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Approaching Auschwitz

By (April 1, 2013) 5 Comments


Approaching Auschwitz, the first thing you see is the hot dog stand. It’s a squat, yellowish beige rectangle with brown shingles and black capital letters spelling out ‘Hot Dog’ above one of the service windows, and as you might imagine, its presence somewhat alters the mood.

Which in my case wasn’t entirely a bad thing. Before I made that sound upon seeing it, a sort of half gasp, half disbelieving chuckle, I was sitting on a bus, my breathing shallow with dread, a hand pressed flat over my clenching stomach. I had spent the previous couple of days in Krakow – actually, the months since buying the plane ticket – mentally preparing for what I thought would be the most moving, even epiphanic, event of my life. So, this wasn’t a complete surprise. I had anticipated being overwhelmed with sadness and disgust, and I was. Just not by the Nazis, as I’d presumed, but by a snack bar.

This was ten years ago, and at the time, travel was still a new, heady mystery for me. For years, I had been living a provincial life common in suburban New Jersey, working in my family’s business during the day and abusing alcohol at night, and like many of my contemporaries, I spent my twenties watching my fantasies for an exciting future disappear into drudgery and lassitude. One of those fantasies had been to travel the world, but as the years dragged by and my hopes were replaced with hangovers, I had practically given up on the possibility of ever leaving Monmouth County, let alone flying overseas.

So I had come to it late, visiting my first foreign country when I was thirty-five, and had no interest in exploring my family’s ancestral lands, or any other Jewish heritage tourism; my first trip out of the country was to Belize, and my second to Spain, where I hadn’t even considered the Inquisition or Sephardic history, instead spending my time gorging on jamon and melon, and fulfilling the modest dream of my youth, to one day visit Europe and dawdle away hours in a sidewalk café with a book, bread, cheese, and wine.

But having experienced Europe, I was stupefied by the possibilities of a belated education, and with my newfound adventurousness; my most ambitious endeavor up until then was to make it to Sayreville in time for happy hour at the Bourbon Street strip club. Thus inspired to plan another trip overseas, I learned fundamentals. I read guide books. I looked at a map of the world for the first time since I was in school and saw the proximity of countries and Eurorail options. And having decided to return to Europe anyway, I figured I might as well go check out some camps.

I really was that glib. Or was trying to be, anyway.

Still, I needed a destination. I come from one of those Jewish families that never talk about their history. My lineage was a murk, and the present day relations, past immediate family in Brooklyn, largely obscure; distant cousins in California, peripheral relations in Argentina. But I knew that at least two of my grandparents came from somewhere in Poland, so Krakow, with its medieval vibe and proximity to Auschwitz, seemed like a good place to continue a delayed entry into world travel, and to contemplate the phantom presences of Rosensteins and Danzigers past. Then I would go to Prague and Berlin. I would visit Kafka’s home, and urinate atop Hitler’s bunker. I would revel in the majesty of old Europe, begin to grasp the vicissitudes of history, and report back to my family what I’d discovered of our ancestry. And by accomplishing these goals, I would stop feeling so embarrassed about being a thirty-six year old man who was only now learning things like rudimentary geography.

So I didn’t know what my first thoughts might be upon arrival at Auschwitz, but I hadn’t anticipated wondering how one garnishes a hot dog at a concentration camp. I didn’t yet understand how sacred sites were made palatable (as it were) for tourists, but this lesson, about the imbecilic crassness and desecration of the tourist trade, would escape me for the moment. Like many shy people, I take refuge in sarcasm when intensely frustrated, my reactions are often excessive, and in the Auschwitz parking lot, the indecency triggered a torrent: Did the same proprietors serve zeppoles at the Cambodian killing fields? Caramel apples at Jarrianwala Bagh? Strombolis in the Katyn Forest? Or had the Polish, hoping to finally get past all that dour Holocaust mourning, simply reinvented Auschwitz as a theme park? What fun awaited past the “Arbeit Macht Frei” gate? An Iron Cross Tilt-a-Whirl? Carnival barkers dressed like the High Command? Skee ball with Zyklon B pellets? Bumper ovens?

No. Not yet, anyway. The obscenities stopped at the gate, but my bewilderment didn’t. Of course, Auschwitz wasn’t Auschwitz anymore, it was a museum, and even without the availability of junk food, part of the experience upon entering is the struggle to remember where you are amidst the tour groups with the matching pink hats and all that bland, innocuous terrain that hadn’t been shown in Schindler’s List. Auschwitz was… clean. That was the first word I used when asked about it when I got home. It was a beautiful spring day and everything looked clean, the paths well-maintained, the brick barracks sturdy and unmenacing, nothing like the usual images of the bare, rickety pallets crammed with atrophied prisoners. It was a welcome chance to recalibrate after the parking lot, but still, the imagination couldn’t take hold. I was told that medical experiments took place in the dormitories, and the Black Wall was where thousands of prisoners had been shot, but something in me had shut down along with my dissipating adrenaline rush. All the barbed wire and watchtowers, amidst the country landscape, looked to me like particularly strict forestry protection. With the relief in discovering that the entirety of the place had not been turned into something commercially grotesque, it felt more like walking through a park than paying homage at a massacre site.

I waited, but I just couldn’t get past my echoing contempt. I kept anticipating another vulgarity (emaciated docents in striped pajamas seemed inevitable) and by the time I was at the site where Rudolph Höss was hanged, I was wondering how many around me were craving cheese fries. Hopelessly distracted and exhausted from outrage, I left to begin the walk over to Birkenau.

On the way out, past tourist graffiti scratched into the bricks, was a shop, and among some books for sale was one titled Before They Perished… Photographs Found in Auschwitz. Judging by the cover, it contained just that, pictures carried by prisoners when they were interred – casual black and white portraits, clipped photo booth squares, some water or sun damaged, in sepia tones or unnatural tints, some folded and creased, of stiffly posed families, children in silly costumes. Just mundane snaps you’d find in wallets, or clustered on living room shelves.

I wanted that book. I wanted to see those pictures. But it was large, as if meant for a coffee table, and the thought of caving to my book-buying compulsion in a place where members of my family were conceivably killed spurred on yet more revulsion. So I left it there.

And besides, I knew myself; even if I had bought it, there was a very good chance that I never would have opened it.

*          *          *
Not too long ago, I was speaking with a Jewish friend about the books we were currently reading, and this led to a digression about reading in general, and somehow, the topic of reading about Judaism came up. I told him that every time I tried to read any book about any aspect of Judaism, I’d get a page or two in, then it was like I suddenly shut down. I simply couldn’t read anymore, and I’d put the book away.

“Well,” he said, “yeah!” As if of course that’s what happens.

I asked him why he thought that was. He shrugged, and we left it at that. No men like to discuss their impotence. But how I’d been unable, in the years since my bar mitzvah, to read anything about my Jewish heritage, was something I thought about every time I picked up a book.

According to my father, his education in Judaism consisted of the one day in Brooklyn when my grandmother took him to the local shul, the rabbi said, “Repeat after me,” my father mimicked as best he could, and he was declared a man. Wanting something more substantial for me and unable to afford the exorbitant fees of our local temple in New Jersey, my parents sent me to the only other Hebrew school in the area, an orthodox school that was located in the basement of a small industrial building, across from what used to be a Two Guys. He figured that there, I would learn everything he hadn’t.

Well, it was a nice idea.

I suppose that anyone scared witless by religious instruction looks back on it and can’t believe the type of person it made them, or, for that matter, the type of person they must have been to be so swayed by it in the first place. As it was, being extremely sensitive, highly impressionable, prone to debilitating anxiety, and right in the prime years of the Chronic Boner, I was already experiencing everyday life at ages twelve and thirteen as a vacillating delirium of horniness and terror. And now I’d have the Books of Moses to contend with.

It’s mostly hazy, but I do remember that we only made it to Genesis before things became hopelessly confusing. I asked the rabbi about dinosaurs, and he told me that there were no dinosaurs, that all the fossils scientists found were just stones, deformed over the centuries and fit into skeletal shapes. I was too intimidated to inquire further about that one, or when it was explained to me that there were different levels in heaven and Jews went to a higher level than other people, or practically anything else – at the time I was too busy admiring the bedroom heroics of King Solomon, weighing whether it was worth suffering Samson’s fate if you got to have all that sex with Delilah first (It was. It so was), and trying to ignore the lesson of Onan. But aside from being inappropriately titillated by all that warped nookie, for a kid who lied awake for days after reading “To Serve Man” and cried for two weeks after watching Brian’s Song, the Hebrew Bible read like a litany of invitations to perpetual insomnia. The emotional turbulence was relentless.

But more than anything, I remember being crippled with guilt because I’d been told that all sins committed by me up to my bar-mitzvah would be counted against my parents. I was fearful to begin with, but over my two years in Hebrew school, my imaginings of divine punishments I’d instigated had become unbearable. I spent hours trying to calculate the number of sins that my parents would be held accountable for, and cowering under the general feeling that my entire family was doomed; given my subsequent dating history, I still can’t believe that I cried when my mother told me that my uncle was going to marry a gentile. I had entered Hebrew school terrified, and learned that I wasn’t terrified enough. There was no end to how bad you could, or, really, should, feel. It was probably this lesson, compounded with all the anxieties I still had to endure in the secular world, that made me turn away from what I’d been taught, and to settle into the bourgeois Judaism where it’s enough to mimic reverence on holidays you don’t understand, and not change the channel if you happen upon a World War II documentary.

For a long time, I bought in to the unspoken hope that if you eliminate history, you eliminate pain. That you never forget the Holocaust, but you forget everything else. That everybody really does hate us, and learning Jewish history will only reinforce that truth, so why upset yourself. And when Schindler’s List came out, I watched it, and felt suitably horrible.

Then, when I was thirty-five, I went antiquing.

*          *          *
I was in a Vermont antique shop with a girlfriend, and while browsing the eccentric and arbitrary bric-a-brac, I looked into a large glass case that was positioned in the middle of the floor. Standing among the old World’s Fair souvenirs, silverware, coins, and thimbles was a dusty plastic case held in a wide metal clip. The clip obscured half of what was inside the case; it looked flat and rounded like a coin, and imprinted on it were three heavy-browed, square-jawed men in profile, gazing intently into the distance. It said above them, “Tag Der Arbeit”, and there was a small white card next to the case that said “Nazi pin – $32”.

I continued to walk around the shop, but I kept finding myself pulled back to the glass case. I finally asked the woman behind the counter if I could take a look at the pin. One of the three men held the sledgehammer, one a scroll, one stalks of wheat. Below them was an eagle with outstretched wings, holding in its claws a laurel wreath surrounding a swastika. The date, 1935, was split in two on either side of the eagle’s legs.

I put it back. I looked around some more, then I went to the front counter and said I wanted to buy the pin.

The woman had been friendly before, but was quiet now, maybe uncomfortable from having seen the last name on my credit card. Or from something I noticed while she was putting the charge through: there was an index card propped near the register with an inspirational quote from Anne Frank written on it. The proprietor had written it and put it on the front counter, the way some people tack up aphorisms in their work cubicles, five feet from Nazi paraphernalia.

She put the case in a brown paper bag and I left the store holding the rolled end as if I was bringing lunch to school. I got to the car and suddenly, I doubled over, crying.

The abruptness and severity of my crying jag stunned me. I hadn’t been thinking or feeling anything prior. It just happened. But when I calmed down later, I wondered about the depth of my repression, how I truly felt about being Jewish, about the extent of the Holocaust in my life, and about the enormous void left from never knowing much about my family.

So I wondered, and just did what I always do: bought books. Being capriciously auto-didactic, I would buy half a dozen books on any arbitrary subject I was newly exhilarated by, read one or two, then be newly exhilarated by something else, buy new books, and the old books would take places on the shelves, or in piles, with me assuring myself that I would get to them ‘when I had more time.’ I pursued Judaism the same way, but with the exception that I couldn’t even get through one or two pages, so by the time I got to Auschwitz, I had a working knowledge of subjects like Aztec architecture, pirate legends, the French New Wave, and species of cobras, while not knowing that the Czech Republic and Poland were neighboring countries, or much about the Holocaust past the statistics and what Mr. Boyce taught us in high school history. In the years since, I’ve bought books on Judaism every time the impulse to finally try to understand what happened to me in Vermont struck me, and have never read any of them. I’ve repeatedly accumulated and given away libraries of unread books on Judaism, and even now I have a few, still unread, that have moved with me to six different apartments.

I don’t know why I won’t read them. There’s no stress, no discomfort, no struggle, no pain, no reluctance. I just don’t go to the bookshelf. The only time I’ve ever felt anything in this regard was being mildly embarrassed at having bought Judaism for Dummies, and even more embarrassed that I couldn’t bring myself to read even that.

So I’m left with experiences like the one at Vermont, and the one at Auschwitz, and I struggle to make sense, to find enough clarity to even write “I struggle to make sense”, to try to articulate how I can’t articulate, to make statements about the experience without understanding what exactly the experience was. The inability to read, and the inability to express that inability to read, is a singular kind of paralysis. Someone once asked me how it felt. I said it was like your mind is pushing gently against concrete. It’s like you’re encased in Lucite. It’s like a painless, pressing blankness. It’s like anything you can’t describe, so you keep reaching for an apt simile. And then I noted that I’m sure someone’s written about this, and it’s probably on my shelf somewhere, but for some reason, I won’t go over to actually look for it.

This was why I didn’t buy Before They Perished. I couldn’t stand the thought of putting those faces on my bookshelf, and being unable to look back at them.

*          *          *
When I stepped out of Auschwitz, one of the men that had been on the bus with me said, “Pretty intense, huh?”

“Compared to Vermont,” I said, “this is nothing.”

He was confused. “What did Hitler do in Vermont?”

“How do you feel about this hot dog business?”

He shrugged. Jews love to shrug. He motioned to the shop where I’d left the book behind. “What I’m a little confused by is who would mail one of those postcards? What would you write on them?”

“‘Wish I wasn’t here’? ‘Suddenly, my job doesn’t seem so bad’?”

He smiled and said, “It’s really not funny.”’

“I couldn’t agree more.”

Birkenau was different. There was a traffic sign near the iconic train tracks that lead inside, beneath the entrance watchtower, but otherwise, it was just like the films of the camps they showed us in school. According to placards, sections had been destroyed by the Russians, and some parts had crumbled over time, but for the most part, it was untouched. The only things missing were the piles of atrophied bodies with their open mouths and splayed rubbery limbs. But here, those were easy to imagine.

A very small percentage of tourists made the walk to Birkenau, so there weren’t too many of us wandering the square mile of land. We walked in and out of the towers, those barracks, along the tracks. And it was in a communal toilet, with its room-length slab pocked with circles, that the most beautiful sunlight came in through the slats, and in the welcome silence, with a soft wind blowing outside, there was a feeling of peace, both mournful and resigned.

In that silence, I thought of the one thing I missed from Hebrew school. For a brief time, I knew how to read Hebrew. I loved everything about it – the beauty of the letters, the novelty of reading from right to left, the otherworldly intonations, and the idea that by making these sounds, even the ones we kids had found funny, like the “cchh” in the back of your throat, like you were trying to hack something up, you could be heard by God.

And I remembered how once, when I was reading aloud, it had conjured an image that at thirteen had almost faded from my memory. I was a little boy and my grandmother was dying with cancer. My father took me to shul, so he could pray, or to be around those who knew how. And being so small, I had looked very high up in that plain, badly lit room, at two towering bearded men, dressed in black, holding books, rocking back and forth, and mumbling such strange sounds.

And I thought then of an incident with my grandfather. Once, when I was sixteen, I was at a Chinese restaurant with him and my mother. She asked what was new at school, and I told her about an incident I had found amusing. I had worn a Sex Pistols t-shirt to school, and a guy named Jay Klein told me I should be ashamed of myself, because Sid Vicious used to wear a t-shirt with a swastika on it. I was impressed that Jay knew who the Sex Pistols were, but thought his comment was asinine, missing entirely the sort of provocation the punks had gone for, but just before I could elaborate on the point, my grandfather started to cry. I asked my mother what was wrong. She said, “Do you know how many family members we lost in the Holocaust?”

And I said, “No.”

She didn’t either. My grandfather was born in 1901, somewhere in Poland. He’d been old enough to experience and understand the great events of the 20th century. But he never spoke of them to anyone, and by the time he sat in that Chinese restaurant, all of us safe in that suburban strip mall, all he could do was weep.

*          *          *
When I returned home from Poland, I had dinner with a friend of mine who knew even less about Judaism than I did, had no desire to learn anything, and saw any yearning for education as a pathetic attempt to alleviate guilt. He had even referred to my sojourn as The Guilt Trip. So, he was delighted to hear about my confrontation with the hot dog shack, and after having a good laugh, he asked me how they justified having it at Auschwitz. “Well,” I said, “they say that Hitler liked his hot dogs the same way he enjoyed killing Jews – with relish.”

We laughed then, as we often do now, mostly from gratitude, that we’ve been able to fill a certain void with very bad jokes and friends who understand why you make them. But a few months ago, I ordered Before They Perished. It’s on my desk, within arm’s reach, and soon, I swear, I will open it. And I hope that then I can finally stop the sarcasm, and find a way to grieve.

Steve Danziger is managing editor of Fiction magazine, teacher at City College, member of the Terranova Theater Collective, volunteer at the Housing Works Bookstore, and loiterer at the Hungarian Pastry Shop.