This is a continuation of Part One and concludes the chronicles of my time in Party Central.
During my journeys to Poland, I’d noticed that the people of this fine nation don’t mess around. You know how Germans are famed for their ability to identify a problem and engineer an elegant solution to solve it?
The Polish are very much the same, except they take this efficiency mentality, drain all the remaining fun out of it (there wasn’t much to begin with), and substitute ‘subtle engineering’ with ‘sheer determination’.
By way of example, if you go into any inner-city pub on a Friday night, you’ll find bars full of young Polish folk ready to unwind after a hard week’s labour (the image above represents young people in Poland; they’re probably in their late 20s.) And it must have been a seriously hard week, every week, because their idea of unwinding is to drink like it’s their last day on the planet.
“Have you noticed anything weird about this place?” Mike had asked the previous evening as we drank pint after pint, little knowing at the time that we were setting ourselves up for a bus-related fall a few hours later.
“Lots, Mike. This is a weird place. But what in particular?”
“Look around. Check out the locals.”
I did so. The thing that was immediately apparent was that nobody was really talking; it was a Friday night, the bar was full, there were big groups together clearly in it for the long haul, but by and large there wasn’t much socialising going on. If there wasn’t music blaring over the speakers the room would be silent, save for people ordering drinks and two English blokes talking bollocks.
“People are just… drinking? They’re doing nothing but drinking their drinks.”
“Yes,” Mike nodded, “but how are they drinking?”
How were they drinking? As I looked from table to table, I wasn’t sure I followed his train of thought. They were just drinking lager? Groups of Polish people, drinking their lagers in silence, through straws. I failed to see what was strange abou…
“Yep,” Mike confirmed. “Everyone – everyone – I’ve seen since we got here has been drinking lager through a straw. It’s like they’ve just clocked off, and cannot wait to get drunk.”
How true. I’d been all around Europe, but never seen anything quite like it.
“Huh,” I concluded.
“Hmm,” Mike agreed.
“So where are our stra…”
“When in Rome,” Mike declared, leaping up to go get us some straws.
We were standing in Krakow’s central station, no doubt reeking of the horse-felling amount of lager we’d strawed the night before.
Between the two of us, the hangover could have felled nations. We didn’t really know what we were doing here; we’d just landed back at the bus station in the pale grey daylight, had no plans, and needed to do something.
I was staring at a noticeboard filled with incomprehensible bus timetables. As well as trying to figure out where we should go, I was also trying to figure out where the hell we’d been; it remained a mystery, so I can only assume that if we’d been awake for the previous evening’s four-hour long bus ride, we would have seen the entirety of Poland and all it had to offer.
“I wonder if we went to Warsaw?” I mused out loud to Mike while gazing at a noticeboard. “Yeah, we can probably tick off Warsaw. I bet that was nice.”
There was no answer. I suddenly became aware that Mike was no longer standing next to me.
Instead, he was next to a small, bespectacled Polish man on the other side of the station.
I wandered over to both of them, bemused. As I approached, the guy threw his hands in the air and walked away, muttering angrily to himself in broken English.
“What was that about?” I asked.
“Not sure. He was getting all up in my grill, saying he wanted to ‘send me to Auschwitz’, whatever that means.”
“As far as insults go, that’s pretty abstract,” I remarked. “I mean… hang on, was that an anti-Semitism thing? Holy shit, did you just get victimised?” I yelled, genuinely aghast.
“What? No! I’m not Jewish!”
“No, sorry,” I said, figuring I would have known this about Mike by now, at this stage of our friendship. But in saying that…
“Are you sure? I mean, you’re pretty tight with money.”
“No, Zeke,” Mike stated, bluntly. “I’m not Jewish.”
“Now that I think of it, your nose is a little on the large si…”
Hmm. I decided to let that one slide for now, but I vowed to get to the bottom of it at some point. Anyway…
“Anyway, so he wanted to put you in a concentration camp. What did you say to that?”
“Told him to fuck off, obviously”
I nodded sagely. “And rightly so, mate.”
We went back to looking at foreign bus timetables, because that’s the level of high-octane entertainment our holiday had skyrocketed to. After a few minutes, I felt a tug on my sleeve. Upon further inspection, another small Polish man was the source.
“Can I help you?” I asked.
“You want arse vittz?”
“I don’t think so, no.”
“I take, I take.”
“No! You’ll take nothing,” I retorted forcefully.
“I don’t know what you want!”
“No! No arse vittz!”
He wandered off, dejected, without leaving me any clue of what a vittz was, much less one of the arse variety.
Slowly, the penny dropped.
“Wait a minute, was he saying ‘Auschwitz‘?”
“Probably,” Mike replied. “I mean, ‘arse wittz’ isn’t really a word, so quite possibly.”
“Why is everyone obsessed about Auschwitz all of a sudden?”
“Dunno. But it’s an important cultural site and testament to the darker side of humanity that stands to remind us that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it,” Mike helpfully replied. “But yeah, otherwise, dunno.”
“Well, yes,” I agreed. “But… hang on, where is Auschwitz?”
“Germany, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, of course it is. Germany. Or… er, Romania?”
“No, no, they shipped people from Romania.”
“To the concentration camp.”
“Yeah, to Auschwitz.”
“Which we’ve established is in Germany?”
“Um… yeah. In Germany.”
We googled it.
We are historically-handicapped, geographically-bereft idiots. We’d been holidaying right next to the site of the world’s most horrific crime against humanity, and we didn’t even know it.
“Shall we go to Auschwitz today?”
Even with our black hangovers weighing down on us like sledgehammers, that particular sentence still sounded far more cheerful than it should have done.
Mike took a long, considered breath as he considered the options before us, and it was fairly binary: do we go to Auschwitz with a mind-caving hangover, or do we not?
“Today, we shall go to Auschwitz,” he concluded.
Having unwittingly exhausted the primary avenue of getting to Auschwitz – namely, getting a small Polish man to drive us there like some kind of like a macabre Uber (Ubercabre?) – we had no other option but to make our own way.
The historic concentration camp was a fair way out from Krakow via public transport. After a few muddled attempts (and one near-miss in which we nearly ended up on a direct train to Slovakia), we finally found ourselves on a rickety train heading out of the city and going in the right direction.
Okay, it wasn’t one of these, but the train experience of Krakow hasn’t been massively updated in the last seventy years, let me tell you.
For the first thirty minutes of our journey, all we saw were countless granite pits. “What is all this stuff?” Mike asked, nodding towards the miles upon miles of mountainous, grey heaps of stone. They sat against a background of flat, wintery countryside, making the whole of rural Poland look like the saturation filter had been set to ‘Cold War’.
“They’re digging up all the grey,” I explained. “Poland has too much grey. They dig it up and export all the grey.”
We laughed, perhaps unfairly. I genuinely love Poland and her people, and both have been very kind to me on both occasions I’ve visited. It’s also got the distinction of having the worst and most depressing cuisine of anywhere I have ever travelled to, but that’s also probably unfair. I’m sure if you like eating flavourless, brown slop served with an economy loaf of bread, you’ll thoroughly enjoy Polish cuisine.
[Imagine this: a photographer has clearly done everything possible to make this dish look appetizing.]
In addition, I’m lead to assume that the only reason most of their food is beige is because they can’t figure out a way to make it grey.
“Is this the right stop?” I asked after an hour of monochromatic travel.
“Yeah, this is it,” Mike replied. “Oświęcim.”
“ Oświęcim,” I say. Except I didn’t say that, and neither did Mike, because neither of us knew how to pronounce it. (Edit: I still don’t. out of interest I just looked it up, and Wikipedia tells me it should be pronounced ɔɕˈfʲɛɲt͡ɕim which I think clears that up nicely.)
“It’s weird that nowhere we’ve been refers to this town as Auschwitz,” I remarked. “It’s always written as Oswe… Oswich… Oz… that one. No wonder we didn’t know it was here.”
Mike raised an eyebrow. “For the record,” he said out loud to nobody in particular, “let it be known that Zeke cannot see why the people around here refer to the town they live in as anything other than goddamn Auschwitz.”
On reflection, it was a very dim observation.
The disassociation between the town and its history continued, because they did their very best to make the town look as if EVERYTHING IS FINE HERE! JUST A NORMAL TOWN, DOING NORMAL TOWN STUFF! NO PROBLEMS AT ALL, NOW OR IN THE PAST!
Speaking of which, here’s the non-descript road we eventually figured out would lead us to the camp. For the longest time, we weren’t convinced this was the right street, because there wasn’t a single signpost between here and the train station to suggest that there was a place of global historical significance here:
The image you see above is taken from Google Street View, and it almost exactly mirrors the day we were there – the steel grey clouds had packed up for the day and left a clear blue sky in their wake, and despite being sub-zero earlier in the morning, it was getting surprisingly warm.
Picket fences lined well-kept gardens, sprinklers gently doing their thing on every lawn, watched over by detached, quaint little houses. The street itself was impeccably clean. Well-maintained trees and bushes burst with colour.
If you didn’t know any better, you’d never guess that it was the middle of winter. Perhaps more significantly, you’d never guess that the site of the most horrific atrocity in modern history was only a few hundred meters up the road.
The image above represents as close to the camp as Google Street View will go before it ducks left onto another unassuming street in Oświęcim, probably because the Google employer on the day was faced with the prospect of driving this thing right up to the gates of a death camp memorial and thought far better of it:
As we walked down this visage of rural township perfection, the quiet was reminded of something I heard long ago. An urban legend of sorts.
I gestured to Mike to stand still for a minute.
“Shhh… just listen.”
Well, what do you know? It turned out, at least from my one-time observation, that the legend was true: birds do not sing in Auschwitz.
I noted this with Mike, and we carried on, trying to catch one let slip with a little tune but to no avail. We casually debated whether this was really due to the implication that evil permeated the place, or simply because the geology meant there was an incidental lack of birds.
I did, however, see a dog sitting on the other side of a picket fence. It watched us with indifference.
“Even the dogs are silent in Auschwitz,” I observed. The dog looked at me with sad eyes.
I leant over the fence to give it a pat on the head. It was a somewhere between the moment of it being docile and transforming into a rabid hound of hell that I realised I was about to lose my right hand.
I rescinded it, and not a moment too soon, from its gnashing jaws.
“Scratch that,” I panted, having a minor coronary. “The dogs are not silent in Auschwitz.”
Leaving the snarling dog to enjoy its afternoon, we pressed onwards. It was only a little further before we saw it in unavoidably plain sight: the ghastly spectre of Auschwitz-Birkenau’s main entrance, dominating the horizon.
We stood for a minute in somber reflection of just how domineering that vision was.
“Can you imagine living there?” I finally said, pointing at one of the houses at the end of the street. “Imagine opening your curtains and seeing that every morning.” I said, pointing back towards Auschwitz.
Mike shrugged. “I bet the property prices are rather affordable,” he remarked, tapping the side of his nose.
“Are you sure you’re not Jewish?” I replied. We both shared a highly inappropriate laugh.
On a serious note, I’d like to reiterate that Mike is not, in fact, Jewish. And neither am I. As such, we verbally promised to each other beforehand not to ascribe too much personal significance to this pilgrimage, and really, I don’t think anything remotely describable as a ‘pilgrimage’ has been conducted in such an impromptu and hungover manner.
We had no skin in the game, as they say. Out of respect, we were not to act as grief tourists; this was not our story, and were not to pretend like it was. We would go in as outsiders, learn as much as we could, then leave.
It’s a promise I will repeat here as I describe the visit. I’m very aware that my writing can be prone to hyperbole, but that’s neither fair nor required here.
So let me just say this: despite our best intentions otherwise, neither Mike nor I could help but feel the weight: to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau is to feel a burden that transcends both racial boundaries and the passage of time.
We both remarked, independent of one another, that the sense of foreboding as we walked along that notorious section of railway toward the gate made the very air around us feel heavier.
I stood on the rail line, which is remarkably well preserved and, given its history of ferrying masses of people to their end like Charon over the River Styx, every bit as haunting as you can imagine. I hated being near the thing – it felt too horrible to get a grip on – but the view from the centre of the track leading up to the gate is paradoxically pleasant on an aesthetic level; the symmetry and composition is technically perfect.
“Do you want a picture?”
(Odd to think, but the word ‘selfie’ didn’t exist at the time. I was actually still carrying a wind-up disposable camera for the trip. This was only seven years ago.)
“Not really,” I sighed. “Come on. Let’s go.”
I don’t recall any kind of entry system to the site – I think you just walk straight in through the strangely un-manned main gate – though there are plenty of people charging tourists for a personal tour*, which I’m not sure how I feel about.
The first thing that struck me is how gigantic the camp is. I guess I’d never previously given any thought to the size of a site that was fine-tuned to massacre 3,000 people per hour, but it still left an impression.
I tried to imagine the vast, strikingly flat patch of earth full of tens of thousands of people. It was pretty much impossible to see in your mind’s eye.
What I could imagine, however, were the living conditions of the prisoner barracks. Again, I’d never fully grasped what it must have been like for those struggling for life at Auschwitz at the time solely through reading alone, but seeing these pits of unimaginable despair in person really drove it home.
With a large degree of understatement, these things were fucking miserable. I was appalled, in the truest sense of the word, at the thought of living (and ultimately dying) in this earthly hell. But not only did it get me a small way towards understanding how unimaginably shit those deaths were, it also put into perspective the unfathomable resolve of the survivors: I simply cannot conceive of what kind of strength it must have taken to not simply wish for death in those conditions.
“Let’s get out of here. I need some air,” I said to Mike, having been in the oppressive atmosphere of the barracks for all of, oh, I dunno, thirty seconds. Poor me.
We left the barracks and made the long walk towards the Main Event – the remains of the gas chambers and crematoria, which had largely been blown up by the Nazis on the imminent advance of the Soviet liberation troops but whose identifiable structure still remained. There wasn’t much between the rows of prisoner barracks and the gas chambers other than more gas chambers.
I think we were both acutely aware that we weren’t talking. Given the absence of birdsong, the silence was deafening.
Mike ventured a topic of conversation.
“What was the song they sang?”
“The Jews. When they were walking to the gas chambers… there was a song that they used to sing in unison. What was it?”
I hadn’t a clue, but I know what we did need: some levity!
“I think it was ‘The Vengabus is Coming’ by the Vengaboys.”
Turns out any attempt at comedy in Auschwitz just gets sucked into the void, like an astronaut cracking open the airlock in the vacuum of space and letting all the jokes out.
Who’d have thought death camps are no place for absurdist comedy? I continue to learn and grow.
“I think we’ve seen just about everything here. Shall we make our excuses and leave?” Mike ventured.
“To whom should we ‘make our excuses’?” I asked, gesturing at the camp around us. The nearest group of people was a good two hundred metres away – a school tour of Israeli Jewish teenagers standing at the foot of the crematoria ruins, sweetly singing a jarringly triumphant song that I can only assume was about survival and prevailing over adversity. It left a really strong impression on me.
“I don’t know why I said that, actually,” Mike replied. “I just feel… awkwardly apologetic. For everything.”
“‘Tis the British way,” I acknowledged, “And it is definitely time to leave.”
With a weight in our hearts, we slowly walked out of Auschwitz-Birkenau the way we came and headed back to the train station, avoiding Cerberus the Three-Headed Hell Hound on the way. Yeah, that’s right; the Auschwitz dog, in my imagination, now has three snarling heads. I’m sticking with that.
We arrived back at Ozciewihoweveryouspellit Train Station, but we arrived at the platform just as a train to Krakow was departing.
“Oh, nuts! I think that was our train,” I said.
“Think you might be right. I’ll find out when the next one is,” Mike, the Master of Timetables, replied before going off to get the information.
He returned a minute later.
I did not have to ask him when the next train was scheduled to arrive. His face was somewhat ashen as he stared at me with an ‘uh-oh!’ face, wide-eyed and purse-lipped.
“Oh, for goodness’ sake! Why are we so bad at this?” I yelled, throwing my arms in despair.
Mike shrugged. We stood on the platform for some time in silence, watching the only train out of the town disappear over the horizon.
“We seem to have gotten ourselves trapped in Auschwitz.”
“Looks that way.”
“Just to reiterate: we are stuck.”
I could tell he was carefully mulling the words over as he stared at his shoes. Finally, he correctly observed: “It’s hard to put a positive spin on being stuck in Auschwitz.”
“Especially on your birthday.”
“Oh yeah!” Mike replied, suddenly remembering the significance of the date. At least for me.
My friend patted me solemnly on the back.
“Happy Birthday, mate.”
** I’m watching this video as I type, and note that there are birds singing at the 21:00 mark.
*** Also with great interest I’m noting that at 34:47, the pupils and teacher address the question of living right next to Birkenau (I didn’t realise there were houses that close to the camp.) It’s something that has been bothering me ever since Mike and I walked up that street leading up to the site.