Krakow surprised us. The city seemed intact despite the upheavals that shook Poland during the last century. With the Soviet grime wiped from its face, the former Polish capital shows the architectural features inherited from its earlier, Austrian occupation. It was Krakow's western appearance that persuaded Hitler to spare it from the total destruction that was Warsaw's fate. Before exploring the city my wife Ruta and I made plans to travel the 25 miles to the village of Oswiecim, the site of the two Nazi concentration camps that together are commonly referred to as Auschwitz.
The tour bus to Auschwitz gathered travelers at several hotels as it made its way out from the center of the city. Some who boarded were geared for a day at Disneyland: huge baggy shorts, cartoon character T-Shirts, and baseball caps advertising Polish beer. Others seemed wrapped in a self-conscious somberness. Maybe, like us, they were struggling to reconcile the fact of their vacation with a day trip to a place whose purpose was the extermination of human beings.
After 45 minutes we passed through Oswiecim -- a scattering of high-peaked houses with tended yards and barking dogs -- the sort of village in which grandparents might live. It must have been a pleasant setting until the next-door neighbor arrived. As the Auschwitz camp came into view a low din arose as passengers began reaching for their coats, zipping fanny packs, and fumbling with digital cameras. By the time we pulled into the parking lot the bus had become quiet; the hum of the air conditioner was all that kept us from total silence.
When I stepped from the bus I heard the faint singing of birds perched in the tall poplar trees beyond the perimeter of the camp. Less than 100 yards ahead stood orderly rows of red, brick buildings.
Now the name had a place.
Those from our bus walked together through the notorious gates over which is written the suggestion that work would spare the lives of those who entered. Several visitors smiled for pictures posed with the gate in the background. I don't believe they understood the black irony of the slogan.
Inside the visitor's center, the first gallery displayed a group of photographs taken when the Red Army liberated the camp in January of 1945. Large blocks of Polish text accompanied the images of the Auschwitz dead, stacked like rotting cords of wood, and the survivors, whose eyes seemed able to process the lights and shapes of objects, if not their meaning. A dozen tour guides were translating the captions into a multitude of languages, which made it impossible for me to focus on the English version. To be fair, there are no words in any language adequate to describe what the eyes see in these photographs. Silence would have been a more instructive narrator.
One haunting exhibit displayed a collection of empty suitcases of various size and color. This luggage had held the belongings of families forced to abandon their homes by the Nazis. Their owners must have griped them tight as they hurried their children and elderly parents to catch departing trains. They wanted to believe the official promises that they were being transported to safe locations. Now the empty suitcases reveal the emptiness of those promises. Hundreds of them pile atop one another, most with their address tags still attached.
Our next stop was the site of what the euphemistically inclined Nazis referred to as the 'crematoria.' Here those whose death had ended their usefulness to the Nazi war engine were rendered into exhaust.
By January 1945, the allied forces were sweeping towards the ultimate prize of Berlin. With Auschwitz in the path, the camp's officers and guards began a frantic retreat to Germany. The remaining prisoners -- some 60,000 of them -- starving and sick, yet still ambulatory, were forced to join this westward evacuation. Fewer than 8000 survived the march through the frozen Polish forests. The barracks, the gas chamber and the ovens were blown into rubble to destroy the incriminating evidence.
The ovens we saw have been reconstructed from the original blueprints using hardware and brick salvaged on the site. A pair of train rails had been laid to accommodate the trolleys that delivered the dead into their gaping iron doors. The ashes drifting from the smoke stacks had been good fertilizer for the Oswiecim forest. On windless days the ashes had hung in the air, making village housewives reluctant to take their laundry outdoors to dry.
Returning to the bus, we saw a bearded man in a black suit outside the camp's entrance. Long brown pais dangled from under his soft-brimmed hat. He was rocking back and forth over a votive candle set on the camp's iconic dead-end rail tracks. His eyes appeared closed so tightly that it seemed he might never open them again.
Ruta and I huddled in our seats for the ride back, nodding off to sleep until the tour guide took up her scratchy microphone to bring our attention to numerous points of local interest. We arrived in Krakow after sunset, hypnotized by countless illuminated church spires that burned like altar candles high above the city.
As we made our way to our own hotel, we stopped at the Copernicus for a drink. The Copernicus is an inspiring hotel built around the circular stone atrium of what had been a medieval residence for Catholic clerics. In honor of the Hotel's namesake the ancient tower has a modern glass roof, perfect for stargazing.
After our first drink we began to talk about our trip to Auschwitz. We had walked the ground where 1,000,000 human beings had been led to slaughter like animals. But animals are herded through the pens unaware of their fate. The souls who passed under the iron gates of Auschwitz soon knew they were living out the last of their days.
Our conversation had no more intensity then had we spent the day on the site of an historic battlefield or ancient cemetery. True, knots of anger rose and fell in our throats, but we confessed that the experience left us less moved then we had expected. It was possible that all we knew and felt about Auschwitz before our visit had overwhelmed the brick and mortar reality of the place.
But even with our expectations taken into account, there was something missing.
Maybe we are unable to comprehend suffering of this magnitude. In the presence of its ghostly remnants, we maintain the capacity to feel for others, but not the ability to feel like them. In our own lives, we pass through moments of fear; moments of altered reality when we pray, "This can't be happening." But these are infrequent occurrences. We can't conjure them up to feel the collective fear of people who lived in a world where terror was the rule rather than the exception.
We paid for our drinks and left the Copernicus more inclined than before to believe that our position at the center of our personal universe was immovable.
On following day, we took a bus tour to Wieliczka, a small town about an hour's ride east of Krakow. Though its inhabitants number no more than 3000, Wieliczka is widely known in Poland for its astonishing salt mine. Salt has been mined at Wieliczka since the prehistoric age, when salt's ability to preserve food meant the difference between life and starvation. Now a tourist destination, the mine's elevator shaft juts up from the earth adjacent to a building resembling a Bavarian tram station. We skipped the explanatory displays inside the building and bought our elevator tickets. Ten minutes later we were reeling down into the cool, blue domain -- the shaft rising past us like a square hole bored into a frozen ocean.
Despite salt's reputation as a danger to health, it hasn't dampened the spiritual energy of the Wieliczka miners. Down in the gloom, working on their own time, they have carved rock salt into hundreds of rapturous religious sculptures. It seems that anybody who ever got a mention in the Bible has been represented in the vast mine. In a dim alcove the Holy Family radiates their bliss --Turn a corner and find a tableau of the Apostles chiseled into the walls of an intimate chapel, and on a pedestal tucked in a corner, a searching St. Peter casts his net for souls.
Wieliczka's masterpiece is its soaring cathedral vault. The altar, the Bishop's Arm and the chapels have been carved from salt, as has been a crucifix, sculpted in emotional detail. Despite the absence of sunlight pouring through stained glass, the cathedral evokes a sense of awe. It continues to serve its flock who come here to celebrate their weddings and christenings
The day before, in Oswiecim, wild grass swayed in the pine-scented breeze. Birds sailed below silver clouds. The Wieliczcka salt mine is a tomb, oblivious to pine, birds and sky -- yet here is Heaven, there was Hell.
Several hundred steps beyond the cathedral we caught the first gleam of sunlight seeping down into the elevator chamber. This was where the tour ended and despite the marvels of the mine, we were ready to return to the surface.
We were among the first to enter the chamber and Ruta and I were confident that we would soon be riding the next car out. We became a part of the group walking four abreast towards the elevator. A low wooden fence with a swinging gate controlled the entrance to the boarding area. A tall woman holding a clipboard stood before the entryway. She looked out over the crowd, moving her lips to count our numbers. Satisfied, she swung open the gate and the human stream began to flow through the breach
A small Italian tour group was first, followed by a squad of Polish soldiers on leave. My wife entered next, walking beside a bearded student in a faded Bob Marley T-shirt. I was about step forward when a hefty family of six barged in before me. After they squeezed through I took a forward step.
The brown clipboard swooped down in front of my chest, halting me as if it was a railroad gate. "Wait! Wait!" the woman said.
I froze for a second and then faced the gatekeeper. "I'm with her," pointing towards my wife, who by now had walked 20 feet ahead, and still assuming that I was the warm body in the T-Shirt behind her.
The woman brushed me off as she watched a large church group file through an auxiliary entrance gate. The size of the group removed any doubt in her mind that the elevator's capacity had been reached. "Next car! Next Car!" she announced and then pressed her face into the important paperwork clamped to her clipboard.
Ruta had at last turned and noticed that I was not the German Bob Marley fan. She looked at me with a face both puzzled and amused. I waved "Good bye." She shrugged and disappeared into the crowded car. The accordion doors slammed shut and the elevator jerked up like a bucket yanked from a well. I watched it climb out of sight.
In that fleeting moment, my universe shifted. In that moment, I felt like them. With their suitcases packed, the trains rolling away, fearing what they could not admit, that those on the trains and those left behind would never see each other again. It was just a moment.
Twenty minutes later, Ruta and I reunited in the visitor's center. She looked at me with feigned sorrow in her eyes. "You promised", she whispered, " we would never be apart," I played along with the melodrama and pulled her very close -- never letting on that it wasn't an act.