Kasia and I walk around the camp talking to various survivors.
We meet them here and there, by chance mostly. There is often just a subtle,
unspoken look or an expectant glance that signals something. At first I don't
understand and don't notice. Fortunately Kasia does. Most of them are Poles.
She knows the signals of her people. We hear many stories as we walk along the
tracks and in the various camps in Birkenau. At first I am remote. I think of
all the stories since I was a kid about Jew haters in Poland. No doubt they
were true. No doubt. And because of this I fail to recognize that these Polish
survivors suffered as much as Jews. Perhaps they were even anti-semites before
their interment here. But it is hardly possible now, after. Is it? Following
several tales of life in the camp, I start to listen. It is difficult. I feel
guilty, like I am betraying something. To many Jews there are no "good Polaks".
I have come to Poland with this attitude. One day merges with another as we
make the trips back and forth from Oswiecim to Krakow. Stories merge also, and
I begin to get a picture, even a feeling for what camp life was like, from Poles
We accidently meet the caretaker of Birkenau with a face of furrows plowed in
some nightmare, spreading like a fan, outward, from the bridge of his nose.
He reminds me of Scarface from Dick Tracy. We discover him sitting on a bench
outside the SS orderly room at the front of the camp, just where the track goes
underneath the tower, exiting on the other side to become the ramp. He is old
but looks like he is still able to do a good day's work. He is tall and well
built for a man in his seventies. His name is Zawada. He's eating an apple with
a knife as he looks up at us. There is a woman sitting with him in her mid-fifties.
She looks at us also. They are both sitting there so casually, slouching against
the back of the bench, like sitting in the park on a Sunday afternoon. They
seem used to it.
He has known that we were here for some days, having heard we were listening
to stories and were returning day after day. He waits for us, knowing we will
come this way.
After Kasia introduces herself, he starts talking. It pours out of him. She
can hardly keep up with the translation. He tells of running off to the Spanish
Civil War in 1937 with the Polish brigade, to fight Franco and the Fascists.
When the Brigade were defeated in 1939, he and some comrades crossed the Pyrenees
into France, and gave up. The French interned him in their concentration camp
at Drancy, where the jailers were as bad as the Germans. There was little to
eat. Conditions were awful. In 1940 the Germans came. It wasn't exactly a picnic
under them either. After the defeat of Nazi Germany, he walked home. He was
given a job as the caretaker of Birkenau which he tended for thirty five years.
The woman, his daughter Zofia, was in Birkenau from February 1943 to January
1945, when she was liberated by the Russians. She looks suspicious, the way
Kasia did that first morning in the Cracovia. There have been a lot of people
through here; more than a few of them tourists. I try hard not to be one;. I
am anyway. She is cautious and wary, nervous but direct. She tells horrifying
stories very simply and keeps looking over her shoulder. She sits here day after
day and talks, trying unsuccessfully to dim the shouts, the trains, and quiet
Women lucky enough to be chosen for slave labor are marched off
the ramp, taken to the women's camp and processed; a preliminary to unimaginable
suffering and horror that finds no adequate expression in our world, even now.
It has not, as yet, found a way into our hearts and minds enough to change our
ordinary, everyday brutality. Perhaps it never will. It is hard to listen with
A man's head is shaved bare. One notices the thickness of his features, his
neck, his ears. Not so for women. What is noticeable is the head shorn of its
glory, gaping raw and bumpy, with little ridges and waves; the back of the head,
sticking out there in raw space, unadorned. It is a moment of extreme humiliation.
To see a group of women thus shorn is to be reminded of chickens after they
are plucked, or a shaved Afghan hound after an unsuccessful untangling trip
to the local vet. They are utterly reduced, stripped of their subtlety, grace
and flow. Necks are stretched and heads balance atop them precariously, like
baked potatoes on a round peg. If you jostle them, the potato will fall off
and roll away. They stand about in the Sauna in clumps, like bunches in a vegetable
market waiting to be chosen, weighed, bagged and carted to the cooking stove.
Some are the Irish type, small, round and smooth. Others are the sweet variety,
some long and pointed, others twisted and bumpy. Still others are Idaho shaped,
sort of elliptical with bumps and eyes all over them. But potatoes all, clumped
together waiting to be sorted into various bins, waiting to be eyed, skinned,
boiled, baked, roasted and consumed.
New compatriots, constant terror and slow death, join those already acquired
in prison and on the transport: humiliation and degradation. Stripped naked,
they are made to take showers in front of leering camp women and male SS who
laugh and point. They cover themselves with their hands but it doesn't help.
Afterwards they are made to stand at attention while an SS slob walks around
and pokes casually at their genitals with a smooth, leather riding crop. After
delays they are taken to very much the same greeting as the men.
What are these images staring back at me; who these creatures
of grayness that reflect a trick, carnival-mirror image, distorted, surreal?
Are they taller or just thinner, dying or dead, puppets on a string, jerking
on the Birkenau stage, or players in some fantastic horror show? When they eat,
am I eating? When they scream, it is I who find some sound there still, inside,
some party toy noise which I emit like a chirping gosling about to be devoured
by a minotaur? Am I as filthy and disgusting as they or is it just that the
glass is dirty? Do they lie to me as well when I ask them how I look? Do they
see themselves through me? We are, all of us, liars. I think if I told them
the truth, I wouldn't believe it. The only truth is that we lie to each other
in order to be true to all we have; another selection, another roll call, another
bowl of soup, a bread ration... another day... another night. We all know this
is true but we don't believe it.
My only mirror is the sight of the creatures with whom I share this place. If
they are an accurate reflection, I am no longer human, no longer a woman; rather
a loathsome creature, a grotesque caricature, a perversion of life, a starved
distortion who no longer menstruates, dreams of children, wonders about poetry
or yearns of romantic fulfillment. Head shaved, number in my arm, I scrape the
surface in search of anything that will be absorbed... no not that, rather,
anything that will fill me, the hole. Digestion, a luxury of the few, is reserved
for the strong, for people who have the innards of mythological creatures: humans,
Tonight is my birthday, I think. I will be 1000 years old, my own age plus one
year here, a millennial occurrence. What an occasion! I have become somewhat
of a celebrity, surviving so long in this place. Is this a place? Or is this
everywhere? If it is, there isn't any place. There isn't anywhere. There is
only...this. And my birthday? An occasion! I will have a party. I will allow
them to steal my bread ration in the evening and I will be happy about it. This
happiness is the party I give myself and my guests. I can't give them the ration
because they'll think I've given up and won't help me with the same lies. They
will eat my ration and I will live another millennium. I will crawl into the
hutch at night and imagine a most wonderful song being sung honoring my mouth,
my stomach, my ribs. And tomorrow, at noon, when I get my soup... then I will
celebrate. I will say: "See, I gave up a ration and I am still here". What will
power! You see, I can even give my soup away in Birkenau! I am strong, resilient,
persistent. I will prevail even though I don't exist anymore. This I know: I
am still here. Aren't I?
Still here! But where is that? Is it here in the hole, or over there in my comrade
where I see myself eating. Is it here in my three story hutch, or over there
where the overflowing shit bucket sits calling to me, beckoning me to drag myself
from the hutch and shuffle over the splattered floor to relief in explosive
ecstasy, only to create a deeper hole in me. Am I here relieving myself on my
comrades below or am I raining filth on myself from above? Am I in my own mess
or someone else's, here or over there, in the hutch across, dead between two
comrades in the night; dead but useful as a blanket, a mattress...food? Being
here is also a lie for I am already dead. I merely pretend life, posture movement.
I play a game with myself as children do when they imagine longed for objects:
dolls; fire engines; guns; beautiful dresses. I pretend I have found a piece
of paper, not a notebook or even a full page of newsprint. In here a scrap will
do. What will I do with it? Shall I read it or perhaps clean myself? Shall I
use it to wrap the sausage and cheese Mama has given me for lunch or shall I
wrap the cucumber or the potato? Maybe I will give it to my brother to make
a glider or to my cousin Livia to wash her doll's face. I know! Of course! I
know what to do with it. How could I have been so foolish?... I will eat it!
And I will pretend it is the sausage and the cheese. I will take a bite of cheese
and then a bite of sausage... then a bit of cucumber and a sip of water... I
am so happy there is paper to imagine? What else would I do for dinner?
If I had a real scrap of paper I'd probably trade it for some string. I'd use
this to fasten my bowl to my waist because if I lose it I'm a goner. Without
this I can't eat; this my sink, my pillow, my overcoat - indeed, my chamber
pot. Sometimes when marching to work I pretend it is my full belly bulging in
front of me - taking more space than is allowed here, bouncing in front of me
with an inflexible fullness. No matter there is little to eat, it will always
retain its shape. It is my closest friend, this bowl of chipped red enamel,
more valuable than precious china. It is a magic bowl, changing shape and depth
according to circumstance: bottomless when waiting in the soup line and a mere
thimble after I've vacuumed its contents, licked the surface of every crack
Yes I will have a party celebrating my entry into that otherworld, gone as it
is. But... I will eat my bread ration so that tomorrow I will be strong enough
to stand in the soup line and pretend that I gave it up. This will make my friends
happy for they'll look at me and see that I am happy and think that it is them.
We are standing outside in the evening. It is still light. We
are scraps of discarded kindling stuck in the mud and covered with it. Achtung...Achtung:
everybody stiff and attentive. The endless roll call is upon us again, weighing
on us like a huge glop of stinking wet filth. The whole camp standing at attention;
thousands and thousands of women beaten, degraded, ill, disgustingly unsanitary...
standing... These ragged buffoons who stand row upon row in front of barrack
after barrack are thirsty, starving and think they are still alive. My feet
are stuck in the stuff. Good, it gives me support as I might have to stand for
many years this evening. It is raining on us. It is raining on me, freezing
rain. I watch it splash off the end of my nose. Good, I am having a bath. I
see the fatty smoke billowing over the camp and feel happy that those who left
us this morning - how long? - are returning to us now in this rain. We are reunited,
my fellow sufferers and I. We are joined in the mud and the greasy rain. I lick
my parched lips and take them into me; not the only form of cannibalism in Birkenau.
Little did they know this morning they would be our sustenance this evening.
Taken into our bodies they become us and through us live again for a while;
drops of water off my nose.
They are counting us. This takes forever because someone is missing and it means
the whole camp will stand until that person is found. She is probably dead somewhere
stuffed under a pile of rubble. They are lousy counters, stupid chunks of beef,
thick and slow and dumb. The only rapid reactions they possess are ones reserved
for beating, raging and obeying superiors.
They count!... an exercise in sloth. They swagger and posture and wrinkle their
low, thick, nobby foreheads and scratch them with their paws as they lose count
and have to begin again. Eins, Zwei, Drei... Imagine, I am so valuable that
if I disappear without their knowledge they will stop everything and look for
me. How powerful I am!... Vier, Funf, Sechs... I can stop a whole camp by simply
disappearing. Alive or dead makes no difference as long as I am part of the
What they will never know is that I can stand right here amidst all of it and
go away. It takes some doing but I have mastered it. Zen students spend lifetimes
mastering the art of clearing one's mind of everything but now. I have learned
here to make now nothing. Birkenau, more exacting than any master.
I can stand here splattered with mud and filth, with wooden clogs rubbing the
infected sores on my feet, starving, thirsty, beaten, bowed and... I can feel
Some faint. They fall right down in the mud. They give in and surrender to oblivion,
a prelude to death. They let go of themselves, relax their grip on the handles
and lets the strings go slack. They set themselves adrift in a sea of submission
and drink the ecstasy of death. It is infinitely easier to sink here, to let
go of life and pain. One stands here and thinks to herself about the past life:
her mother, her friends, perhaps a lover, and then it is easy to let go.
But I have found another way... the way of the walking dead: To be here and
not to be here. I have learned from them to make myself disappear while never
moving. It is possible to draw oneself inside oneself, into empty spaces. Acht,
Neun. Did you know there are sinkholes inside the body where you can hide if
you find them? There are secret hollows that lie folded and compressed, waiting
to be inflated by a fleeing soul. Did you know that once opened, these spaces
will receive a wet, shivering, half frozen wretch into the warmth and security
of nothingness? I can hide beneath this cracked parchment skin and I can pull
all the nerves in with me, take them deep for soothing, keep them warm and safe
even as the rain freezes me and the blows fall. Zehn...
The sky is dark now. The camp's lights glow and flicker in the rain. The fat
Stubhova stands in front of us with a club, boots apart, hands on hips, in a
clean striped prison dress and a black wool jacket with an arm band. She is
clean, having washed in our tea, which she has then deigned to allow us to drink.
She struts for the SS, standing apart in uniform, boots, leather riding crop
and rain attire. Elf, Zwš If... they miss me. I have withdrawn so far inside
they don't even count me. I am here, you dolts... in here. Try and find me!
I have so mastered the art of rage without the dangerous indulgence of anger,
that I don't care what they do. They could drop down dead in their own blood
and I would simply wonder when the roll call will end. I am so beyond ordinary
anger that their existence doesn't matter. They are out there, somewhere beyond
the boundaries. They are merely at the other end of the whip; an aberration
to be avoided, a shapeless form disseminating pain. The normal world ends where
the tip of the whip begins. Everything on the other side of it is monstrous.
I am in here, in my closet body, playing a game of Birkenau hide-and-seek. I'm
in the shadows, withdrawn from my freezing fingers and toes. I peek out at them
counting as they miss me, standing here right in front of them. I see them in
segments as through a space in a fence. First comes a toe, then the rest of
the boot, then a shoulder and an SS skull on a cap, a club or a whip attached
to an arm, a uniform, the last boot and heel and then the soul. They walk on
the other side of the slatted gaps my comrades in the front row form; another
boundary separating victims and persecutors. I peek at them through the fence
as they stop and point, counting the person on my right and, from deep inside
my darkness, I see them count the person on my left. They have missed me. This
means they will have to start again and we will stand here longer. Well, I'm
safe in here and besides, they need the practice. Eins, Zwei, Drei...
They are secretly afraid we know they are dumb and they hate us for it. We have
to stand here and wait for them to figure it out themselves, like stupid children.
If we attempt to point out their mistakes they will punish us. The power of
the stupid over the sensitive, in order to suppress their own reality, has no
bounds. They will stop at nothing to create the illusion of superiority. Heine
was right: first the books and now us. It isn't that they disagreed with what
was written, no. They simply never understood what they read. It is at this
moment that I must make myself into a piece of hollow wood, for these are dangerous
thoughts that breed rebellion, revolt and inevitable death. Better to just withdraw
into the dark and become inert.
The missing person has not been found. We are told we will stand here until
she is accounted for. Someone in front of me falls, seems to come apart like
a puppet. Her head, arms and legs separate from a wooden body held together
with string and rubber bands. Falling is for bodies with substance, density.
They occupy a length of ground, scatter over a small distance. Her's doesn't.
Rather, it crumples in a heap. Legs, backbone, ribs, arms... head, collapse
straight down as they clank against one another. The puppeteer has suddenly
cut the strings below the handle and the doll comes apart in a clatter of disjointed
limbs, like a burlap bag full of bones that has the bottom drop out. Everything
about her collapses, all at once, in a sudden, final disintegration. She has
struggled for years to survive; in the ghetto, on the trains, then the transit
camps, on the trains again and in two labor camps, finally here in the death
camp for seven months. She has been here seven months and has done everything
possible to stay alive. She has hidden and fought and learned how to "trade".
She has waged a bitter struggle against the odds and prevailed longer than most.
She persevered stubbornly against the evil forcing her to slowly die. She seemed
fine this morning. She spoke to me just before we went out for the roll call.
She looked alright. She worked all day with me. We were clearing a marsh. I
don't remember anything happening to her. She wasn't hit any more than usual
and didn't complain about anything. She always stood so tall and erect in the
row in front of me. As usual, I used her as a gauge of my own straightness,
like lining up a board with a level. She looked the same this morning and then
she just went... She was there in front of me and then she was down. She just
died there standing at attention. She didn't even make a noise, not even a small
one, until her body hit the ground. She was dead even before she started falling.
She had great willpower and a great desire to live. She got every moment out
of her life. Many would have given up and not crawled from the hutch in the
morning. They would have died in their sleep, or at the marsh. She fought all
the way to the end. She was here and then she was a pile of rags, stretched
skin and bones in the mud. They count her too. All must be counted.
Finally the roll tallies. It is nearly midnight. All the numbers are accounted
for. Am I the mud, or am I only in it? What is the difference between it and
me? Certainly it isn't that I am aware of my own existence. We are both cold
and wet and stuck to each other. We are both here at the roll call waiting to
be released. I will take some of it into the barrack and it will keep some of
me here. It will remain with me always, as a part of me will be left here on
the parade ground at Birkenau. We finally are allowed to go to our barrack to
eat, and sleep while we dream of eating. In four hours we will be stuck here...