This essay was shortlisted for the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize.
I took a Valium on the plane to Poland. I had run into an old friend at the airport and he gave it to me. I hadn’t planned on taking it, until I heard the girl next to me say to her neighbour ‘So, do you think it’ll be like, you know, like sad?’
‘I guess so. Do you like my hair like this?’ Her neighbour replied.
I recognised them both from the barbeque at the Rabbi’s house a few weeks before. It had been an opportunity for all the people going on the tour to meet and get to know one another. I had sat on my own on a plastic chair picking at a piece of chicken. The plastic fork kept bending backwards and the paper plate folding, spilling coleslaw onto my knee. Everyone seemed to know one another, and the groups of girls would squeal with delight and kiss the air around one another’s cheeks, looking over their shoulders to see who was watching. The guys were a bit more awkward, shaking hands and standing in tense circles, holding their paper plates.
The plane landed in Poland, but everything was a bit blurry. The Valium was stronger than I expected. It was Sunday morning. We were going to be travelling around the country for five days, visiting sites of genocide. We would return to Israel in time for Shabbat. The tour had been organised by Aish Ha’Torah, a global Jewish organisation.
We waited at baggage claim. I had a small backpack with enough supplies to last me five days. The others eyed me as I stood back while they lugged giant suitcases off the conveyer belt. I hadn’t realised you needed to make sure your shoes matched your handbag as you entered Auschwitz, or that the perfect outfit had to be chosen to visit mass graves hidden in fairytale forests.
‘We’re just waiting for yours now,’ said the rebbetzin (rabbi’s wife) accompanying us. Her husband, a rabbi who worked for Aish Ha’Torah Johannesburg, was our chaperone. I pointed to the backpack on my back, and told her that it was my luggage. The rebbetzin looked shocked. How would I survive five days in Poland without my GHD and a wide selection of clothing?
Outside the airport we boarded a shiny black bus, and were introduced to our tour guide, Avi. He was tall and blonde, with a British accent. ‘We’re just waiting for the other group,’ he told us. We were being joined by a group of American college students. They arrived after fifteen minutes. As the fourteen women and two men boarded the bus, we were assaulted by loud American twang and too much perfume. The South African guys surreptitiously examined the girls as they boarded.
Before I left I went to see my grandmother, who had been born in Poland. She came to South Africa in 1936, before the war. Most of her family were not so lucky.
‘Don’t go there,’ she had said. ‘Every step you take you’ll be walking on the blood of my family.’
I defied her wishes, but her ominous warning, along with the knowledge acquired during my years of schooling, the stories and images the very word raised in my mind, made me nervous. How would this extended tour to the sites of my ancestors’ murder affect me? I wasn’t disappointed; the barrage of emotions that assaulted me was extreme. I was surprised at the vehemence of my anger towards my fellow travellers’ apparent indifference. I was shocked at the mild beauty of so many of the places we saw. I was amazed to see that Poland has summer, with trees and leaves and birds and colourful flowers. I was expecting the snowy black and white expanses of Schindler’s List, and every photo in every Holocaust museum I have visited.
In the public toilets at Auschwitz, I stood washing my hands, not wanting to go outside. We had driven by the tall guard towers, and seen the train tracks leading into the camp. These tracks exemplified the Nazis’ manipulation and duplicity. They were designed to look like they continued into the distance, to make sure the passengers on the train weren’t aware that this was their final destination; just one of the ways the prisoners were kept in control. It was sunny outside the window, and there was a cool breeze. Two of the American girls were next to me at the basins,
‘Oh my Gawd, your hair looks wunnerful.’ ‘Really? I totally overslept and just threw on this bandana.’ She adjusted it in the mirror, flirting with herself. ‘We stayed out so late drinking last night. It was really fun’
This conversation propelled me outside. We walked along the train station, and I was able to see the notorious train tracks up close. I bent down and picked up a stone and slipped it in my pocket.
We walked across a green field, to some ponds, and stopped at the edge of one of them. They were populated by luminous green frogs, camouflaged by the matching brightness of the algae in the pond. There must have been hundreds of them, and their croaking filled the air, drowning out all other sounds. If I really concentrated on them I could almost ignore the ominous brick chimney looming in the distance. Their natural beauty, the grace in their movements which made them visible for a moment ‘til they disappeared into the green once again, distracted me from the forest of Birch trees behind me that gave this place its name: Birkenau. For a moment I could look at the beauty of nature and ignore the atrocities that took place here, the cruelty and deception, the absolute debasement, the crushing of the human spirit.
But even this moment of escapism was denied me. I was brought back to reality as Avi explained that these ponds were man-made. A place was needed to dump the ashes from the crematorium, ashes of the Jews who were tortured, humiliated and systematically murdered and then burnt by the Nazis. This pond was built to receive these remains.
Avi continued to describe the events that took place here, as we walked through to the other half of the camp, Auschwitz. ‘There, we were stripped of our clothing; here the famous Dr Mengele separated us from our parents, our children. Here we were sent to be deloused.’ He pointed and gestured as he spoke, describing events as he had been all along, his use of pronouns forcing us to identify with the victims.
‘The ends justify the means,’ a friend of mine insisted, when I saw her in Israel the next week, and described the propagandistic techniques Avi used in his narration. She worked for Aish Ha’Torah in Israel. ‘When you think about the spiritual holocaust of intermarriage that plagues us today, you realise that we’re losing more souls than we did in World War Two. So if he could get those students to have a sense of their Jewish identity by any means then he must. Then they can go to their colleges and get involved in Israel advocacy.’
We continued through Auschwitzland, pushing through the throngs of tourists. The buildings were clean and neat, the displays carefully considered. Groups of different nationalities wandered the streets between buildings which had been administrative, and had housed families of Nazi officials. Outside the final gas chambers we saw, that led to the exit, the doors scratched by fingernails of desperation, we passed a friendly kiosk where we could buy sweets, chips and hamburgers. I looked around for a life-size copy of one of the familiar pictures of a group of skeletal prisoners huddled behind a barbed wire fence, except with a hole cut out so visitors could stick their heads through for a photo opp. I didn’t see one, but it wouldn’t have surprised me.
In Krakow we stopped for lunch in a big green park. All the food had been brought with us from Israel. This is a common practise amongst Holocaust tourists, who want to come witness the sites for themselves while pumping as little money into the Polish economy as possible. The city of Krakow was cosmopolitan and charming. The streets were lined with little bistros and charismatic pubs, filled with young people laughing, having a beer with their friends. This appealing city was the site of such death and pain that I cannot comprehend it, find it impossible to understand. The very walls of the ghetto were designed to look like tombstones, so that the Jews would have no illusions as to where they were headed. These constant reminders of the Nazis’ attention to detail, of their ability to use any opportunity for torture, chilled me.
Back on the bus we watched Schindler’s List. In the seat behind me someone said, ‘do you think we’ll be much longer? I really want to get to Lublin. They say it has amazing nightlife.’
The guys from the South African group got on famously with the American girls. There was lots of flirting and giggling. I didn’t know how to understand this. I felt like I was storing up all this evidence of trauma and violence and had no release valve. I could hardly speak, and remained silent unless addressed. It was confusing. I have never defined myself as Jewish only in terms of the Holocaust, even though it has been a common theme throughout my education. But I also didn’t identify with my fellow tourists. Hitler would have found us all equally Jewish though. What did that mean about me, about my sense of self? Would I proudly stand alongside this group of people and be shot into a mass grave?
Our next stop was a beautiful forest. The trees were green, and there were flowers and mosses, the birds sang ceaselessly in the trees. I could imagine fairytales being written in this place, fanciful and magical. Then we arrived at an open copse which was fenced off. Further along were more fences. Some painted white, some blue. These were the mass graves of thousand of nameless people, shot down over pits. The same thing happened all over the country, in similar forests.
We went to the town of Tarnow. Some of the buildings lining the main square dated back to pre-war times. They were quaint and beautiful. People rode by on bicycles, children kicked a soccer ball. Two old men sat on a bench in the sunshine. In this square Jews were forced to sit on their knees without moving for two days. Anyone who looked up off the ground was shot instantly. They were humiliated and tortured. This square, so refined and sophisticated, was witness to such pain and suffering I expected to see blood come seeping up between the paving stones.
Before I came to Poland I didn’t understand what my grandmother meant when she told me I’d be walking on the blood of her family. But then I saw beautiful forests fertilized by bodies shot down in their prime, the towns and villages marked by silences and emptiness, the cemeteries neglected because no one is left to look after them, and I felt like I could begin to understand what she was talking about. And when we got back to Israel and walked the ancient stone-lined streets to the Western Wall, I did feel a sense of justice; and a sense of myself as Jewish that I had never felt before.