Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Poland Dispatches

I just ran across the journal I kept on my trip to Poland with my dad, and thought I'd share some of it with you.

Poland Journal, Part 2

In our house, we’d play “Concentration Camp,” which was a variation on “Titanic.” Both involved picturing various people we knew in historical situations and imagining how they would react and always involved Alan Gold, a nemesis of my dad’s who, despite his thriving career, was an opportunist and a sell-out of the worst kind, being cast as a kapo or dressing as a woman to nab a spot in the lifeboat. “I don’t know what I’d do,” Papa would always say, thoughtfully. “I like to think I’d do the right thing, but I might be a coward. Of course, now, I wouldn’t pass the initial inspection.” We also agreed that Mama would try to be heroic, screw it up, and end up getting herself and other people killed in the process – a scenario that also applied to her hiding Jews in occupied Europe. Invariably, these conversations ended with her storming upstairs in hurt indignation and slamming the door dramatically. There’d be a moment of silence and we’d all snicker.

Krakow had been disastrous so far: cold and rainy, and we’d promptly been cheated by a cab driver. It was beautiful, of course. But the restaurant we sought out, and which I’d marked with the complex iconography that I favor in guidebook situations, no longer existed, and we got some fast-food pierogis at a 24-hour spot geared towards tourists with ersatz peasant décor. Then we learned that the hotel, which was supposed to be in the center of town, was in fact in the suburbs somewhere and grotesque to boot. Papa was white-lipped with rage. The girl who worked there was beautiful but implacable and wouldn’t so much as consider a partial refund. I was extra-conciliatory to make up for his curt fury, and in the end no one was happy. “I was very rude to her,” said Papa later, and when he placed his wake-up call, apologized.

I got up about 7 and investigated the buffet, which was standard continental and had individual jams. I helped myself to coffee with milk, a peach yogurt and a roll with jam and butter, plus thought to pocket a banana for later, since I imagined the day would be a grueling one. I’d brought the book but kept an ear on the party of Americans instead – loud, nice, middle-aged, with Minnesota accents. Maybe a choir group, I thought. They smiled at me but I think the Euro-drag, of which I was wearing my most somber iteration, deterred them from speaking to me.

“They’re probably all incredibly nice people,” said Papa later. “And probably headed to Auschwitz.”

The guide-service was sending a car to pick us up – no mean feat since our hotel was a good 20 minutes outside the city center in a stretch of suburbia that knew no nationality. But as a result, we were able to take the front seats of the van. As we reached Krakow, despite the pristine beauty now revealed by a cold sun, I noticed Papa’s spirits were flagging and flagged anew every time we passed another hotel. The city center, of course, was full of them: old and quaint, or expensive and discreet, and occasionally modern. “Look at that one,” he said grimly. I was looking; there was an ornate carving of what looked like a medieval guildsman of some sort over the door, and the pretty stylized building numbers typical of the area. This was not what he had meant. “Or that one. It’s right here. Imagine how convenient that would have been.”

“Probably expensive,” I said comfortingly. I secretly sort of liked the horrible remote Best Western, which had an enormous pattern of peacock plumes on its façade, like a Florence Broadhurst print adapted by giants, and faced a Holiday Inn.

We made several stops. First, the guide – who had hennaed hair, a nose ring and, evidently, a bad cold, got in. “Hello!” greeted Papa, seemingly cheered by this tangible prospect of Auschwitz. Then we made the rounds of three more centrally located hotels, which got him down again. There was a father and son, British, both beefy and earringed; some Germans who apparently spoke excellent English, and an American couple, both of whom had curious hair. “How’s your hotel?” Papa asked each of them in turn, and looked grim when they replied that it was fine, or good, or very nice.

“Are you excited, doll?” Papa asked me as we got under way. The rest of the van was silent, whether because of the hour or the occasion I didn’t know.
“I’m apprehensive,” I said. “It’s gonna be harrowing. Bad”
“’Bad?’ It’s quite literally the worst place in the world.”
“Are you nervous?”
“No! I’m excited!” he said.
“I’m glad to do it,” I tried to explain. “It’s something we have to do, and if you’re doing it, this is the one to see.”
“Yeah, we can cross that off our bucket lists.”
“Don’t use that expression, I beg of you.”
“You ‘beg’ of me?”
“Yes, I beg of you. Can I tell you, though –“ I lowered my voice. “I’m concerned about being…inoculated. To the horror.”
“Of the holocaust? You mean because we’ve been so overexposed?” asked my father loudly.
“Well, it’s just that, I remember the horror of learning about it – that visceral horror, when I was little. And now we’re used to the horror. We’ve seen the piles of shoes at the Holocaust Museum, and heard that story about the woman who met her husband the G.I., and they both quoted the Schiller poem – you know what I mean – and it’s hard to still feel that shock. So I’m worried about that.”

“Well,” he said, “I’m just hoping it’s all in tact.”

I wanted to talk about Reform Judaism and Holocaust fetishization, but not within hearing distance of the sick guide, the Germans or the couple with strange hair.

The guide put on videotape that showed footage of the Russians liberating the camps. Plus plenty of information about selection, Mengele, torture, lethal injections, the Wall of Death, gas chambers, crematoria, sadism, starvation, and, of course, corpses. I started to giggle when my eyes met Papa’s.

“They seem,” said Papa loudly, “to assume total ignorance about the Holocaust.”

“Well, it’s good to hear the Russian perspective,” I offered lamely in an undertone.

“Ha! That’s the pot calling the kettle black,” he said.

I ate the banana.

“That was good thinking,” said Papa. “I also have an apple for you.”

“Should I eat at the camp? Maybe it’s…disrespectful.”

“This apple would have been such a feast at Auschwitz,” said Papa.

“I have some nuts too, those nuts Mama packed for us.”

“Oh, excellent. Give me a handful. Are you covering your face with the scarf because of her coughing?” he asked loudly.

“No,” I muttered, although in fact I was. I didn’t want to offend the guide. “I’m…keeping my nose warm.”

After we’d arrived, and merged with another few Anglophone groups, and received electronic headsets, and looked in wonderment at the hundreds of visitors, things got serious. We spent two hours at Auschwitz itself. “It’s really like a little village,” said Papa. He was disappointed, though, by the fact that most of the buildings were given over to exhibits and informational placards explaining the purpose of the Final Solution and the varying numbers of victims of different races.
“I think,” I said in an undertone, “that some people really didn’t know this stuff. That woman over there seemed really shocked that Hitler wanted to wipe out Jews.”
I tried to stick close to this woman after that, but she didn’t say much else – she was too overcome with shock and emotion.

“What was the guide saying in there, I couldn’t hear,” said Papa as we left one of the rooms, which explained “daily life.”
“Oh, they had models of the food the prisoners ate: a bowl of coffee – some kind of coffee substitute, actually, and no milk – then vegetable water for lunch and a piece of bread for dinner.”

“Three meals a day,” observed Papa. “No wonder you were listening so attentively to that part,”

Our tour group was grave and respectful. The guide, as Papa said, was really sad for someone who had to give the same tour multiple times per day. But a party of Israeli teenagers, identifiable by white sweatshirts bearing stars of David and a few large Israeli flags that teachers brandished to keep the group together, were laughing and joking loudly. “I guess they got it in the cradle,” I remarked. One of the boys, who was roughhousing, dropped the flag he’d had wrapped around his shoulders like a cape. A shocked tourist from another party retrieved it and ran after the oblivious teenager.

“How Hitler would hate this,” said Papa. “All of these Jewish kids, so carefree, and with the symbol he hated more than anything in the world.”

After that part of the tour, which included the various torture cells and interrogation rooms and the Wall of Death, we were given a brief break before leaving for Birkenau, a mile away. Papa bought what they called a garlic bread but proved to be a length of baguette spread with some kind of seasoned dressing and a thick blanket of mild cheese. He bought a postcard on which he planned to scrawl “Wish You Were Here!” to a like-minded friend. “Obligatory, I guess,” I said. “Do you have a coin for the bathroom?”

I washed my hands and readjusted my hair in the bathroom. I looked hideous. I nodded and smiled at the woman who took coins. Papa was waiting at the top of the stairs. “Now, there’s a bad job,” he said in an undertone. “Madame Peepee at Auschwitz.”


Anonymous said...

I'm curious--what story (the woman who met her husband the G.I. and they quoted the Schiller poem) do you mean? I've never heard it before!

Sadie Stein Blog said...

@anon - I wish I could find it online! I know this one survivor's on tape at the Holocaust Museum and have seen her in a Ch. 13 doc, too...the story of a young Jewish woman who quotes Schiller to a liberating American soldier, and he quotes it back to her. Turns out he was Jewish too...they ended up marrying. It's an incredible story! I'm not doing it full justice.

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Anonymous said...

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