"I am trying to check my habits of seeing, to counter them for the sake of greater freshness. I am trying to be unfamiliar with what I'm doing." - John Cage

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Aug 3: Auschwitz

Rooms of eyeglasses, black metal twisted like filament, round lenses crushed. Piles of hairbrushes, shaving brushes, toothbrushes. Children’s shoes, boots, crushed leather, laces removed. Men’s shoes, women’s shoes. Chewing tobacco tins. It’s all about sorting. I’m sick to my stomach on the bus ride back to Krakow. On the bus a group of people are sorting their Ipod music, counting their gigabites. Another woman is removing film canisters, labeling them, Auschwitz. I notice that we count and sort in times of stress. How can our bodies survive for so long before giving in? Who would have imagined standing cells? At the foot is a small door to crawl through. The cell is 1 x 1 meter large, with a tiny bent ventilation hole at head level. Four men would stand in this cell all night, then go to work in the morning, then go back to the standing cell. They would die after a week or two, or not, or suffocate at night. Small gestures of shame by the Nazis; covering the windows of the barracks on the side opening to the execution wall, dispersing the ashes from the crematorium into the river, anywhere, to hide the evidence.

As I left through the metal gates, I saw a man trip over a sparrow he kicked accidentally as he walked. I heard its little body hit the boot, not a sound muted by feathers. The bird fluttered above the pavement, little flights of confusion between his legs and his girlfriend’s feet. Then its mess of wings and feathers and chirps fluttered into the buses and I couldn’t see it. Stillness. Inside one barrack was a drawing of a guard pulling his leg and booted foot back as far as he could before kicking the naked prisoner on the floor before him.

In the crematorium, three rooms, one for disrobing, one for gassing, and then a room with four ovens. Respectful memorial candles have been lit next to placards on a little makeshift altar on the floor in honor of the dead. Gassing took 15 minutes for 1000 people. Special prisoners would remove the gold fillings from the teeth and then put two bodies in each oven. Cremation took about 30-40 minutes so this was the bottleneck. Later on I wished I hadn’t gone entered the crematorium. At dinner back in Krakow, trying to recover in a traditional polish restaurant, I couldn’t shake the ghost of ash from the walls, from the air, from the ovens, all over my body. It felt like white claustrophobic chalk. My meal was very traditional sour crout with lamb and kielbasa, pickles, carrot salad, sacred home-made bread. I couldn’t eat enough.

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