Thursday, September 24, 2009

Krakow and Auschwitz

Young playwrights frequently hear this advice: if you want to intensify the conflict in your play, create very stringent time constraints for your characters. Oscar Wilde provides great examples: the proposals, prior love affairs, incriminating letters and long lost aunts surface all at once. A travel story lends itself very well to a dramatic treatment, because time is always an issue. Careful planning (watching the number of attractions per day), an adjustment in attitude (relax!!), and regular feeding help to relieve the dramatic tension in the life of a tourist, but, nevertheless, occasional slips seem inevitable.

Yesterday we had one major activity planned: a trip to Auschwitz (in Polish, the town of Oświęcim). The bus was going to pick us up at 8:40 am. At 8 am, we left the hotel in search for breakfast. We had researched online a number of potential Piekarnia (bakeries) and bar/cafes the night before, but none of them were open yet, and we ended up at a cafe on the main square. The interior of the place looked very much like what I imagine old English gentleman's clubs looked like: two long rows of tables, heavy chairs with decorative cushions, darkened window to the street, lots of drapery. Dave ordered eggs and I muesli and waited. There were two other couples waiting for their food at the same time. A waitress brought our coffee and a huge basket of bread. As the time approached 8:30, we started watching the clock. Should we say something to the waitress? The other couples were there before us, and they didn't have their food yet either. If she brought the food out within the next 5 minutes, and if our bus was 5 minutes late, we would be okay. But still, should we say something? But what was she going to do if the food was not ready yet? Should we at least give her the money? At 8:35, she brought their plates but not ours. Dave took the money and followed her to the register -- to pay, to ask if she maybe could give us the food to go. After some confusing conversation, she brought us two bowls of muesli with yogurt. We stuffed a few spoonfuls of it into our mouths, left the money on the table and ran. In the bus to Oświęcim, we ate the two pieces of bread (with butter and jam) that we had stuffed into our pockets.

Auschwitz-Oświęcim was the second concentration camp we've visited after Dachau in Germany a couple of years ago. There are three different compounds on the territory known is Oświęcim, and by far the largest is the camp at Brzezinka (Birkenau). Unlike the camp in Germany, this territory remained unused after the war, and the former prisoners returned there a few months after the liberation to start rebuilding what the Nazis had burned as they evacuated. For example, at Birkenau-Brzezinka, the Nazis had taken down the ovens of the crematoria, but the former prisoners restored them using the original metal pieces. What I remember being very surprising about Dachau was the long lists of manufacturing companies that had used the prisoners' labor. I remember the crematorium there that (I think) had remained intact. The exhibits at the Oświęcim-Brzezinka camps were very much about highlighting the inhuman living conditions, the constant abuse by the officers and the other prisoners, the medical experiments including the experiments on children, the methodology of killing. Jewish victims left very few traces: some hair, luggage, shoes. As our guide reminded us (her voice was breaking, on the verge of tears), when the order to exterminate the Jews came, most of them were sent to the gas chambers straight from the trains, without processing or registration. Prisoners from an earlier time were frequently photographed, and some photographs remain -- copies were lining the walls of the corridor of one of the exhibit barracks. On the fields of Brzezinka, where the busloads of tourists disperse and are lost between the platform and the barracks, the sheer scale of the operation acquires some very concrete dimensions.

When we went through the gas chamber and the crematorium in Oświęcim, the guide asked us to remain silent. There were a few signs posted: Because so many people have died here, please be silent in their memory. I found the restriction to be hard to maintain: I wanted to point out to Dave the size of the holes in the ceiling of the gas chamber (they were a lot larger than I had expected). I wanted to share with him the observation about the train-like tracks and metal carts that were attached to the ovens: the burning of the corpses was streamlined, automated like a conveyor belt. I left these observations for later. But still, I wonder: where does the tradition of remembering someone by silence come from? Why is it we think that by speaking we can remember less well than by staying silent? Why is it that silence is a sign of respect and speech in sacred places is a kind of transgression?

Tourists in general and Russian and American tourists in particular are frequently perceived as being loud -- a notion that frequently goes together with the idea of disrespect to the traditions and culture of the countries that we visit. And yet speech, being bothersome, asking needless and meddlesome questions, is the only possibility the tourists have of connecting to the people of the places we visit. If we don't accost strangers with questions our trip can be easily reduced to a series of silent, next to meaningless monetary transactions.

More on speech and loud speech and silence later. Here's Dave's blog with lots more details:

1 comment:

  1. Here's my theory: hearing someone speak is distracting. Just the sound of the voice even if it is in an incomprehensible language demands attention. Probably and evolutionary advantage, hense the brain wiring. So if faced with an grave or important situation - not so much for the dead - just the living, it helps concentration. So really I don't think it is so much respect for the dead as helping to communicate to the living that you are grave too. Let's face it - I feel happy to chat merrily in a graveyard if I'm the only one there but not if there are other people.