“You want to visit Auschwitz?”
The man wasn’t Polish. I couldn’t place the accent. We were shivering in Krakow’s main station. Trains to the camp were few and far between.
“Only 290 zloty’s – I take you and wait for you.”
It was barely £50 and the man was going to drive us 50 miles in his old Mazda, then back again. A lucky meeting or dangerous decision? We chanced it, our desire to see the death camps of western Poland too great.
He was Russian. I won’t attempt to spell his wonderful sounding name. For an hour he took us through sprawling Polish villages where head-scarfed women sold print dresses at the roadside, past gentle hills that fell away from searing blue sky. Russet trees lined the horizon, mountains just beyond.
In broken English our new friend punctuated the pretty view with gruesome concentration camp accounts. His grandfather had died there.
“Here,” he eventually said and I was disappointed to see the cheerful, modern building that occupied a tree-lined car-park. This was Auschwitz. A museum. I wanted to see it for real.
“I wait here and take you to Bikenhau when done.” He pulled out a flask, settled himself back in the car seat.
We went into the lobby where a girl handed us booklets and steered us into a vast cinema with other curious tourists who jostled for the best seats. The lights dimmed. Vintage film rolled, rivaling any modern day horror film. I could barely watch the faces of children, gaunt and haunting, being freed from their wintry prison.
When the show was done, attendants ruthlessly threw open huge side doors. Sunlight spilled into the auditorium – and there it was. Auschwitz. I felt quite ill. It was beautiful. It was horrific. The infamous iron gates waited to admit us, words “Arbeit Macht Frei” displayed above. Work brings freedom. Golden trees blew in the breeze. I waited, not quite ready to go in yet.
“It’s so quiet,” I whispered. Yet there were more than 500 people wandering along the path, cameras forgotten, faces awed. Silence was the only way they could express their feelings.
We walked beneath gates that had admitted so many desperate prisoners 60 years earlier. Cold, hungry and tired they would have not known their fate. I had choice. I could leave – but I wanted to see.
Preferring to go without a guide we wandered the bleak site. Back to back, rows and rows of featureless barracks lined the gravel path. Watch towers looked on, skeletal and foreboding. I imagined guard dogs snarling, their icy breath smoking the night air. I opened my eyes and saw dappled leaves and a bird ascend into cloudless sky.
“Look,” my husband whispered.
A brick chimney soared out of the horizon. The incinerator. We approached the crude gray building with no intention of entering. Morbid curiosity drove us in, like the others. I thought the smell of burning was my imagination. It wasn’t. Others commented. An ugly oven dominated the desolate room. The ceiling was charred black.
“Thousand upon thousands of bodies were burnt here, transferred from the gas chambers, slid into these very ovens,” a guide told a group of school children.
Only when I was back outside and fresh wind stung my face did I realize there were tears on my cheek.
We paused in the courtyard where prisoners were pulled from their narrow cells and, if they were lucky, shot. The unlucky ones were hung by their arms, poorly clothed, and left to die. A young girl, maybe Polish or maybe Austrian, it didn’t matter, wept as she lit a red candle.Back in the car park our faithful Russian friend was waiting. He offered us boiled sweets and drove us the 3 miles to the bigger camp Birkenhau.
Auschwitz is like a show camp compared with Birkenhau. The entrance, made famous to the masses by the film ‘Schindlers List’, is evil. Its shadow blocks the sun. Skilfully built and lovingly painted could the craftsmen responsible for the gate have known that it would become the doorway to hell? The barbed wire perimeter surrounding rotting huts would have been live in 1944. Still, I didn’t touch it.
If the smell of burning in the incinerator was so potent what shock would await my fingers?
Gypsies, prisoners, Jews and homosexuals would have arrived in this camp on crowded trains and been dumped on the concrete platform. A mixed bag of the hated, the helpless and the homeless they would have been separated into two groups – those that could work and those that couldn’t. The latter followed a stony road to the gas chambers.
Crumbling now, these horror chambers were surprisingly small. We didn’t speak. We looked inside. The mesh floor where lethal gas would have taken the would-be-bathers by surprise was rusty. With no roof the sun bathed the walls in a calming light.
We walked on to the rows of huts – homes for prisoners, until they died or were liberated. Wooden bunk beds, crude and splintered, lined the dank barracks like sentinels. We moved on quickly to the path, our guilt at being hungry and having sandwiches to eat taking us back to the entrance.
The journey back to Krakow was cheerless. We held hands in the car. Our Russian friend flicked between radio channels.
“You like music?” he wanted to know. He turned up Celine Dion, sang along.
The prisoners of Birkenhau and Auschwitz were finally liberated from their horror on 27th January 1945 and had to walk on skeletal legs back into a land that didn’t want them. I was liberated on a warm autumn afternoon with a comfortable hotel room awaiting me and the taste of boiled cherry sweet in my mouth.
Poland is an achingly beautiful place. And it is forgiving. So forgiving.