AT AUSCHWITZ, Dad and I walk along a rutted path. A metal sign above the entrance reads: ARBEIT MACHT FREI. I wonder if the camp Grandma survived was like this. Dad tells me we’ve been here before, some time around when the Berlin Wall fell, when I was a boy and we lived in Poland. I don’t remember it.
We enter a sagging two-story building. The middle of what once must have been straight-cut rectangular stone steps are worn shallow. This building was a house, because off the entryway a kitchen takes up a corner. Wooden floors creak with the weight of people. What could have been a living room smells like dust.
Clusters of tourists walk around the room. Plastic panels section walls into cubicles. I stand in front of one of the panels and stare at a white haystack-size pile that looks like wool. Then, I notice a set of pigtails next to each other, a French braid, and toupee-like tuft.
A sign next to the walls says the pile contains two tons of human hair. All this white was once brown, but grayed, and then lost all color. The sign says the hair was used to make carpet.
I move to the next cubicle. A pile of shoes. Then, I pick out individual soles with patches. Others have holes.
I move to the next cubicle. A pile of glasses, the lenses busted out. Some of the frames are neatly folded.
I move to the next cubicle. Crutches lean together like a stack of wood to be burned, the ashes scattered, the evidence gone. There are several fake legs.
The piles grow. The room compresses. I shudder.
I leave the building. I don’t even know where Dad is inside. I don’t sit on any of the stone steps, because I don’t want to touch the ruin.
While I wait for Dad, I spot a sign. There’s information everywhere. The sign notes the two reasons why this place was built: The answer to the final solution and destruction through work.
The sign explains: Workers took an armful of bricks as far as they could walk in half a day and dropped it off, and then took another armful of bricks and moved it back to where they began. The next day they did the same. And then the next day did the same. And the next, and the next, and the next.
Would a slow awful death be worse than a quick awful death? I don’t have an answer. I don’t know annihilation like this. No name, just a number. Then, a tally.
Back in America, the largest burial ground I’ve been to is Arlington National Cemetery, where white headstones crest over the rolling green lawns. All those soldiers are celebrated and have marked names. Here, though, the sign says there are one million people on 50 acres. One body under every two square feet. It could only be done by burning bodies down to ashes and mixing ashes with dirt.
I think this place should be leveled, because I feel uncomfortable reading the numbers and walking on death. But I forgot what should be unforgettable. This place has become the opposite of its purpose. Even forgotten, this place is still here. Proof to remember.
When Dad comes out of the building, he doesn’t ask me how I’m doing and I don’t ask to leave. I say that I want to see the ovens. Where people baked people. I believe I need to witness it myself so I don’t forget again.
At a low-to-the-ground, boxcar-size building, I read another sign about the crematorium. Guards said the only exit was through the chimney. People shoveling people into ovens wrote their accounts on scraps of paper, put the paper in jars, and then buried the jars in the ground. They wrote on the paper to testify to what was happening. It must have been as unbelievable as it still is now.
I don’t really talk to Dad as we leave. We just go. I think about how people revert to talking about the weather when there’s nothing to say. White clouds swab the sky-blue sky. It’s ridiculous to expect sleet storms and mucky roads and freezing wind in summer. I want to remember this place without beauty. I turn around to weed-covered train tracks cutting under brick arches through the place. The rails almost converge into a vanishing point.
In the kitchen of the second floor of an apartment building, I warm my hands around a cup of Nescafé. The freeze-dried coffee has a hint of cocoa flavor. It almost tastes like hot chocolate since it was made with steamed milk.
While in Krakow, Dad and I are staying with Małgorzata, a Polish friend of Mom’s. Dad is out for a walk. In addition to making me the Nescafé, Małgorzata has set a tub of margarine, a plate of ham, slices of tomatoes, and a glazed loaf of chałka — egg bread baked in a braid — on the center of an oak table.
I’m sitting in the corner with a view of the room. Małgorzata washes dishes a few feet away with an apron wrapped around her waist and a dishtowel slung over her shoulder. Natural light comes in through a glass sliding door, slightly opened out onto the balcony.
Greg, Małgorzata’s nephew who lives above her apartment, has stopped by to visit. He seems more like a younger brother since they look close in age, both with hints of graying hair. Greg has told me about how this summer he returned to Poland, escaping from Chicago’s imploding construction industry. His English sounds as fluent as a natural-born American citizen. He said he left because there are too few buildings for too many contractors. He got out while he could, selling his house just before the market flooded.
“So,” Greg asks, “what did you do today?”
“Udali sie do Auschwitz,” Małgorzata says over her shoulder.
The name sounds German in any language you speak it.
“The camps?” Greg asks. He tilts his head, wanting to know what I think about it.
I don’t know how to explain that feeling of not being able to escape yourself. So, I just exhale and cool my coffee.
“Us Poles are tough,” Greg says. He raises his hand, reaches out, but stops and sets his hand back on the table. If Greg knew me better, then he would probably pat me on the shoulder.
Crumbs dot my plate. I can’t remember eating an open-faced sandwich. I’m full, but I wasn’t even hungry.
“My grandma was in one of those places,” I say. I never asked for details. I didn’t want to know. Now that I’ve seen the worst place, I’m curious what she experienced.
“Everyone knows someone,” Małgorzata says.
“That’s right,” Greg says. “We survived. All of us. It’s like Szymborska wrote—”
“Who?” I ask.
“She won the Nobel Prize,” Greg says, as if giving me a clue.
I’m sure I should know who this is, but I don’t and I shrug.
Greg waves his hand like it’s nothing and explains, “In a poem, she writes a view isn’t a view, except by a person who sees it.”
“The whole thing is translated in English?” I ask.
“The Polish is beautiful, so simple,” Greg says. “But yes, the English, even though a different language, means the same.”
Małgorzata’s little gray cat Myszku walks through the kitchen to the balcony. He is barely big enough to hold in my hand. I laughed when they told me his name meant “mouse.”
I think about other small things that clump and pile: dirt and ashes. Each individual becomes part of a collection. A shape, a mass, a list.
A shadow passes my face. The natural light cuts on and then off as Myszku struts in front of the bars on the balcony. He is full of life. Myszku wiggles through the metal, coils at the edge, and then leaps out into the open backyard.