Magazine article The American Prospect

Six Polish Women

Magazine article The American Prospect

Six Polish Women

Article excerpt

Not long ago my wife, Ilene, and I journeyed to Auschwitz, which I had been reading about, it seemed, for much the greater part of my life. As it turned out, I had a good deal yet to learn. My teacher was Alicja, the pleasant and scholarly camp researcher with whom we spent the day. The first thing she disabused me of was the now fashionable notion that Auschwitz has become an essentially commercial attraction. The truth is, there is no charge to enter the site and little for sale, no trinkets or mementos, only a few posters, a light lunch, and the modest and largely pedagogical books put out by overworked archivists like Alicja herself. The visitor need not fear amplified guides, a crush of tourists, or slickness of any kind. Poland is too poor, and the staff too dedicated, to permit the creation of an East-European Disneyland.

Through morning and afternoon I noticed only two instances of vulgarity: The wood of the prisoners' bunks had been carved by adolescent boys--Bruno! Bruno!--who are perhaps already old enough to feel regret; and a cell phone beeped out the first half-stanza of, of all things, "Mary Had a Little Lamb," before the shamefaced recipient of the call could run out of sight to answer it. In short, everyone seemed to behave in the spirit of the simple signs posted in every language: Please behave appropriately, respecting the memory of those who suffered and died here.

There are, however, two types of visitors that Alicja cannot welcome. The first is children. Indeed, those under 13 are overtly discouraged from entering the grounds of the camp. Yet they were everywhere--infants, toddlers, eight-, nine-, and 10-year-olds romping before or gazing at the mountains of human hair, the landscape of luggage and spectacles, the actual apparatus that had pushed the Jews into the ovens. Alicja literally wrung her hands. But when I asked her why she and her colleagues did not forbid those who were too young to assimilate such terrors, she replied, "What if the child we turned away were the grandson of a survivor? How would we feel then?" The line is drawn, however, with the crowd of Holocaust apologists, revisionists, deniers. Alicja, a scholar, feels moral revulsion at the thought that anyone would seek to use the resources of Auschwitz in order to deny its very existence. "When David Irving asked to review our archives," she said, "we told him he could not."

But Alicja's chief gift is more personal than professional. By the time our visit ended I had come to understand that she knew me almost as well as she did the history and meaning of the camp. She had a way of sensing my mood and knowing what to do to restore my equilibrium. When I felt numbed by dissociation at the sight of honeybees at work among the cornflowers at Birkenau, she led me to a photograph of young trees behind a flaming funeral pyre and showed me how those same trees, solid now in bark and branch, still stood as survivors themselves. Similarly, when she caught my dismay at the enormous cross that Pope John Paul II had used to make Auschwitz a kind of Calvary, she brought me without a word to the wall of a cell onto which a Polish resistance fighter had scratched a tiny crucifix, hidden among the upright slashes with which he counted off the days until his execution.

I do not believe that sort of empathy can arise unless one has undergone a certain degree of suffering of one's own. As we chatted while awaiting our ride back to Cracow, I learned that Alicja was born and grew up in Oswiecim and had lost an uncle in this very camp. Forced to visit Auschwitz at the ages of eight and nine--no wonder she objects to children within its gates!--she suffered repeated nightmares for years. Even now she finds it difficult to explain how she came to dedicate her life to understanding what happened in the place she vowed never to set foot in again. I do not think she will object if I say that what she shares with every Jew is what Freud has called the fascination with, and the return to, the repressed. …

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