virgin MaryWe’re in Krakow at an Italian restaurant eating rabbit, fully aware of the irony that my last name means rabbit in Polish, and we’re listening to Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag through the ceiling speakers, which is incongruous enough considering that the Basilica of the Holy Virgin Mary, one of the grandest Gothic cathedrals in Europe, is just a few steps away. But what really sets my head spinning at the ridiculous contradictions that abound here in Poland is what Annette and I are doing here today at this restaurant…

We’re trying to figure out the best day to visit the Nazi Death Camp Auschwitz just an hour outside of town with the chance of rain over the next few days and the upcoming film festival here in Krakow complicating our plans. Would Wednesday be better than Thursday with a 50% chance of T-Storms? Or should we wait until the weekend though that might be too busy at the camp? And what tour should we sign up for? Shall we pack a lunch and bring an umbrella?! Crazy! Insane to talk like this in thinking about a concentration camp!

How do you write about Auschwitz? How do you?

The insanity of disjunction that takes place daily in my head reaches its zenith in thoughts of the holocaust. Pure evil. Righteous perseverance. Contradiction. Dislocation. Bitter irony abounds in every sight I see. The horrific next to commonplace beauty. The smile of the children. The knife blade of history. The tranquil summer park where lovers kiss on a bench at the edge of the Jewish Ghetto where unspeakable acts took place not so very long ago. And everywhere male pigeons perform springtime mating dances while daffodils bloom oblivious to it all.

We decide to drive our car there tomorrow. When the morning comes, at least the weather is acting appropriately, providing a chilly, gloomy dawn with oppressive low-hanging clouds that spit rain at us.

Entrance AuschwitzBut the craziness begins again as we near the city of Oświęcim, the city the Nazis renamed to the German, Auschwitz, then removing the Poles from five surrounding villages to better hide their butchery. The parking lot signs are drearily commonplace (parking signs for a death camp!), a whirlwind of luxury buses pushes past us, the trams drop off employees, the endless chatter of visitors surrounds us. Then of course you have to pee and going down to the toilet where there are maybe two-hundred Chinese tourists who also have to pee and who are standing in a long line screaming at each other for who knows what reason. It’s cacophony and shattering and unbelievable, like entering Disneyland with cordoned off lines and newly grated floors, and no smoking signs, and a tip-plate for the toilet.

And then there it is….bringing reality to the scene…

There, just outside the bathroom window, a glimpse of the camp…rimmed in the barbed-wire fences that are iconic in your memory from the thousands of images you’ve seen in books, in movies, in nightmares. Right outside this window…right there…Auschwitz awaits you. The bloody life and death of it, within your grasp.

barbed wire

Click.

How do you write about Auschwitz? How do you?

We buy our tickets and go to our area to wait for our English guide. As we sit on wooden benches, we watch people advance through the metal turnstile, handing over their tickets, one at a time: one person through the turnstile, a second person through the turnstile, then a third… Annette says she sees instead of tourists, Jews and Poles and Gypsies entering one at a time through an imaginary turnstile…only 2,999,997 to go.

We meet our guide, we walk through the turnstile, greeted by the bitterest lie of all…the sign over the gate to Auschwitz, a cruel Nazi joke, this phrase at the gate to hell: Arbeit macht frei…Work will set you free.

Work set you free

Click.

How do you write about Auschwitz? How do you?

ShoesThe agony described, the images perceived, the smells and sounds and tastes coming back to life before us. The shoes, the glasses, the suitcases, the human hair…and all at once the sun breaks through and blossoms shimmer in the grass at my feet. A bird flies directly toward me, straight at my head so that I have to duck, in its beak a twig for a nest its building.suitcases

The phrase, “words fail me,” comes to mind. The trivial is now the profound. There are no words that can adequately describe the disjunction that floods the mind to comprehend such organized human brutality amid resurgent spring where hopeful birds build their nests and the world keeps turning.

How do you write about Auschwitz? How do you?

W.H. Auden comes as close as anyone it seems to me in his poem Musee des Beaux Arts in describing the incongruity of suffering and evil all around us. Here’s the first stanza:

About suffering they were never wrong,

The Old Masters; how well, they understood

Its human position; how it takes place

While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;

How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting

For the miraculous birth, there always must be

Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating

On a pond at the edge of the wood:

They never forgot

That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course

Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot

Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse

Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

______________

If you’d like to see selected pictures of Krakow, Auschwitz, and Wadowice where Pope John Paul II was born, click this link: Krakow & Wadowice.

 

9 Responses to Work Will Set You Free

  1. Frank!
    Loved the photos of you at the Olkusz bookstore 🙂
    Gary and I both thought you looked like a local ~ friendly, smiling and just out for an afternoon walk. I hope the weather is cooperating; it looked like a chilly day!
    Look forward to new posts. Savor every moment.
    Best to you and your beautiful wife Annette!!
    Cheers,
    Alexandra

  2. Sunny Tneoh says:

    Dear Frank,
    Thanks for putting in words what can’t be described. I was there on 23rd May I was going to write something but as you said words fail me.Nothing that I have read or studied could quite prepare me for the horror and inhumanity of Auschwitz.
    May it never happen to our children and children’s children.

    Warmest Regards
    Sunny

  3. Frank Z says:

    Thanks for the heartfelt comments. I very much appreciate them, and wish you well. Best, fz

  4. Anonymous says:

    You have written a powerful description of what must have been almost impossible to describe. I can only imagine, and have always been torn as to whether or not I could visit a concentration camp. Take care and hugs to you and Annette. Love, Lea

  5. A very moving meditation. Thanks, Frank.

  6. Frank and Annette,
    You have written with a cadence that moved me and I am sure many others that are following your journey.
    I so look forward to each new posting!
    Warmest regards,
    Alexandra

  7. robin andrea says:

    My sister Lynn sent me a link to this post. It so knocked me out and took my breath away, that I had to write something here to thank you. I am not a traveler, so there are many places in the world I know I will never see, even though I would like to. Your writing here is so evocative that it is as close to seeing and sensing Auschwitz as I will ever get. Haunting and stunning.

  8. Frank and Annette what is there to say? The ghosts of Charles’ family are still there.
    Their names and information were kept in records
    The year and place they died or should I say we’re
    Murdered. The sadness for our family is oftentimes
    Unbearable to remember. Your writings as
    Always are so beautiful and so talented there
    Are no words to express it. We love you both
    And want to plan our dinner when you return. This trip must
    In many ways be cathartic. Please meet us when
    You return we hope to be well to enjoy you as always. Hugs
    Norma and Charles.

  9. John Sweeney says:

    Last evening we watched ‘In the Land of Blood and Honey’.
    A movie depicting Milosevic’s reign of terror. While not equivalent in number of murdered, equally horrific acts of persecution.
    How does one write about it, how does one go about depicting brutality in their art form?
    I do not know, but I believe that those works of art are the best, perhaps only, possible means to head off the next tyrant.
    Its Memorial Day in the U.S. Today many fitting tributes will be paid to veterans and fallen soldiers, but with little or no recollection on the sum toll of atrocities.
    In the first Auschwitz documentary I saw, the filmmaker also visited the camp on a raining day. ‘I made this film becasue I had a need to reach out and touch people’ he said as he ran his hand through the soggy soil where ashes from the ovens had been dumped.
    How can you not write about it?

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