“Along the train tracks a group of Jewish boys were singing. It was magical. I hated them. How dare they let magic into this living hell? And then, I saw her. I saw the woman who would become my wife posing for a photo at the gates of Auschwitz.”
For most of the people walking into the gates of that cold, wind-swept institution, most of their impressions of the war and the Holocaust came from films like Schindler’s List and Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.
One man, in his twenties, thought this was a disgrace. But perhaps, remembering this unspeakable genocide via the medium of entertainment was their way – our way – of being able to creep up close to the memory. And we need to be close to the memory, the young man thought, that we could all agree on.
It started to rain. The rain felt gentle and brought the smell of distant soil. Dripping down the cloud-grey bricks of Auschwitz it looked like the building was weeping.
In Birkenau the ground was wet and a large stretch of muddy grass vied with the barbed-wire for domination. Everything was barren and yet, everyone could recognise the wintery grass under their feet. Even the prisoners who haunted this place must have felt a painful pang of familiarity upon seeing the grass. The young man hated the grass.
Cutting across the barren panorama of Birkenau was a railway line that used to bring in new prisoners from all over the Reich. It was a one-way trip. Most of them would live their purgatorial end-of-days in one of the many wooden huts scattered across the grounds, packed in, thousands of them, like human cattle.
Most of the huts in the camp now were recreations. The Nazis tore them down to hide the evidence of this genocidal place as the Soviet armies approached. They tore down some of the gas chambers too. But they could never exorcise the ghosts of this place.
And yet there were still tourists taking selfies.
The young man hated them. He hated them just as he had hated his parents for so long. Hated that they had met and fallen in love here, in this solemn temple dedicated to the victims of mankind’s most successful attempt to play God.
And he, he knew, he would never have been born had this place of death never existed.
It almost felt to him that all that suffering, all the millions of lives lost, Jews, gays, Europeans, women and children, in those few years of insanity; all that had happened so he could be born.
“My grandmother died here. My mother escaped. She died giving birth to me. I am the only woman left in my family. All my life I’ve grown up knowing only men. The Holocaust purged my life of all maternity. It’s not the worst thing it’s done. But it’s the thing I hate the most. Everyone has their own intimate reason for hating the Holocaust.”
A black sky hovered over the concentration camp. A sky so black anyone who saw it would think it was impossible for the sun to ever shine here. As if the sun knew it would be disrespectful to cast a summer light on this place.
Some tourists walking past the gates made the joke that Auschwitz reminded them of the Addams Family’s castle and its perpetual cloud that followed all of its inhabitants.
Gloria hated those tourists. And yet, she was there too, wasn’t she? She was there because this place was the only thing she and her older sister had in common.
The sister she never knew she had until it was too late. The sister who committed suicide believing she was the only woman in her family.
Their separate stories were bridged only by this hell-hole. No, Gloria thought, I’m not a tourist, I’m a traveller. I don’t want things laid out and made easy for me. I’m here to beat my chest and curse humanity. I won’t leave here with memories I’ll leave here with bruises.
Arbeit macht frei. Work sets you free. The words sewn into the entrance gate’s metal hovered sinister and light. She was hesitant about going in. But she had come this far now, she couldn’t let her sister down.
It’s strange, Gloria thought, over a million people were killed in the worst manner possible here, yet the only ghost I can feel is the ghost of my sister. A woman who had the luxury of dying mercifully by her own hand.
How Gloria had wept when she was told her long-lost sister had committed suicide. It felt like the worst possible scenario, like God was using Gloria as his punching bag. But now, being in Auschwitz, she felt spoilt by the Fates!
It started to rain as Gloria cast her eyes on the thousands of old shoes, false teeth and luggage that once belonged to the prisoners. For a minute she closed her eyes and tried to feel that mass accumulation of suffering. No, still, her pain loomed larger. She walked away painfully ashamed of herself.
Inside the barracks where the prisoners lived their tormented lives, there were narrow wooden shelves where several prisoners would sleep all at once. The smell in that place was like an old carpenter’s workshop. And yet, something was off, something visceral lashed at you as you inhaled.
Some tourists posed for photos right next to the beds. Gloria suppressed her anger. Instead, she calmly thought, when you die, I’ll come piss on your grave.
Worse still, inside the gas chambers, a testament to man’s unbound masochism, one tourist, a woman, took a phone call. Luckily, the rest of the herd shouted at her and she was made to hang up. But Gloria wished she could be alone there.
She wished she could be alone in Auschwitz. This place is not a theme-park, it’s not Disneyland, it’s, it’s – I don’t even know what the hell it is.
She felt herself suffocating in the gas chambers. There and then, all of a sudden, the horror of the entire place struck her all at once. In one split second, all those years of inhumane torture came roaring down on her. She fell to her knees. She didn’t beat her chest. She cried, her tears trickling towards the walls scarred by the scratches of those who died there.
One man, who didn’t seem to be with any group, came to help her. He helped her up, she leaned against the wall and then she saw the white scratches. The sight of those scars made her wail, her mouth agape as if it had been struck by rigor mortis. Even so, no matter how deathly, her wailing meant nothing to that place.
In her mind her crying was as insulting as that woman taking a phone-call. Nothing, no human reaction inside that place felt justified. Gloria wanted to leave.
Before she knew it, she was outside the gate, set free from the gas chambers, the stranger, the young man, offering her a bottle of water.
She opened her eyes, wiping away the purple-tinted tears, and looked up at him. All she could see was his smile. She felt relieved to see an iota of man’s kindness bursting through that prison of nightmares. And because of that, because of the kindness he showed her in Auschwitz, even before she could make out his face, she was in love with him.
“We met in the gas chambers, your mother and I. We weren’t proud of it. Your mother, the woman who had lost her sister to suicide and me, the man born out of Holocaust tourism. After we met we went for a drink in Krakow. I’ll never forget that conversation we had. ‘Auschwitz took away the only family I had.’ ‘Auschwitz gave birth to me. I am born of genocide.’ ‘And I am the victim of genocide.’ ‘I am destined to carry the stamp of atrocity like a tattoo in my blood for the rest of my life.’ ‘I have no blood. My blood was ripped away from me in that concentration camp.’ We were arguing as to which one of us was most badly scarred by Auschwitz and what happened there. And that’s how your mother and I first flirted.
We are sorry.”