan face to put in a pony.
I took my place on the fringe of the group. Jeanne and Bert attempted to hide behind my 5’ 11” thin frame. A white haired man with a name tag attached to a yellow sweater vest approached. He said with a Polish accent, “Is this my group? Please follow me.”
We purposely hung back and arrived last at a large black metal gate. At the top of the gate was written Arbeit Macht Frei.
“Good afternoon, my name is Peter.” Despite his accent, he was easy to understand. “I have lived in this area my whole life. I was a boy when the Nazis came, and I was barely a teen when they started to use Auschwitz for exterminations. Everyone who was able from the area was made to work for them. My job was to unload suitcases from train cars when the prisoners arrived. If I did not work, if I refuse, then my family would be killed or become prisoner here.”
Bert, Jeanne and I glanced at one another. We were no longer lighthearted.
Peter gestured to the sign. “It means work makes freedom. The prisoners were to believe if they worked hard the Nazis would let them go.” He walked through the gate. His tour group followed obediently.
I never believed in ghosts, spirits or the supernatural in general. That was, until I walked through that gate. When Bert audibly deflated and Jeanne grabbed my shirt at the elbow, I knew I wasn’t the only one who felt an oppressive presence. The place was haunted.
Peter’s tone was reverent. “The grounds you see in front of you did not look like this then.”
He paused while we scanned lush lawn surrounding red brick buildings and young trees lining a dirt road before continuing. “You see, prisoners ate grass, leaves, tree bark, anything that grew. Sometimes they ate the dirt.” He pointed to the high fence wrapped with razor wire surrounding the camp. Signs were placed about every ten feet warning of electrocution. “Guards were stationed by the fence not so prisoners could not escape, but so they wouldn’t run into the fence to end their suffering.”
Peter walked toward one of the buildings. I was no longer sure I wanted to see a concentration camp. I was experiencing history. I could feel it in the pit of my stomach.
Peter told us over his shoulder we were entering what had once been the women’s block. The bunks were removed to make room for displays. We entered a spacious room with enlarged photos on the walls. “Guards took these photos,” Peter said. “They wanted to document everything here.”
I was particularly horrified by a picture of a long line of children marching to death, too young to be useful. Other photos captured emaciated, unreal looking people working at various hard labor tasks. All those abused people were not looking at a camera, they were looking at me.
Sitting in history classes at school I thought I knew what it was all about. I knew nothing because I never felt anything regarding World War II. I didn’t see the connection between the atrocities that happened then and those that occur because of prejudice and intolerance every day in our so-called modern society.
Peter spoke, but I didn’t listen. I was captivated by all those people in the pictures who saw my prejudices, knew about those times when I was the bully, and perhaps worse, the times when I didn’t stand up for a victim because it didn’t have anything to do with me. The photos weren’t on display for me. I was on display for them. I didn’t like what they saw. I turned away.
“Jews were not the only targets,” Peter said. “There were also Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, criminals and homosexuals.” Peter gestured to a collage of labels. “The Star of David, of course, was the Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses wore violet triangles, criminals a green triangle, homosexuals a pink triangle.”
I glanced at Jeanne. Her features were stone. Neither of my friends fit Hitler’s master race. Bert was an Eskimo and Jeanne would wear a pink triangle. The hollowness in my stomach went to a new depth.
We filed out of the women’s block and went to an identical building. Peter stood aside as we entered. I concentrated on the man in front of me much like I did walking to lunch in elementary school so I wouldn’t get out of line and into trouble. When he stopped, I did too.
I looked past the man. I wasn’t sure what I was seeing at first. The room we were in was large but had been partitioned by a floor to ceiling wall of Plexiglas. Behind the glass was a mountain of human hair.
Peter cleared his throat. “The hair was shaved whether they were to live or die. This is only a small portion of what was found. Some of it had already been used.”
I thought, “Used? For what?”
As if in answer to my question, Peter said, “It was woven into cloth for soldier uniforms and blankets. As a reward, the guards would give us things like blankets and soap. The soap was made from human fat. My mother was a good woman. When I came home with the gifts, she handed me a shovel. I buried them in the yard late at night so no one would see.” He led us to another room.
The room was smaller, but still partitioned by Plexiglas. In it was a pile of eye glasses. The next room contained personal items like hair brushes, next, religious items, and then one containing prosthetics. Yet another room was shoes separated into adult and children’s. Each thing was like a new punch in the gut as I realized these people were eliminated because they were different or weak, and yet despite being decades past the Holocaust we were still abusing those among us who didn’t quite fit.
“This is the last,” Peter said softly as he pointed to a doorway. The last room was larger than most of the others, but not quite as big as the first. Behind the Plexiglass were suitcases, all black, all with names and addresses written in white. I imagined they were empty but had once contained the owner’s most prized possessions.
Bert bumped me and pointed to one of the suitcases at the bottom. Printed in neat, white letters was the name Margot Frank.
Peter noticed us and said, “It is the suitcase of Anne Frank’s sister. The family, except the father of course, died here. Come, there is more I want you to see.” Peter walked outside.
I wished we could stay where the sun was shining and the sky was a brilliant blue. And I could breathe.
The next building displayed inmate photos as well as paintings and drawings done by the prisoners. The pictures were taken upon arrival, one from the front and one from the side. The subjects were fearful as if they were realizing where they were and what their future held. There wasn’t the emotional vacancy I saw in the photos of the first building we visited. They were yet to be broken.
From there we went to another building. Large rooms were packed with wooden bunks, three beds high, no mattresses. They were shelves for people. Some had one ratty see through thin wool blanket, a bowl and a spoon laying on them. Peter waved us in a new direction.
We went to an enclosed courtyard where they did role call and held public executions. My only thought was how beautiful the red roses were in front of the shooting wall. I was having a difficult time staying present.
Back on the road Peter said, “It is a beautiful day today isn’t it?” I wanted so much for him to end there, but he didn’t. “We had no days like today back then. The sky was thick with smoke and ash fell like snow. They say you can dig four meters before you find dirt instead of ash for kilometers around Auschwitz. And if you find dirt then you will also find bones.”
The sound of my feet on gravel echoed in my head. I heard only bits and pieces of what Peter said about the buildings we passed. “-keep women for sex, medical experiments, cafeteria,” were a few words that floated into my conscious. Then we stopped again. It was the gas chambers disguised as showers. Afterward, the crematorium.
“This is the end of my tour. You are able to continue unguided to Birkenau if you choose.”
Jeanne and Bert looked to me. After all, I was the one who wanted to come. I shook my head. I was done. We began to walk toward the visitor’s center.
Bert said, “Coffee?”
“I’ll be right there,” I said.
I couldn’t believe I was doing it, but I approached Peter. “Thank you for the tour. We weren’t really with the group.”
Peter chuckled warmly. “Really, three beautiful young women with a bunch of old people like me? I didn’t guess. You are from the United States?”
He glanced at the camera around my neck. “Did you take photos?”
“No, I couldn’t. It just seemed wrong or something.”
“Many people find it overwhelming.”
“Yeah, coming here was the most, well, I can’t really describe it. It was the feeling-” I put my hand on my chest. “I’m sorry I’m not making any sense.”
“These feelings you have is why I love to take young people on my tour. I wish that young people who know will not allow it, or anything like it, to happen again. Will you?”
“No sir. I-”
“What is it?”
“I haven’t been so nice, so tolerant. I -”
Peter placed his hand on my shoulder. “Right here is the only place to start change.”
There was so much I still wanted to say to him, promises I wanted to make to him, but all I could manage was, “Thank you.”