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WARNING: Some readers may find this article disturbing.
TRAVEL: by Eric Mackenzie Lamb
Usually, my travel pieces feature destinations which consist of a combination of stunning natural beauty, an off the beaten track location, as well as things to do and see- all of which, one hopes, leaves readers with a positive sense from learning at least something they hadn’t known before. Of course, one of the most important goals of any such story is to also share the location’s history. But, sadly, it may not always turn out to be what you really want to know. This is one example. To read through to the end, you will have to sacrifice some emotions. As for myself, I have to admit that writing this wasn’t easy.
A few months ago, when Covid-19 related lockdowns in Europe weren’t as strict as they are today and driving across borders was still relatively easy, I decided to take a shortcut through Poland on my way back from Eastern Europe to Switzerland. My first overnight stop was in the Polish city of Kraków.
After breakfast the following morning, I booked a taxi and asked the driver to take me to one of the city’s lesser known attractions: the birthplace of Helena Rubinstein, who founded a global cosmetics empire and, while doing so, became one of the world’s richest women of her time.
Dedicated to Rubinstein, ( whose original first name was Chaja and who had lived next door before leaving Poland for Australia to escape an arranged marriage) the Hotel Rubinstein was originally a 15th century tenement building which fell into severe disrepair after World War II. Following years of extensive and painstaking renovations, it’s now a Four Star hotel located in the heart of Kazimierz, once known as Kraków’s Jewish Ghetto district. As for Helena Rubinstein’s own life, her extraordinary adventures and accomplishments, as well as her travels, would make an unforgettable story in itself. (A renowned businesswoman, philanthropist, and art collector, she died in New York City in 1965, at the age of 92).
When I walked back to the taxi, the driver asked me whether I’d like to continue on to the Auschwitz Holocaust Museum. It was less than an hour’s drive away, he added, and still early enough to join one of the museum’s escorted tours. At first, I hesitated, unsure of whether I wanted to undergo an experience which would darken what otherwise would have been a normal day of sightseeing, taking pictures, and scribbling down notes. (Some years ago, I had briefly visited Birkenau, another camp only a few miles from Auschwitz, where hundreds of thousands of Holocaust victims, including women, children, disabled persons, and the elderly, had been transported in brutally-packed trains from all parts of Nazi-occupied Europe to an infamous place where their lives would be snuffed out like a candle. But more on that later). In the end, my answer was Yes. And that’s when an overwhelming feeling of apprehension began. How does one even begin to contemplate a place where more than 1.1 million human beings were exterminated?
As things turned out, tours of the concentration camp were arranged in separate groups according to languages spoken by their participants. At no time was there even the slightest hint of commercialization. It was all about history and what each of us could learn from it. Many of the multilingual guides, we later learned, were themselves descendants of those who had survived the horrors of Auschwitz. As we walked in silence from building to building, each with its own exhibit, I couldn’t help but think of the number of people in the world who still deny that the Holocaust ever happened. In fact, many of today’s younger generation have never even heard of it. What we were now seeing with our own eyes made that fact even more incomprehensible.
After about an hour and a half, our group re-boarded our tour bus and continued on to the adjacent camp of Birkenau, about three miles away. It was here where the trains arrived with their human cargo, and where their fate would be decided by the simple wave of an SS officer’s hand. To the left if you were judged fit to work. To the right for anyone deemed unfit, including women and children, who were immediately marched into what they were told was a shower-but was in fact a gas chamber. Doors were locked, after which cans of lethal Zyklon-B would be dropped into the room through the ceiling. Less than twenty minutes later, everyone was dead. This was followed immediately by collection of the bodies and their transportation to the crematoriums. (But not before items considered to be of value, like jewelry, wedding rings, and even gold teeth, had been removed).
Then came the next wave of unsuspecting victims.
Finally, as an ending to this grim story, I’ll return to what I mentioned in the beginning of this article: this was not my first visit to Birkenau. Years ago, long before the railway yards were included as part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, I stopped here while driving from Sweden to what was then East Germany -officially called the German Democratic Republic-and eventually on to West Berlin. I remember it as clearly as it were yesterday. The place was totally deserted. It was a chilly overcast November morning, with not a single person to be seen. All I could hear was the screeching of crows as they dipped and bobbed overhead.
Straight ahead of me lay a platform with railway tracks on each side. To my left I could see rows of small buildings, each about the size of a garage, which, from what I’d already learned, had served as temporary shelters for those incoming prisoners who’d been selected as fit to work. Overcome by curiosity, not to mention a strange sense of foreboding, I approached the nearest hut, found its door unlocked, and cautiously stepped inside.
The first thing I saw were eight crude bunks, four on each side, each built on top of the other. A rusted metal bucket, which had almost certainly served as a primitive toilet, stood in a corner. The stench of mold was almost overwhelming. But what really got my attention was the graffiti scribbled on the walls. Most were in languages I didn’t understand, but one faded message in particular, written in what appeared to be Italian, was clear: God Almighty, please save us.
It was at that moment that I heard a strange sound . At first, I thought that it was wind making its way through cracks in the wooden shutters. But then, standing by the door, I realized that there was no wind at all outside. But the sound only increased and gradually began to fluctuate between low and high pitches, like the desperate moaning of human voices. Then, as suddenly as it had begun, it stopped. For a few seconds, everything was dead quiet. Then it started again. And that’s when I finally realized what I was hearing. I quickly walked back to my car and drove off.
Do I believe in ghosts? Not until that moment. But I do now.
May God rest their souls.