This is part four of a six-part series. Read the other installments here.
"I hope you are all in comfortable shoes for Auschwitz. We've got a lot of walking. And we're behind schedule."
So says our tour guide, Margaret, concerned about our bunions on the way to one of the sites of history's worst genocide. This practical worry catches me off guard, but I shouldn't be surprised. After all, even death camps become normalized when you visit them enough. In the end it's always a battle between personal comfort and psycho-historical horror. And even if your feet hurt, as I'm soon to learn, horror wins.
I'm thinking about this as we pass the gingerbread houses in the quaint little town of Oświęcim, along the lane to the camp. The town folk, apparently, had no idea what was going on over there. Except, you know, when the camp was going full tilt, the housewives weren't happy with all that nasty ash that kept settling on their laundry when they hung it out to dry.
And yes. There are so many deep, meaningful things to say about Auschwitz. About any camp. And I plan on saying them. But not now. I need to postpone my long-imagined Auschwitz moment. Because, being a man of a certain age, the second the bus squeals to a halt I fly out of it, gripped by an urgent need that makes it hard to be profound about anything.
As I crane my neck for the facilities, I see a half dozen other guys, sprung-shot from their motor coaches, faces locked in that same grim, single-minded focus that makes the fact that you're about to enter the site of one of the worst crimes against humanity ever secondary to hoping you don't wet yourself before you get in.
For a few bad beats my fellow not-young, boggy prostate owners and I are stuck in that crowded line outside the gates. Hopping from leg to leg. Around me are people in short-shorts, people in Metallica T-shirts. People laughing, texting, talking, staring off, doing what people do. All of it seems wrong. Where is the impact of the moment? This must be some mutant spinoff of the Heisenberg Principle: Does the act of visiting a genocide site in a horde of crowded, braying tourists impact the gravitas of genocide? Is any venue packed with large Americans sucking the nipples on their water bottles inherently de-gravitased?
Before I can answer, the line moves and I'm through the iconic gates—ARBEIT MACHT FREI—but need relief before I can surrender to emotion. The vista is gripping: the barracks, the chimney, the counting ground where prisoners stood for morning count each day, sometimes for hours, in the freezing cold until they began to drop. Now weeds and grass and gravel, nothing but leaden, shoe-swallowing mud and shit when it was operating.
But finally, I see the men's room, off to the right. I bolt in and nearly kneecap myself on the edge of a low wooden card table, behind which slouches the hard-eyed bathroom attendant in a ratty blue sweater, reading a newspaper. He stares up at me like I've interrupted a state dinner.
As far as I can tell, the bathroom sector is the one booming industry in Poland. From my informal research, there isn't a single unmanned toilet in the country. But it takes me a minute to figure out the protocol. Am I paying admission? Or is peeing free, and I'm supposed to tip on the way out? Either way, from what I can tell it's the same business model as a bridge troll's. I'm paying for the right to pass. After a moment, I realize I'm staring at the young Toilet Kommandant. And he's staring back. Like, Just fucking ask me. How did I end up working at a death camp crapper? What's it like to sell piss tickets to Holocaust tourists all day? What happens to people who don't pay?
Sixty-thousand out of 1.5 million survived this place. What does he think about, staring from his toilet station at the biggest crime scene in history? I have so many questions! Is he, I wonder, a third generation death camp crapper attendant? Did his great grandfather once sit where he's sitting now, taking tips from Himmler when he came to visit Kommandant Hoess, whose wife and children kept a lovely garden on the other side of the wall?
I open my mouth, but just then a guy comes in behind me, tosses a coin in the bowl, and edges by me without a backward glance. Finally I go in, too, but I want to interview the guy so bad I pay him again on the way out. I try to strike up a conversation, but of course he doesn't even answer. Just scowls. Then a man in a suede jacket strides in, sizes up the situation, and says something in Polish as he squeezes by me. The two men snicker like I'm not there. Defeated, I leave. This was not the experience I had envisioned.
There is no way to comprehend the horror, and to assume you can dishonors those who endured it.
But then, walking outside, I feel something in my consciousness shift. I realize that what they say about being here is true—until you feel your feet on the ground, and consider the dead beneath them, until you inhale, and a voice in your head asks the question only visitors to death camps ask: Am I breathing air in which the ghost of human ash still floats? Only then will you realize that there exists but one certainty: There is no way to comprehend the horror, and to assume you can dishonors those who endured it.
Anyway, I'd lost my tour group and decided to head for the crematorium. The only one left intact out of the five originals. It's a little crowded. In the dressing rooms outside the gas chamber, there were hooks for inmates' clothes, with numbers, so they could find them after their showers. The SS, famously, would subject all new arrivals to a selection: by and large, the able-bodied were chosen to head to the camp, and the slow death of starvation, disease, overwork, and violence. The rest—the sick, the old, the feeble—were directed to the showers. Where, of course, the showerheads were fake and the pipes sprayed Zyklon B instead of water and the doors locked behind them as the gas was released. It is one thing to know, abstractly, how victims were told to leave their clothes and belongings before marching naked to their own deaths. But to see the actual changing room—to see those numbers—is to confront the perverse theater of it on a whole new level. Those numbers, to me, were more chilling than the guard towers.
Inside, the gas chamber is as hellish as you'd think. The stains, the airlessness, the scratch marks on the walls… I obsess over those scratches. They give a hideous specificity to the horror.
Suddenly, I hear a man's voice. "They're not real."
"What are you talking about?" a woman replies.
I turn around, and behind me an American hipster couple is bickering.
"They rebuilt the room in 1947." His girlfriend is horrified. In a second their sniping gets louder. "The chimney's a replica, too," the boy says, like he's got one over on the Six Million.
It's too much. While not usually one to meddle, I can't help myself and chime in. "Are you fucking kidding me? You're having a gas chamber fight? What the fuck is wrong with you?"
It occurs to me they should just fence the place off and make people stare from a distance. Declare the space too toxic, like Chernobyl. Give the ghosts some fucking peace.
I have to flee. That or risk being the first man to commit homicide at a death camp. (I mean, since they closed.) But outside it's worse. Heat, crowds, the trio of Filipina girls who mistake me for Kramer and want a selfie. I flew nearly halfway around the world and signed on with a bus tour because I craved the up-close experience of the darkest of dark stains on humanity, and instead I'm experiencing… humanity. Being human. At Auschwitz. Why isn't everybody ripping the skin off their faces and weeping in the dirt? It occurs to me they should just fence the place off and make people stare from a distance. Declare the space too toxic, like Chernobyl. Give the ghosts some fucking peace.
Running on nothing but genetic instinct, I wander out to the counting ground, hyper aware of the crunch of gravel under my boot. The awareness of treading on a mass grave.
My first death camp, and I feel like I'm doing it wrong.
Illustration by Koren Shadmi