I put my name down at random. With so much fear! After coming across the advertisement. I didn’t know then that it was possible to go there. So easily if I may say so.
Nelle and the boys wouldn’t understand. What would I go there for? I myself haven’t got the slightest idea. Except the idea that I must make the journey. Go to the cemetery. The largest, the vastest in the world.
Nelle and the boys think it’s utter madness. That I’m crazy. Would come back even crazier.
I am calm. Strangely calm. Since the moment when I put my name down. In a kind of altered state. Myself and already someone different. Although I know I took the right decision.
Nelle asks me to find the block where her mother was. My mother in law’s request. I promise to go there. Without understanding the implications. The consequences. The emotion.
When I park the car at the airport, I’m frightened. I don’t know anything about the day I am facing.
Meeting people is already in itself an ordeal.
On my own in the huge terminal where crowds of people are hurrying, I cry thousands of inner tears. How will I manage to hold out all the day through being under so much pressure.
In the eyes of the people taking part. I attempt to be invisible. Although no one sees me, I look up cautious. Dizzy from the hubbub around us.
Have got to prove myself. Go beyond the suffering. The mess of my whole life.
My eyes hunt for the others. Waiting serenely. I reckon the unfairness. Most of them are with their family or with relatives. At least their friends. Not unusual to see 2 or 3 generations making the journey. Parents, children, grandchildren. It makes me feel envious.
Inside the plane, I feel terrible. Still disturbed to go there where I don’t feel like going. And while we are at it, without anyone by my side. Such family unfairness when, once again, I’m its only representative.
In the bus driving us, I watch sad Poland. Dull and grey through the window. Like the screen set in front of us. To face or know about the Holocaust. Keeping at a distance. Disturbing. At home. Our neighbors. Everybody.
I’m standing in the line. Before getting into the camp, I can notice the sign “Arbeit Macht Frei” ruling imposingly above our heads. I can feel my heart breaking into pieces. I feel like telling or yelling: I carry a Dibouk. The Dibouk of my uncle. I don’t yell. What would be the point? Even here, I know they wouldn’t understand. I choose to keep silent. This sign deceives the visitor. It wasn’t there all throughout the war. I can’t remember the moment when it took hold of the camp.
Walking through the gate I say to myself I’m home. At home. I’ve always been here and there at the same time. Like a man living at two different times. In two different places.
I can’t cry. Tears won’t flow. I’m stone-cold. My heart as cold as stone. I’m not trying to be moved. Not trying to soften my emotions. I’m here to understand. I’m here to share a day in Auschwitz. With my uncle. To make his burden lighter. With an aching soul.
I’m here to experience 1942 Auschwitz. I can hardly imagine what life was like in the camp during the war. I can’t hear the orchestra play, I can’t hear the calling of the names with the hours of humiliations and the blows in the biting cold.
The sun is out today. I can’t feel the cold unlike those who were here before me. My feet aren’t frozen by the ice, the mud, the snow.
Real Auschwitz isn’t Auschwitz as told in the books. Auschwitz today is an Auschwitz without the smells. Almost without a soul.
The souls are living in the body of Auschwitz. I can feel them all around. They are stagnant. They are glued to the place. They haven’t left the place. How could they have left?
I can hear their whispers. In the silence of death. They are still frightened. They wonder about our presence. Among them, I look for my uncle. I can’t find him.
I follow a group. Surrounding a guide. It just doesn’t work that way. I’m visiting a museum. I am not in Auschwitz. Auschwitz is not what I can see now.
I feel like I’ve lived here before. I can’t find my way around. It’s as if I was somebody else, somebody who won’t let me go. I try to put my steps in his steps. Touch the things he touched, I’m not sure I can do it.
I’m looking for the infirmary, the K.B., the Revier where Ephraim was assassinated. Can’t find it. I’m not sure. Information is vague. I haven’t planned the day.
I relied on what Primo Levi wrote in “If This Is A Man”: “The Revier is composed of 8 barracks totally similar to the other barracks but separated from the rest of the camp by barbed wire.”
I follow the group. We walk into Block 11. The Block of Death. Death is everywhere though. The guide goes on talking. Pale as death, I can hear his words. I don’t have any emotion. Summary tribunals. Places of torture. Prison. In the basement. Executions. Gassing.
I walk past the execution zone, the Black Wall where the SS executed thousands of prisoners. The words of our guide. I try to imprint this wall, this area on my memory in order to remember. I’m unable to. Images are overflowing.
Primo Levi was deported in 1944. The K.B. evolved according to the needs. First in Block 16 (which was to become 20), it developed in Block 15 (which was to become 21), then again in Block 21 (which was to become 28).
In 1941, Block 20 is intended for the “Muslims.” Later, it will extend to Block 19. Then…
I walk into Block 20. The Block for Belgian and French deportees. I get lost amid the pictures. Is this the place where my uncle was? I wonder. What about this empty space my eyes settle upon? A place of memory much too large. Just for one man.
I don’t get into Block 19 where Ephraim stayed from September 8th to September 16th, 1942. I forgot to bring the note telling that this is Auschwitz infirmary. Telling that he was in in Block or Commando 17. Such confusing information. For the psyche.
I hang about. Outdoors. I feel the need to get nearer to some people I know. I go along with the group. Facing the gas chambers. I become aware. Getting inside. A place like Hell. The cries of people suffocating. The sounds of death. Just before dying. I imagine I can hear the moaning getting weaker, then stop. I can see the pile of bodies. The last convulsive movements of corpses. The last breath. Living beings dying.
The SS watching through the Judas holes. The extermination of my people.
I slide towards the wall. I can touch it. I scratch it. Like those who were here before. Before dying. Helpless. In full turmoil. I get out. Paralyzed. Shattered. Suffocating. I can’t see anything. I can’t see anything anymore. I saw nothing of Auschwitz. I tell myself. Except the most important. A few steps from the crematorium. My throat is sore. From the air or the thick smoke in the pictures.
I follow the others. In the lane, some have stopped. No one to talk to. Hang on. I walk into the Canada. On the other side of the camp. I feel. I experience. Now a tragedy. The tragedy of my people. At the sight of heaps of suitcases. With the names of Jewish families. Everything and nothing. Piled up. Stolen. The asshole (arsehole) of the world.
We leave Auschwitz I. We start The March of The Living. In contrast with the March of the Dying. The evacuation of the camps. At the allies’ approach.
My heart bleeding. On the road. I stare at the Poles staring at us. On the road sides.
I can see a flag. Then another. And another. Delegations have come from all around the world.
I can see ahead of me. Hope. From the road. From a flag. Which opens onto the world. With the Star of David. The flag flutters in the wind. High and proud. Like the head that waves the flag.
We get there after 4 kilometers. The distance from Auschwitz I to Birkenau. The gate of Auschwitz II-Birkenau is huge. I feel dizzy. The train tracks enter the camp. I can see the last ramp where the Jews were selected, sorted out before the slaughter, the gassing.
I can hear my uncle’s voice telling the train. The weakness of those who quenched their burning thirst by drinking their urine, the strength of those who resisted the urge.
The words of my friend telling the secret disclosed by her stepfather at the time of her marriage when she was eighteen.
Whereas he didn’t breathe a word to his sons. Two sturdy fellows.
I kept silent for a long time. I couldn’t stand it any longer. I explained to my husband the discretion of his father. In the trains, starving, they had eaten corpses.
The rows of the barracks of the deportees spread. As far as the eye can see. Just like the crowd. Hurrying towards a large platform where the personalities of the moment will deliver a speech. I exchange a few trivial words with people I vaguely know. Waiting for the peak of the visions, of the emotion, of my solitude to calm down.
I’m in search of the barrack of my mother-in-law. I get lost among them. The numbering is different according to the periods or the maps. Can’t find it sorry.
I go back to the crowd. My emotions are wandering. Lonely. I’m in communion with the people gathered. Flags like banners. New spear for a rebelling people. Rising up against injustice. From the yellow star to the blue star. They love hating the Jews.
I walk around the ruins. Of the gas-chambers. Of the crematorium. Of the stakes on which the corpses were burnt in the open.
I look up when the planes of IDF, Israel Defense Forces, fly over Auschwitz. While the young people cover the land with regained pride. Or wrap up in it. I’m not afraid any more. To be a Jew.
Just like Phoenix rises from his ashes, I rise from my ashes. The ashes of the Jewish people.
And if one hates Israel, that’s just because one hates the Jews.
In the bus back, Poland looks still as dreary. Whereas I feel like laughing my life, living my life. I put Auschwitz away in a place it should have always belonged to. In a compartment of the memory. Not in the whole psyche. Of the imagination.
(Manuscript–The Ghost Carrier: Chapter 113–Freddy Win)
(Translated from French by Eliane Jean-Jochvedson and Kate Jackson)