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First Person at Auschwitz Memorial, Fragments Suggest a Large, More Complex Story

February 3, 2005
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Moments of authenticity were hard to find amid the media and political circus that was the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. The “authentic” moments are those that slip in between the rehearsed speeches, the well-known warnings, the images everyone always sees of Birkenau’s gaping maw.

They are images, conversations, even sensations that stand out, or whose connections with each other may become evident only later, perhaps through dreams.

Jan. 26, 9:30 a.m.: A conversation overheard in a train in Berlin, while on the way to the airport for the flight to Poland. A German woman, about 50 years old, comments to a Norwegian journalist on his way to Auschwitz, “You know, people don’t remember anymore that the first ones the Nazis killed were the handicapped. I guess it’s because the handicapped don’t have a lobby.”

8 p.m.: At the Krakow state museum. Hundreds of survivors and members of Jewish delegations from around Europe enjoy a sit-down dinner, accompanied by a klezmer band wearing 1940s-style caps. Some say bread and water would have been more appropriate. Others say no, this is a time to celebrate life.

Jan. 27, 7:30 a.m.: Boarding buses to the Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial. Journalists lugging equipment, sipping coffee, chatting. More than an hour later, the buses pull up in front of the yawning gate of Birkenau, the train tracks completely covered in snow.

9 a.m.: Impatient to get in to the camp memorial, lines of journalists stamp their feet in the cold and light cigarettes. The slow process of security checks begins. At last inside the camp, the long walk between the barracks of Birkenau begins.

The brick buildings that once housed prisoners stand in fields of fresh snow. Their blank windows reflect the figures of people trudging past. Peering inside, one can see rows of wooden bunks separated by brick walls. Snow has come in through the roof and collected in the corners. Thick dust lies on the wooden planks of the bunks.

Polish TV trucks are parked outside one of the brick buildings. On its door is scratched a star of David, a recent graffito. Past the ruins of a crematorium, two Polish security police wearing black stride through the snow, pulled along by eager police dogs.

As survivors, politicians and others arrive for the ceremony, the atmosphere of reunion hovers. Remains of the camp stand all around — cement posts still strung with taut barbed wire, the electrical fittings long since dead, now draped with gleaming icicles. A broken crematorium draped in snow. Candles have been placed around the ruins.

2:30 p.m.: Smoke begins to billow: Fires have been lit in the memorial over the crematorium. Politicians deliver speeches and you can read along in pamphlets handed out to guests, who sit wrapped in blankets handed out by young Polish scouts.

When the speeches end, an older woman wearing a white shirt grabs the microphone and lifts up her arm to show her tattoo. “They took my name away and gave me a number. Why?” she says to the startled crowd.

5 p.m.: Dusk has fallen and guests are fleeing the deepening shadows. Two women, both former prisoners at Auschwitz, walk along the path between the barracks, speaking French. They board their buses and begin the long wait until the politicians have been whisked away.

Sitting in a bus, a German TV journalist comments on the presence of Israeli soldiers at the ceremony, “They should know better than to do the same thing to other people today.”

“Excuse me, is there an Auschwitz in Israel or Palestine today?”

“Well no — but Israel is a democracy and it should be held to a higher standard.”

Someone on the bus hands out a leaflet in English, which blames a conspiracy of Germany and Israel for reducing the estimated number of those murdered in Auschwitz. The theory goes that in return for more reparation money, Israel agreed to make Germany look better by saying fewer people were murdered. Naturally, it adds, the Jewish-controlled press is part of the conspiracy. Strange how these theories can work in any direction, to make the number of dead smaller or larger. But nobody worries whether it makes sense.

6:30 p.m.: It’s now completely dark outside, but the bus still sits, waiting, outside the gates of Birkenau. A symbolic searchlight sweeps through the blackness, illuminating the open mouth of the camp gate from behind.

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