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"Notes from the Field": 
   Journal Entry # 2: 
On the Road to Auschwitz  
 

ON THE ROAD TO AUSCHWITZ

22 MAY 98:  PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC:
I bought my train ticket today.  I have it timed so that I’ll leave Prague tomorrow evening, spend the night on the train, wake up in Auschwitz, spend the day, sleep the next night on the return train, then still have one more day in Prague before my return to the States. The symbology of taking the train to Auschwitz does not escape me.

I don’t know what this experience will be like, except for the fact that I’m sure I won’t enjoy it.  The psychic energy of 21 million murdered people sits heavy on the name Auschwitz.

I’m not going for a Jewish experience as much as a human experience.  Although Auschwitz was a leading center for the eradication of Jewish people, it was the Romanys (Gypsies) who caught the most hell from Hitler’s Final Solution.  And, they are still catching hell: they don’t have nearly the lobby and the clout of the Jews.  (On the front page of the Prague Post: a story that several Czech cities are walling off their Romany communities.  It seems like we not only never learn from history, the depth of our unlearning is profound.)

23 MAY 98:  ON THE TRAIN/ CROSSING THE POLISH BORDER:
Once again, I have the feeling that Ernestine’s son is way out of place right now.  I’m in a sleeper car, and they won’t let me sleep!  Seems like every few minutes someone is demanding to see my passport.  After each one, I make the mistake of lying back down, unaware that the procedure has to be repeated until it feels like everyone on the train has had a look at my passport.  After the third passport checker, I feel like posting my passport on the door for all passersby to see.  After the fifth uniform comes through, I’m tempted to get flippant -- but I don’t.  I don’t know the language and they all have guns.  Ernestine’s son may be out of place and groggy from lack of sleep, but he ain’t stupid.

24 MAY 98:  OFF THE TRAIN/ DOWNTOWN KATOWICE:
5:30 am, wondering what the fuck I’m doing in downtown Katowice.  From the startled looks of everyone I’m encountering here in the train station, the residents of Katowice are wondering the same thing too.

About a half-hour ago, the conductor came into my sleeper and pantomimed that the train did not in fact stop in Auschwitz but in the town before, and that I had to take another train to my destination.  (At least, that’s what I think he was dancing about.  The conductor was a good guy, who had seen too many Hollywood movies about how Eastern European train conductors are supposed to look and act.  Or, maybe I’m the one who has seen too many of those movies, he’s just acting normal.)

Apparently no one in Katowice speaks English.  From the looks on their faces when I speak, apparently no one in Katowice has ever heard of English as a language.  (Either that, or they don’t get many black folks stumbling off their trains at 5:30 in the morning.)  I walk around the train station for a few blocks to clear my head.  The cool gray skies match the grayness of the industrial architecture: Katowice won’t ever be a big tourist spot.

I don’t see anything on the train or bus boards that says Auschwitz.  No one at the Katowice train station has ever heard of Auschwitz.  I get a semi-polite stare at my mouth, like they are waiting for something they understand to emerge.

Finally, I read every line on the train board, and came across a line, 2/3 of the way down, that said “Oswiecim”.   I remember from a history book that the original name of Auschwitz was the Polish “Oswiecim”.  Oswiecim is close enough to Auschwitz to take a chance.  I purchase a ticket to Oswiecim; it seems to make more sense than waiting in Katowice for an American to show up.

IN AUSCHWITZ:
There is no question about where to go once you get to Oswiecim: facing the train station doors was a sign:  “Buses to the Auschwitz Museum”.

I had to wait for the museum to open at 8:00. Once past the museum cafeteria and souvenir shops, I was inside Auschwitz I.   I was the first (and, for a long time, the only) resident of Auschwitz that day.

Impressions of Auschwitz I:
The museum part of the compound is typical, with displays, artwork and registration booths.  The museum staff are somewhere between bored and surly.  They have an attitude that is difficult to place, but clearly unpleasant.  A couple of the women would have made good concentration camp guards.

The birds are loud and prominent:  I doubt if they sang so sweetly when Auschwitz was a death and horror camp.

Barbed wire:  the Nazis were really into it: triple strands of it, electrified.  The look of barbed wire intimidated escape.

Buildings:  I’m surprised to see two story brick buildings: I had pictured wooden barracks.  (That’s Auschwitz II)  In neat 2 story rows, they remind me of a college campus (except for the wooden guard towers and barbed wire.)

Block 11  The basement of this building was the most difficult part of Auschwitz I for me.  Even the extermination/cremation area was “museumized” in some way.  Also, the extermination areas were place where, in typical German efficiency, the victims were herded in, gassed and disposed of, before the horror of their predicaments could set in.  Block xxx was different.  It was here that the Nazis experimented with mass execution, trying to create the most efficient systems.  More than any other prison I have experienced, the basement of Block xxx was the most oppressive.  It was here that humans were allowed to suffocate to death in rooms designed to be too small to sustain life, where various gasses were tried.  It was here that prisoners were allowed (encouraged) to sink into despair before execution.  The stones remember.

I physically turned away from the basement stairs, had to make myself walk the steps.  Near the basement cells, I realized that I wasn’t breathing, that I couldn’t breathe.  I wanted to turn and run; I kept talking to myself, “Get a grip, Sharif: its the energy, not a threat to your well-being.  This is what you came for.”   After five minutes, the energy won.

Part of me wants to say that the Germans were some really sick men.  But, I have to remember that it wasn’t the Germans -- it was all of us.  It was Breakers at their best/worst.

AUSCHWITZ II - BIRKENAU

This is the Auschwitz most people are familiar with.  The size and scope of this operation is staggering.  It was a LONG walk from the front gate to the extermination areas in the back.  And, despite the existence of four extermination factories, people still had to wait in line to die.

Again, I found the energy of the “recommended” paths to be highly “museumized”.  I remember the same feeling when I first toured some of the old Civil War forts in South Carolina and Georgia.  While they looked like forts, I had no feeling that men actually killed and were killed on the site.  It’s like the energy was managed.  Similarly, the energy of Auschwitz displays and recommended paths was highly managed.

Fifty feet off the recommended “museum” path, the energy of the killing city hit me.  Every step I took drained energy from me.  I was walking in resistance to two fields: the omnipresent pull of gravity, and another “pull”; the tangible pull of millions of human souls.  It felt like my feet were sticking to the path, or like walking through water.  Again, feelings of panic arose in me, feelings of being trapped, that Auschwitz was not going to let me go.

At Auschwitz II, I stared into the pit of Breaker consciousness.  Auschwitz II represents the ultimate split between humans: a standing testament to the most toxic human ecology ever to be consciously designed.  (While there have been and will be other “killing fields”, Auschwitz is the most significant killing architecture ever built. )

There is a difference between punishment and extermination.  Torture chambers were designed to punish; Auschwitz was designed simply to remove people from the planet.

The Nazis lied to the outside world; an elaborate lie that kept even the residents of Auschwitz unsure of what was going on in the crematoria.  They also lied to themselves.  I think the concentration camp experience was cumulative: every rung down the ladder of humanity they took, they found yet another rung waiting for them.  Whatever we focus on gets stronger.  The small killings and exterminations that took place in Block xxx in Auschwitz I (done under the semblance of due process) created the space for the mass killings in the small extermination chamber at Auschwitz I, followed by the massive structures at Auschwitz II.  We can only imagine what a third generation would have looked like.

I gained power at Auschwitz.  I saw clearer the basis of my work.  The cry “Never Again!” is insipid in the face of the many genocides that have been perpetrated since Auschwitz, many in this decade.  No, the answer to Auschwitz is to remove from our own hearts and the hearts of others the notion that violence is an answer to anything.

Peace,

Sharif
 
 
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