You want visit Auschwitz?
By Louise Beech
“You want visit Auschwitz?” The man wasn’t Polish, though I couldn’t place the accent. Krakow station was cold, busy, and my husband keen to leave. “Only 290 zloty’s – I take you and wait for you.” It was barely £50 to drive us around all day in an old Mazda. Rather recklessly, we got in.
He was Russian – I couldn’t possibly spell his wonderful-sounding name. We drove through Polish villages, where head-scarfed women sold print dresses at the roadside, and in broken English he punctuated this gentle view with stories of children parting with shoes and toys before being herded into ‘showers’ and gassed.
Unpronounceable Name said he liked Dire Straits, the rock band, and sang the chorus of a familiar song for us. My husband had hidden our money in his sock – just in case.
“Here,” said our guide after an hour; I was disappointed at the uniform museum and tree-lined car-park. Auschwitz, prettied up for guests. “I wait here, take you to Bikenhau when done.” He pulled out a flask, put his feet on the dashboard.
I knew he’d be there upon our return – we’d not paid him yet.
Inside we were given booklets and steered with other curious tourists into a cinema. Lights dimmed, vintage film rolled, and hollow faces begged us to see the horrors of the death camps. The finale was attendants opening huge side-doors, spilling sunlight into the auditorium – and there it was. The real Auschwitz, its iron gates spelling “Arbeit Macht Frei.” Work brings freedom. We walked the path of those prisoners sixty years before, but with cameras and food and choice. We could leave.
But we didn’t.
Back to back, rows and rows of featureless barracks lined the gravel path. Watch towers looked on, skeletal and foreboding. I imagined dogs yapping, their icy breath smoking the night air, booted guards shouting orders, chaos and fear. In the courtyard, where prisoners were pulled from narrow cells and (if they were lucky) shot, a young girl wept as she lit a red candle. The flame wriggled as though trying to escape.
I thought I could hear Dire Straits playing, but it was just the wind.
A brick chimney demanded attention – the incinerator – and morbid curiosity drove us inside. I could smell burning. A stone oven dominated the room, its ceiling charred black. “Thousand of bodies were transferred from the gas chambers into these ovens,” the guide told a group of school children who ate sandwiches and shuffled and nudged for the best view.
Back in the car our Russian friend was singing. “I love – what you call – karaoke!” He turned down the radio, offered boiled sweets and drove three miles to the bigger camp, Birkenhau.
Jews, criminals and homosexuals arrived here on cramped trains, staggering onto the alien platform. Hated and homeless, they were separated into two groups – those that could work and those that couldn’t. The latter marched to the gas chambers; we ambled to the surprisingly guiltless and nondescript cylindrical buildings. They were forced inside; we returned to the path, to the car, our guilt at being hungry and having sandwiches to eat too much.