Auschwitz, September 14. Once again the train stood for at least half an hour on our way from Warsaw to Kraków. Usually, I take some material about my destination along with me. But in this case – and to the surprise of my travel companion – I had refused to buy anything connected with Auschwitz. I read Tipping the Velvet (1998 by Sarah Waters) instead; which, admittedly, was a rather inappropriate choice. I tend to buy books about the places I visit at the place itself. And I would stick to my tourist routine in this highly unusual case, too. There is this German movie And along come tourists (Am Ende kommen Touristen, 2007), and this is exactly how I felt. The following two days I would be trapped in this contradiction of being a traveller to a place that should, in theory, be a non-touristy place but seems to have turned into exactly that.
When I arrived in Kraków with my heavy backpack I did something very typical for me: I got lost at the station. It took me some time to find the bus terminal and the right bus. It was amazing that the mini-buses in the basement are supposed to bring the tourists to Oświecim but they were rather reluctant in explaining where to put the heavy bags. The tourism to Auschwitz seems to be directed at large groups that use their own buses. In the middle of this two hour journey through the beautiful country side I doubted if I was on the right track. I was worried more about questions if there were a curfew in the guesthouse than about the fact where this guesthouse would actually be situated. More than once I felt guilty because after all I was not more than a tourist who wants to sleep and eat in relative peace and comfort. I imagined myself standing in front of the museum and being left alone.
When the bus finally arrived in Oświecim, the bus driver simply said the place’s name and expected me to know my way. Incredulously, I looked at the simple sign that pointed me to a white-fenced entrance and a way along pink houses. This was not the place I had imagined and dreaded, not at all. Briskly I walked towards a parking lot, and the first things I saw were a booth for fast food and a pizzeria in the distance.
My friend and travel companion welcomed me at the steps of the entrance that, for a split second, reminded me uncomfortably – and (in-)appropriately – of the architecture of Cecilienhof, Potsdam, of all places. From July 17 to August 2, 1945 the Potsdam Conference of the allied powers were to decide the future of post-war Europe in that royal palace. She guided me passed the groups while I felt more and more uncomfortable. When I stepped on the cobblestones of Auschwitz I (Stammlager), I was moving in. My backpack on my back and a camera in my shoulderbag, I was more of a tourist than those people running around taking pictures in the evening sun. My first thought – and I was ashamed the moment it crossed my mind – was that all of this looked so small. I had seen pictures and movies but still it seemed small and unassuming. I even had the feeling of being on a film set. When we crossed the gas chamber on our right, I looked at the people in front of it and felt dizzy. All of this was surreal and hauntingly ordinary; there even was a ‚checking-in‘ at the security gate. My friend claimed that her English had not been sufficient enough to ask the security to let us take one room. It took some time until a guard we could talk to could be found. Our room would be in the former SS-headquarters, and I immediately understood why she had been trying desperately to have us sleep in one room.
The guesthouse is meant for scholars like my friend who work in the archives or on the premises. On the ground floor of the former Kommandantur (commandant’s office), there are three six-bed rooms with either a view towards the house of Rudolf Höss, commandant of Auschwitz, (hanged in 1947 in Auschwitz I) or directly at the death fence. She had already taken the bed under the left window, and I chose, for a reason still unfathomable to me now, the one under the right window. Maybe I wanted to force myself to feel anything because this place was unspeakably unfeelable. Three houses were built alongside the barbed wire between the camp and the crematorium: one now is the administration, the second seems to be used for working and living and the last one is the guesthouse. When I looked at the curtains in the house next to ours I asked myself who would actually want to live here. If I imagined someone really had their bedroom window over the camp…; but then again I chose a bed next to barbed wire.
Being a sensible traveller I had taken food with me but my friend and I could not eat at the table facing the windows. We decided to walk around the camp and try the pizzeria. But first we had to make sure that we were allowed to get in again after dark. And we were assured that this entrance were open twenty-four hours. After a last look to the left into the camp and at the leaving tourists, we took the way on which I had entered. With the costumers gone, the restaurants were about to close, and thus we were forced to eat at the hotel in front of Auschwitz I. Of course, with a place loaded with the history of unimaginable suffering and death, you start seeing things. My friend felt complied to comment on her choice of dish: she had ordered a schnitzel. I guess she thought about the Germaness of it, I thought of pork. When we walked back in silence another group of young people arrived even though it was after closing time.
There was only one bed lamp in the room, so we kept the light on. We avoided going to bed, we both read about what we were to see the next day. We had drawn the curtains earlier this evening, and I had chosen to put my pillow at the end of the bed. There was a gap between the curtain and the window, and I feared that I might look out if I were to wake up in the middle of the night. I even turned my back to the window as if to close the world out. Late, I began to feel uneasy. I have to admit that I wanted myself to feel guilty or to cry even, but I still could not. In the middle of the night, my fear finally took its toll. As soon as I had seen this fence I remembered pictures of the liberation. There is a documentary of how the twins, the children, who survived Josef Mengel’s – the Angel of Death’s – experiments (in block 10) are led between the two deadly fences into liberty, and of how they raise their small arms to show the numbers tattooed into their skin. (This man was trained as and called himself a physician, but not even a man of his insanity and power could have thought this slaughter anything remotely resembling science). And in the night I began to see a human being standing in front of my window. It was a shaved head, with those dark hungry eyes, looking into the room. I still cannot say what gender or age this person was because it was a blend of all the people I had seen in pictures and movies. And this human being simply stood there between the fence and the house and looked at me. I had turned my back, and this person did not ask for anything. The lights of the lamps on the fence and the pale moon shone onto this person. In the end I had to change beds and move to the nearest to the door.
In the morning we did not speak much. On the way to the shower we had to pass the kitchen; the open door let us see the fence in the window. I asked myself who would like to sit there, eat and talk and probably play, too. It was a fully-acquiped, perfectly normal kitchen, whose gas stove stood next to the window. We would not eat breakfast.
While my friend went to the archive in block 14, which I would later learn was the cultural disguise of the murder housing the orchestra room, the library and the brothel, I watched the day begin in the camp. How could something so horrific be so quiet in the dawn? For the next two hours I would be almost alone on my way into the blocks.