Friday, November 20, 2009

Walking Among Ghosts

Poland is full of ghosts. Everywhere. Some invoking the warmth of a true compliment, others bearing the weight of a lie everyone seems to believe. All mysterious.

This is a recollection of my experiences among the tragic chilling whispers of those who once inhabited the land that is now Poland; drawing on visits to three different concentration camps, one former Jewish ghetto, one overgrown Jewish cemetery and one former forced labour factory. Unlike some experiences where a body can develop numbness to repeated pain for survival reasons; each visit to the locales of these ghosts elicts physical reactions which don't callous. The rapid heart rate. A sinking stomach. Clamy palms. Woozy light-headedness. Every time.


Unlike the other Polish cemeteries I have seen around town; each grave site shrouded in fresh flowers and candle lanterns, this one is different. No one comes here to visit their deceased family relatives or friends. No one is around to sweep the autumn leaves blanketing the walkways. No one to pull the moss from and level the tombstones leaning at 20 degrees. No one can trace their family line back to Samuel Stien who died in 1923. No one remembers who he is. History lost unable to be retrieved.


Against stereotypes, Hollywood can nobly raise a true story to a popular consciousness that is important to be rememberd by millions. Walking amid the remains of Schindler's Factory, the afternoon rain can't wash away disillusionment. Pastel colors can't hide the grey facades of the communist buildings in the background. Misery atop misery. The small ajoining museum traces Adolf Hitler's rise to political power and Oskar Schindler's rise to human compassion.


I'm not sure how locals can live in this scarred neighborhood. Walking past the remains of the Jewish ghetto wall everyday; can they begin to imagine their life under a Jewish visage? I feel rather uneasy taking a photo of the crumbling height of brick. Is this a photograph of a historical site or of someone's misery?


After an hour and a half on a train I arrive in the Polish town of Oswiecim. I walk to the end of town past guilded Communist apartment complexes, canary yellow forcing a smile. I reach the Museum of Aushwitz. The name is unfitting. Museums aren't associated with death. I shouldn't feel like this when I visit a museum. All the Holocaust media I have previously ingested rushes to me. The personal accounts. The textbook facts. The archived photographs. All come from this place.

It seems redundant to hire a tour guide to tell me all the textbook facts I've already read and stories that seem an insult to atrocity if not described in a survivors own words. The scenery tells it's own story. A story that alarms me with it's unabashed nakedness. The double barbed wire still encloses stark two-story brick buildings, and signs still hang in German. I hold my breath and tears to past under the iron entrance arch branded with "Arbeit macht frei". "Work brings freedom". Perhaps I feel ashamed to enter this place as a tourist, free from the despondency that it brought to thousands of people. Immediately after, a grim silence takes over.

Several of the buildings of the former prison were transferred into exhibits with informational displays and plaques written in Polish, English, and Hebrew. Basic descriptional captions become morbid.

One photo enlarged shows two young children walking merrily hand in hand along a railway platform with the caption: "On the way to death". I suddered at the unexaggerated truth.

"In this cell a Polish priest pledged to stare to death in order to save another prisoner."

"In this building several German scientists conducted human experimentation on women prisoners some who died or were maimed for life"

"Cement roller that was utilized with human power"

Others didn't need any caption at all. Behind a large glass window there was a 10 x 5 m area of: human hair. Sold to German textile factories.


Veiled by a new reality swinging back and forth on the hinges of death, I take the shuttle bus to Birkenau another camp 20 minutes away.

Looking at the railway tracks running through the middle of the vast field, this is raw. Walking along the train tracks, along the platform, it's easy to imagine the death march taken by thousands.

I enter a wooden barrack; a place that is properly suited to house horses or cows or goats. Three-tiered bunks line the walls.

I catch snippets from a group tour in English. "What you can't experience today is the smell," the guide is saying, "If you can imagine all the bodies packed into this small area it gives you a sense of how strong the odor was. An odor that could be smelled 5 km away."

If I don't already feel innundated by the sounds of my imagination, the gustatory sense completes the terrific nightmare.

At the end of the train tracks I stand at the memorial, read the inscription, and look back on the horrific mess.

"Forever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity where the nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women, and children, mainly jews from various countries of europe" -Auschwitz-Birkenau 1940-1945

It's hard to imagine about one and a half million people in one place. Harder still to imagine human beings in the shape of herded goats.

Afterwards, I discovered a poem by Nobel Laureate Polish poet, Wislawa Szymborska, that fit my feelings:

Starvation Camp at Jaslo

Write this down. Write it. In ordinary ink
on ordinary paper: they were given no food,
all died of hunger. All. How many?
It's a large meadow. How much grass
was there per person? Write it down: I don't know.
History rounds off skeletons to the nearest zero.
A thousand and one is still a thousand.
As if that one weren't there at all:
an imaginary embryo, empty cradle,
a primer opened for no one,
air that laughs and screams and grows,
stairs for the void running down to the garden,
nobody's place in the ranks.

This is the meadow where it became flesh.
But the meadow is silent as a bribed witness.
In the sunlight. Green. Over there is a forest
for chewing wood, for drinking from under bark--
a daily helping of landscape,
until one goes blind. Up there is a bird,
that moved across lips as a shadow
of its nutritious wings. Jaws opened,
teeth would chomp.
At night a sickle would flash in the sky,
reaping dreamt-up grain for dreamt-up loaves.
Hands of blackened icons would fly in,
bearing empty goblets.

On a spit of barbed wire
a man was swaying.
They were singing with soil in their mouths. A lovely song
about the way war hits you right in the heart.
Write about the silence here.


In Lublin, I take the bus 156 4 km out of the city center to visit the Majdanek Muzeum. Concentration Camp. Prison. Death Camp. Unlike Birkenau hidden in a rural field, or Aushwitz tucked behind a small town, the barbed wire of Majdanek run along the main road. I can see small clusters of homes less than 100 meters from camp buildings. Not to mention a panaramic view of downtown Lublin.

Majdanek was one of the largest prisons and is laid out in the eerie rows of rectangular wooden barracks. I start the tourist route entering the men's bathhouse. A building where men were both cleansed and exterminated. I read the sign in the first room and gasp at the grid of shower heads above me. I quickly move on to the next room before being trampled by the horde of naked emanipated men feeling the concave where their stomachs used to be. Knowing exactly how many spoonfuls of soup is necessary for survival. A peek into the next room isn't much better. Shelves of empty Zyklon B canisters. The posion of the masses. Saving the worst for last, is the room where people were locked and Zyklon B was dispensed. With an attached small closet with a square peephole to witness murder. "Sick..." I mutter aloud in disgust and rush to exit the building. After only these three rooms, I am unsure I want to visit the rest of the camp. I sigh and realize that I must not to overtaken by ignorance. I walk along the stone road into the camp. I remember reading in a museum back in Krakow that at some of the camps the gravel paths were crushed tombstones uprooted from Jewish cemetaries. I pick up several of the stones at my feet. A couple could be fragments from the granite grave markers I have seen. Closing my eyes, I take a deep breath and move to the grass.

One of the buildings has it's door opened forebodenly. With hesitant steps I peek inside. Shoes. Hundreds. Perhaps thousands of shoes. Tall metal crates with men's, women's, and children's footwear line the sides and run through the middle of the long building. I can't bring myself to enter this building; to get lost in the infinity of history's hostage remains.

I finally made it to the back of the prison, to the creamatorium. The name gives a more positive connotation that should be allotted to a structure not of death but of annhililation. It was with great trepedation that I finally entered the open doorway, braving my imagination of being trapped in a horrific nightmare. My shadow followed me through two empty rooms until reaching the back room. Unlike the other prison buildings I entered, only my lone footsteps echoed on the cement floor. I didn't hear despairing moans, crys of pain, or even soft sad sobbing. My own breathing seemed out of place in this black hole of existance. It wasn't the brick ovens that arrested my attention. Red brick with iron castings, resembing an old-fashioned country home furnace or an 19th century bakery. It was the metal strechers sticking out of the openings. The same likeness of hospital strechers used to carry ill human beings down a infirmary corridor. This is not a cozy cottage, a bakery, or a hospital. The intersection of images suddenly shocked. My whole body started quivering as I read the short signposting to my left. The heat from the these ovens was used to heat the water used in the prison showers. The ashes were mixed in with the fertilizer that prisoners used during their forced farm labour. I glanced back at exhibit 1. This is not a replica or a reconstruction. These bricks smeared with the black smoke of signed human flesh.

Next was the masoleum. I walked up the steps, and peered under the large dome. I looked up and down the 5 m tall pile of grey ash. There was another visitor to my right. Human ash. Our eyes meet and shared a brief tight-lipped grimace. Any words would seem awkward or rude. The passing exchange was enough to communicate: This was real. This is real.

On my way out of the camp, I looked over at the black crows like vultures encircling and swooping through the expanse of field. "How do they know" I wondered, "that deaths oozes from this earth?" They must feel the same empty expired sensation I do. I wanted to tell them, "You are only looking for ghosts". Suffocating in the crowd of ghosts among us.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Long Way Home

I always take the long way home.

As I enter the final months of 2009 and the last chapter of my year spent abroad, I begin to feel the linear path of my journeys close into a circle. I am coming home. the long way. The final months of my time in Vietnam I realized that I had satisfied my curiosity for Asia, for a daily existence I imagined possible only within the glossy photographs of a National Geographic magazine. The magazines that I would pick up as a child and wonder if these images actually represented the planet Earth. I discovered that rice paddies, dusty highways full of motorbikes, and women in conical hats walking alongside water buffalo do exist. There are people on the other side of normalcy who I call friends and others still who I was connected through only by the most basic strand of humanity. I lived like a local, I lived like an ex-pat. I went cruising on motorbikes and watched the four seasons pass on a blue plastic sidewalk stool. I picked up a penchant for martial arts and unique musical instruments. I ate things I never knew were edible. In the sweltering summer heat I knew that my time in Vietnam was over. The country that once came alive for me grew a bit lackluster, indicating a quiet end; generously giving me the most vivacious Vietnam I ever knew in memories. My goals for adventure, cultural misunderstandings, uncomfortable situations, and exotic food achieved, I packed up my things and left as seamlessly as I had entered.

I always take the long way home.

Along my travels down the winding road back to the USA, I have met familiar faces and new faces who inspire new dreams and evoke a sense of humility as a young traveler. My sister. My friend. Turkish students. Grandfather backpacker. An Iraqi Swede. A Japanese Brazilian. A Finnish American. Polock Canadians. A Vietnamese Kiwi. An Italian ex-con. From Roman ruins to Turkish baths, from cathedral spires to mosque domes, from cheese fondue to middle eastern meatballs, the journey home is full of new ideas and pleasures.

I always take the long way home.

Nearing the country that was once the home of my ancestors, I begin to feel the rewards of choosing the long way. I enter a foreign land that brings me to the brink of tears with it unassuming familiarity. Images, smells, and customs that I call my own are here in this faraway territory. The old woman sitting on the bench beside me, her head tightly wrapped in her babushka. Market stalls with pungent buckets of sauerkraut ready to be sold by the kilo. A church cemetery aglow in the late autumn darkness. My heart skips a beat when I see the tiny yellow, red, and orange lanterns shrouding the peaceful resting area in a sacred cloak. Walking through the rows of headstones decorated with flowers and light, I remember that today is November 1st, All Saints Day. A holy day in the Catholic calendar commemorating all those who came before us. The hot steam of my breath that leaves me to linger over the carved Eastern European names is the only thing that separates me from these people. I look at the snow-capped mountains illuminated by the full moon, the raised crucifix glowing from the colored light. A divine peace warms me from within. I think of my Polish grandfather and grandmother. Tonight they are here with me; welcoming me to the history of home as I know it.

I always take the long way home.