Bringing you the issues since 1986

View Online Print Edition


To walk in their footsteps and touch them in some small way

Originally Published November, 2006

Krakow is a beautiful city, too beautiful to be so close to Auschwitz.

We stayed in the Jewish district, Kazmierz, which in 1495 became the city’s Jewish quarter, one of the main cultural centres for Polish Jews. Now it is a ­re-creation of what life used to be like before the Holocaust. In March, 1941, the entire Jewish population of the district was deported to the Podgorze ghetto, where 16,000 people were crammed into 120 buildings or sent to concentration and death camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau. The ghetto was liquidated in March 1943, ending seven centuries of Jewish life in Krakow.

Kazmierz boasts a handful of synagogues, all mira­culously intact, some with sumptuous interiors. The tiny Remu’h Synagogue at ul Szeroka 40 is one of the two functioning synagogues in the district. Just inside the entrance, a wall has been formed, a collage of the fragments of tombstones from the adjacent cemetery.

The grandest of all the synagogues in Kazmierz was the Old Synagogue on ul Szeroka, the oldest surviving Jewish religious building in Poland. It is now a museum.

Our small pension, Tournet Pokoje Goscinne at ul Miodowa 7, was run by a young couple with small children. It was clean, but small after our lavish hotel in Lodz. We arrived by train after dark and decided to venture out and buy food at one of the many small grocery stores in the area. We walked into the Old Jewish Square, which reminded me of Jacques Cartier Square in Old Montreal. Like Old Montreal, Kazimierz allows visitors to imagine life as it once was. There is a difference: there is no trace of the thousands of Jews who lived and flourished in Kazmierz.

There are many restaurants, some featuring Klezmer bands, that line the square, most sporting Hebrew menus or signs. Many are overpriced and certainly not “Jewish style” as they advertise. An example is the choice of lard or sour cream to accompany verenikes or pierogis in the restaurant we chose, which was decorated inside and out to recreate the shops and dress of the Jews who once lived and worked within its walls. When I mentioned the incongruous inclusion of lard on the menu, the server said she would mention it to her manager.

We took a street car downtown on our second day to see the largest square in Medieval Europe, Rynek Glowny. The square is the centre of the Old Town with narrow streets leading into it, where you can find boutiques and restaurants.

On one of these streets, we had lunch at Greenway, a small franchise, which we had discovered in Lodz. It’s a charming self-serve vegetarian restaurant with Polish and Mexican specialties and is very inexpensive. Then we spent the afternoon sipping ice-cream drinks in one of the many outdoor terrace cafés surrounding the square. The grandest site in the square is the Town Hall Tower. There are a multitude of churches to visit, but since we were in Krakow mainly because of Auschwitz, we did not venture into any of them but saved our energy for the third day, the day we visited Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Tours to Auschwitz can be purchased at every hotel in Krakow. The Holocaust is big business for the Poles, strange as that may sound. We relied on them to get us to Auschwitz safely and to guide us through the kilometers of testimonials to the torture and murder that went on there.

The bus was too comfortable. The documentary on the small TV on the 1 1/2 hour trip was informative, but strangely out of place and time. It made it difficult to imagine those other times — the packed, thirst-ridden, sick and dying who were herded to these gates. I wanted to see the sign “Arbeit Macht Frei.” It was strangely shrunken, and the camp was so much bigger, the barracks sturdier, and the distances longer than I had imagined.

Everything was empty and vast, save the small bunches of tourists being led around or wandering by themselves in pairs or families. As we walked out of the Visitor’s Centre some tourists were eating ice cream bars as they stood in the rain, well dressed, well fed, ready to embark on their tours of the largest killing ground in Europe.

Seeing Auschwitz-Birkenau, or what is left of it, I learned more about life there — and death —  than I had reading and studying and writing about the Holocaust. I learned the Nazis were extremely methodical and meticulous to a fault. Yes, I had known these facts, but seeing thousands of shoes, tobacco boxes, children’s clothing, and suitcases —only a tiny fraction of what was actually collected — made me realize how vast this operation was — this operation of annihilation.

And that is where, in my eyes, it differs from other holocausts. There was a vast and organized collection — booty — stolen from the living souls and from their dead bodies before they were thrown into the gas ovens.

Only in one regard did the Nazi butchers lose their sense of order and discipline: it was how and when an inmate was tortured and killed. This was completely arbitrary. We witnessed it when we visited the punishment building and the shooting yard outside it.

I have always been sure there is no god. I was brought up an atheist. Seeing Auschwitz-Birkenau confirmed my disbelief. What god with any form of supernatural power could have witnessed his chosen people as they were starved, tortured and experimented on — men, women and children? What god could have stood by and watched “his people” being deprived every human dignity before they were burnt in the ovens — and do NOTHING?

I learned also that hair turns grey, even when it is shorn off. Sixty years and it smells of mildew.

As I walked along the kilometer-long road and track that took members of my family to their deaths, the road at Birkenau, the vast camp adjacent to Auschwitz, the death camp — as I walked on the road that leads from the train station to the crematoria, past the barracks (for the inmates who were forced to help exterminate the victims), it was raining lightly, and I was having trouble keeping up with my “group.” My knee hurt from the dampness and I thought about my pain compared to that of the thousands of men, women, and  children who had walked this road from the trains, and those who veered off it or tried to escape and were shot by the side of the road.

I have thought long and hard about what to tell you about Auschwitz.

No description can bring you there. You must go if you are able.

Before we left, people asked me why I was going, why I needed to inflict this experience on myself. I went to Auschwitz to do the unthinkable — to imagine what it was like. I needed to go, not to understand — for how can such horror be understood — but to feel closer to those who perished, to walk in their footsteps, at least physically, and in doing so, touch them in some small but meaningful way.

Labels: ,


Post a Comment