The Journey, Part 5

16 November 2013

In the category of mistakes that turn out well…the last day of the trip, I saved for Auschwitz/Birkenau.

There are van services that take groups to Auschwitz and I thought the taxi driver understood that’s what I wanted. But he took me to the main bus terminal.” Where,” I asked him,” is the van to Auschwitz?” “No, no,” he said, wagging a finger, “Oswiecim” (the Polish name for the town). Then he shrugged and left, leaving me stranded in front of a sea of herringbone slots for buses. Now who and how would I ask for the right bus? But, luckily, along one row of buses, there was an overhead sign “Oswiecim”…a local bus. The destination was right, so I climbed aboard.

It was a smallish bus, seats filled, with standing room only and I, a standee, was next to a seated young woman, who motioned to me to take her seat…my gray hair marks me as unsteady, I guess. “No, no, thank you, I like standing.” She was talking in Spanish to two South American young men, also standing, with the straggly beards of young Che Guevaras, traveling until their money ran out. And I thought she was with them…doesn’t everyone travel in threes…Musketeers, Magi, Tenors? They all spoke some English, so I included myself in the conversation.

“Well”, she said abruptly, halfway through the hour and a quarter trip, “now we switch” and she got up and made sure I sat down. A wonderfully delightful young woman and we started to talk. “You’re from South America, too?” “Me, oh, no,” she said, “I live in Krakow.” I, flattering, told her how fluent her Spanish sounded. She confessed that she was a guide at Auschwitz for Spanish-speaking groups.  But her English was fluent, as well, and she could have been a guide for English-speaking groups. And neither was her first language.” But,” she smiled, “I passed the exam to be a guide in Krakow, so I won’t have to commute back and forth to Auschwitz five days a week.” So we got off the bus together and she made sure I knew where to catch the bus going back to Krakow and took me through the employee line into Auschwitz. I almost felt guilty, having had such a delightful time, getting to such a depressing place.

Auschwitz I, the original concentration camp with the “Arbeit Macht Frie” gate, is a meticulously geometric arrangement in three rows of two-story brick buildings, now with 68 years of tidying up. A bit more haphazard and it could be a college campus…except for the gallows, firing squad wall, electrified barbed wire, gas chamber, crematorium, etc. Then the Nazis got serious about extermination and built Birkenau, two miles away and ten times larger. We know it from the wooden barracks and the iconic brick “Death Gate” through which the trains rolled with Jewry and others from all over Europe. Nothing more needs be said, except, poignantly, I came across a building called “Martyrdom of Jews”. In one large room was a system of oval metal pipes, much like a dry cleaner, holding large (3′ x 3′) sheets of laminated paper. Each page, back and front had about 100 lines and on each line names, birth and death dates, where from and where murdered, three or four names per line, alphabetically…thousands of pages. My grandmother’s maiden name was Sommer. There were three and a half pages of Sommers. Fortunately, she came here in 1901.