We have just returned from our first visit to Upper Silesia/ Oberschlesien – now Górny Śląsk – an area in the west of Poland, bordering Germany and Czechoslovakia.
We weren’t able to make it a long trip because of work commitments, but it was probably enough for this first visit – enabling me to copy family records, see something of the country, take some photographs, collect my thoughts, and make some assessments.
Planning our trip
It was a difficult trip to plan. A couple of months ago, I got out a map and started to think about where we would go. We were looking at an area spanning Kraków to Wrocław. Some towns were a given, because we knew that if records existed anywhere they would be in particular places. And the family properties in small towns and cities also made some choices of location obvious.
However, as I scanned the map of Poland with family places in mind, I found it difficult to see beyond my knowledge of the place names as death camps, forced labour camps, and ghettoes: Białystok, Treblinka, Auschwitz/Oświęcim, Gross-Rosen/Rogoźnica, Szebnie, Gleiwitz/Gliwice, Birkenau/Brzezinka, Janina/Libiaż, Sosnowiec, Kielce, Klettendorf/Klecin, Kraków-Płaszów, Gogolin, Markstadt/Jelcz-Laskowice, Majdanek, Gross Masselwitz/Maślice Wielkie, Sakrau/Zakrzów … and that’s before you get to ‘incidents’ at Tarnów, Częstochowa, Zbilatowska Gora …
There were days when I felt I couldn’t keep on planning what was essentially a holiday that would take place on the ashes and mass graves of my family and our people.
Yet, I kept on looking at the map, and in my heart and in my head I kept on planning – despite these feelings. Something broader, deeper, seems to draw us on to find out where we come from …
In practical terms, we found an excellent couple of maps with kind help from the patient, knowledgeable staff at Stanfords in Covent Garden. We ordered a highly detailed road map that we expect to use again for future visits – Poland: ExpressMap Road Atlas 2015/2016 (www.stanfords.co.uk).
And so the day came: with a certain amount of trepidation we arrived at Krakow airport to beautiful blue skies and warm sunshine. And as we rode in the car towards the city centre, I made some notes to remind myself of how I felt when I first arrived here.
So what occurs to me on this first trip to the land of our fathers? It's like a poor man's Switzerland, is my first 'almost-objective' thought... We are driving through the outskirts of Kraków and the houses are clustered, alpine, yet there is a sense of so much space beyond. There remain - even here - hints of forests. A huge white church with green minarets on a hill. The land of my father. Under any normal circumstances I would have been making this trip to see my family - wondering behind which doors a warm embrace would wait. Instead - I'm wondering what it is that I am feeling - having touched down on the soil where my family were killed - where my people were so nearly obliterated. Yet it is warm - much warmer than home, and sunny, and almost familiar - and yet not - a strange mix of chalet cute and Eastern block concrete ... What do I feel? A very strong sense that this is where I originate...
My first impressions were thus unexpected. I didn’t feel fear: I didn’t feel anger, or defensive, but warm – and keenly curious. It was, as I say, unexpected. I had tried to have no expectations – not to pre-empt. But with my background and my reading experiences, that was always going to be an impossible ‘ask’.
We soon arrived in Kraków to a lovely hotel in the old part of town – very far from the grey eastern-block architecture I had worried about from the perspective of a traveller who likes her comfort. We had a quick look around, a spot of dinner on a picturesque, still-sunny square, and headed for bed ahead of an early start for Pless/Pszczyna the next day.
Tuesday morning was to be our first meeting with Malgosia. Malgorzata Ploszaj was first mentioned to me some months ago by a genealogist I had emailed to ask about some family names – whom I had found by chance on the web. He pointed me to Malgosia initially because I had mistranslated a family place name from German to Polish, and had thought they were from her home town of Rybnik.
In Rybnik, Malgosia helps families find traces of their Jewish ancestors lost in the holocaust. Having seen Spielberg’s Schindler’s List around 11 years ago – and living not far from Kraków, in which the film is set – she was moved to help the descendants of Rybnik’s Jewish community. She also carries out research in other areas of Poland from time to time, and cooperates with the excellent Virtual Shtetl. She loves to visit Jewish cemeteries, and has been to almost 300 of them in present-day Poland. I suspect that there’s a lot more to it than this, but Malgosia’s modus operandi did not include talking about herself – her focus was on making the best use of the little time we had to find our documents and places, which we appreciated very much. By the time we arrived here, Malgosia had already carried out weeks of work on our behalf. This first visit will always be remembered with thanks to Malgosia for her generous time given to help us find our Jewish roots.
Pless / Pszczyna
And so we drove down roads bounded by gorgeous early summer green trees and fields, through picturesque villages, and arrived at Pless, where my father was born. How far I had travelled to reach this place – in so many ways.
We parked the car and walked up to the square to meet Malgosia, who was to be our guide through that day and the next at the record offices we could never have navigated without her expert assistance and language skills.
The first place I saw as I entered the market square was grandfather Leopold’s shopfront. We had looked it up on Google Streetmaps, so I knew what I was looking for (see photograph below).
13 Rynek, Pless / Pszczyna
It now seems to be a tiny florists, a finance place of some kind, and flats above. The market square was very quiet – with shop fronts painted in pastel colours. It had a picture-book feel to it.
I am grateful to have seen Pless like this, in bright sunshine, on a peaceful day. In my dad’s day, I suppose, the square would have echoed to the sound of horses’ hooves rather than the occasional delivery van, but this was as near to the feel of the town as it was then as I could possibly come in the present. It was good to think of him somewhere like this – as having known this pretty, peaceful place as part of his troubled early life.
We soon had to head across the square to the local archives, however – it had taken us novices far longer to get here from Kraków than we had expected, and the archive was only open for a few hours that day – that week, in fact, as there was a national Catholic holiday on Thursday. The archives in Poland generally have limited opening hours, though, so time was always against us on the two days we’d set aside for these initial record searches.
I have to admit that I didn’t expect to find much in Poland by way of family records. Having searched so fruitlessly for so long, I’d about given up hope of finding traces of them.
However, after showing my passport and some form filling – all guided and translated by Malgosia – I was able to see and to obtain a copy of my dad’s original German birth certificate. We had always had a later copy of a Polish version of dad’s birth certificate, but this was the first time I’d seen the original German one. It was another extraordinary proof of my dad’s life – here, in his birth town.
Even better – I was able to see my grandfather’s handwriting for the first time – his signature on his son’s birth certificate. It must have been a very proud moment.
Ratibor: a brief visit
We couldn’t stay longer in Pless that day, because we wanted to get to the archives at Ratibor (OS) (now Racibórz), where our home records suggested that Rosa had died. The archives were due to close a couple of hours later, so the journey was something of a rush.
When we arrived, the archivist looked up Rosa’s name, but there was nothing about her here. As records in Ratibor are apparently complete, it seems we have the wrong location and I will need to do some further research on Margot’s mother’s place of death.
With the time it would take us to drive back to Krakow, this was all we could fit into that first full day. We drove Malgosia back to Rybnik, and returned to the still-warm city for another outdoor dinner and a good night’s sleep.
Gliwice / Gleiwitz
The next day was to be our first visit to Gliwice/Gleiwitz, from where Else and Hermine had been deported. This was never going to be an easy day, but the regional state archives were here, and so we set off.
It took us a couple of hours in the heavy traffic but we arrived with reasonable time remaining to be able to search for records – and we had far more success than I had ever hoped for or even imagined. Malgosia had already been here for a couple of hours when we arrived, and she had been as busy as ever on our behalf in the Gliwice archives (photograph below).
Certificates and documentation
Malgosia found me the birth certificate for grandfather Leopold, signed by my great-grandfather Albert; this document also gave me Leopold’s mother’s name – Bettina – which I hadn’t known previously. We also obtained copies of the marriage certificate for my great-grandparents Joseph Bloch and Hermine geb. Kohn, which gave a witness to the marriage as Wilhelm Kohn (probably a brother of Hermine, about whom I knew nothing til that moment). This search also gave us the names of Joseph’s parents – Adolph Bloch and Rosel geb. Cohn – so I was now back yet another generation on that side of the family too. I had never expected anything like this. Malgosia also found me the birth certificates for two of our ‘missing’ aunts – Hedel/Hedwig and Clara, who were thus confirmed as unmarried sisters of Leopold; and for Edgar, a little brother to the Weissenberg siblings, who sadly didn’t survive childhood.
I am gradually uploading photographs of these documents onto the relevant pages, which you can access by following the links attached to the names above.
(As a bit of local colour, I should add that while Malgosia and I were finding these documents, and while I was also looking through books of shop advertisements and searching through old address books, my husband was being very well looked after by the incredibly hospitable archivists in the next room, with home-made bread sticks, cups of tea, and delicious cheesecake … and helpful though they have often been, I have to say that we’ve never encountered this level of hospitality in an archive in the UK!)
Family locations in Gliwice
While we were here, we wanted to have a look around Gleiwitz and to see where the family had lived. In 1938, my grandparents and great-grandmother Hermine had to leave their home on the market square in Tost and they moved to a flat in Gleiwitz / Gliwice on Wernickestrasse / Królowej Bony. I already knew from a Google streetview search that number 10 was now a small car park, but the opposite side of the street was still as it would have been in the 1930s.
As we turned out of the state archives we realised that we were on Wernickestrasse: something about the realisation that we had been so near all that time had an odd effect, I think. Something had an odd effect, at any rate – which I didn’t get at any of the other places we visited where the family had lived. I’m not a spiritual person, but in this location I experienced an incredibly strong sense of walking and standing where my grandmother had been before me. It made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end, as they say.
It still seems strange to me that this feeling should have come upon me in the one place where there was no house to see.
From here, we went onto the main square for a cool drink on a hot day. The square in Gliwice is curious – much of it was destroyed in the war, so although it looks like an old square, most of what you see today has in fact been rebuilt pretty much from scratch.
I can’t say that I felt at ease in this town, and we soon moved on to find the last of our family locations in Gliwice – the apartment in which grandmother and great-grandmother were living when they were deported.
As an aside, for a moment – one of the things we discovered by being ‘on the ground’ in Poland was that wherever our family had lived, their homes and businesses were in close proximity to the synagogue – in most towns, I would guess it was a sign of status. Here in Gleiwitz, in the last place they lived, they were again just next door to the synagogue site, though here it was for different reasons. As elsewhere across Germany, the Gleiwitz synagogue had been burned to the ground during the November 1938 pogroms. The photograph above, on the left, is from the fascinating Museum of Family History website, and shows the Gliwice synagogue before 1938 – it had been built around 1860. The photograph on the right shows what has been placed on a wall just opposite the demolished site as a memorial to the synagogue – the graffiti on the wall sums up the feel of this area now, and suggests that perhaps little attention is paid to this site. It was rather depressing.
Niederwallstrasse / Dolnych Wałów
About six months before deportation, many Jews were moved to Niederwallstrasse – for what would only afterwards become obvious reasons of practicality. In part, this road was close to the railway station, which I didn’t even consider visiting, despite our proximity to it.
Over the preceding years, since 1933, many Jews like my family members had been moved gradually from their homes and businesses to bigger towns, cities and ghettoes – from where it was to be a straightforward military exercise to deport people en masse. Collecting individual families from villages and small towns for deportation would have been much more time-consuming and complex – and thus one starts to understand something of the National Socialist mind-set – of how ‘organised’ and planned this was. Not only did property and wealth thus acrue to the state as people were forced to leave it behind for ever-smaller premises, those same people were herded over time to the point at which it would have been a relatively straightforward task to then make a final round up and ship them off ‘to the East’, as the obscene euphemism had it. By this stage they would have lost track of friends and family, been traumatised and fearful, been impoverished, and been less able or willing to disobey state rulings.
From the main road, Niederwallstrasse looks like a decent place to live (see photograph below). However, Malgosia managed to get a resident to let us into the rear area of the building, which showed a somewhat different face.
Despite the well-documented over-crowding and the miserable, dirty, starvation conditions in which Jews were forced to live by now, it is notable that my grandmother Else almost never utters a word of complaint about their changed conditions in her letters. She once remarks (Letter: Gleiwitz, 20th July 1939) that washing day had left her exhausted – having to go up and down many stairs to a water source – but that is about it. I get the impression that she was a remarkable, stoic woman.
Moving on – Tószeg / Tost
That afternoon, we moved on to Tószeg, to the small town (then Tost) our family had settled in after Pless. As yet, I don’t know what propelled the move, though I do know in general terms that Jewish people had been moving out of Pless for some years by the time Leopold and Else moved to Tost.
Here, the family inhabited another house and shop on the market square (see photographs below). My husband noticed that the shop backed onto the site of the synagogue on the street behind it; in Pless, they had been just round the corner from the synagogue – I’m guessing this was an issue of position and prestige as much as it was anything to do with religion. As in Gleiwitz and across the whole region, the Tost synagogue was burned down in the November pogroms of 1938, and a house now stands on the site (see synagogue memorial photograph, above).
With the family shop on the square, it is difficult now to imagine the original house, because there have been so many changes and additions over the years, but it was still fascinating to see another family location.
Krakow for a day
On Thursday we needed to move from the hotel to a flat: because of the national holiday, the city was filling up, and we knew when we booked our room that the hotel at which we’d wanted to stay didn’t have availability all week. So, our first task of the day was to move to a neat little apartment at the other side of the city. It was a reasonably quick process, after which we went to visit Wawel Hill for an hour or so. We took the time to have a coffee, write a few postcards, and to have a wander around the outside of the buildings. We didn’t feel like going around the galleries: somehow, this whole visit still felt a bit strange, despite the hospitable welcome.
I suppose it was strange in part because I had always been told not to go to Germany – that it wasn’t safe – yet, this was no longer Germany. When Poland took over Silesia in the post-war era, the German population that had not already fled was forcibly expelled or imprisoned. These were not even the descendants of the same population – yet, it still felt strange – somewhat disembodied. It may feel different again on future trips: for this one, I did struggle with the general tourist trail itinerary.
Why? Driving back from one visit to a record office, Malgosia pointed out that the road we were driving along was one down which the death marches had passed; on another occasion, she mentioned that the ethereal forest to the side of the road held the site of a mass grave. In central Krakow, there is a monument to the Katyn massacre, but you have to go into the old Jewish quarter to find anything about Jewish massacres and deportations. In every small town we had visited, the Jewish presence was reduced not even to rubble – but to, at most, a memorial and a cemetery. It isn’t possible to be here and not be aware of what one is passing through and over.
Kazimierz: The Jewish district
Walking around central Krakow: people kept coming up to us to ask if we wanted a ‘trip to Auschwitz’ or the salt mines, which was disconcerting. No-one hassled us when we shook our heads, but it was odd to keep getting a tourist spiel for the site of the mass murder of our families. I was grateful that I had read before I went that this sometimes happened. I was to some extent prepared and thus not as shocked or offended as I might otherwise have been, but it did add to the unreal nature of the visit. Given that we couldn’t really get away from this history, then, a visit to the old Jewish quarter seemed like something we should do. We were probably both curious, and we had a half day left to explore the city. I couldn’t bring myself to ‘shop’, and we didn’t feel like ‘doing’ the galleries and museums, and so we decided on a visit to Kazimierz.
We walked down to the district through hot, quiet streets; only a few poor drunk people punctuated the silence, weaving around the pavements, shouting. All the shops we saw were closed because of the public holiday. We struggled to think of anything similar these days in the UK, and failed. Our shopkeepers tend to take the view that if there’s a holiday, there are people who want to spend money – so shops are very much open for business – except perhaps on Christmas Day. Again however, in Poland, the largely silent roads that led down to the Jewish quarter added to my increasing sense of the unreality of the experience of being here.
Kazimierz – the Jewish district: we spent some time in a bookshop full of holocaust tomes, and had a refreshing mint tea in an Israeli cafe; the main Jewish museum was closed because of the Catholic holiday. We wandered into the only other place that seemed to be open – which was also called a museum, but in fact was a holocaust photographic exhibition (the Galicia Jewish Museum). Are there not sufficient artefacts remaining here to keep two museums open? It would seem not, and when we also visited the rare, intact Isaac synagogue, we had an increased sense of just how much has been lost. When Jews were forced out of their homes and businesses, so much must have been left behind – where did it all go? Did everyone just burn the letters and photographs, and simply keep for themselves the paintings and furniture and clothes belonging to other people’s families? Even after the war when, surely, no one could continue to claim that they ‘didn’t know’?
I guess so.
It seems extraordinary to me how so many hundreds of thousands of people must have deluded themselves into a belief that there was no moral equivalence among the variety of losses enforced and experienced here.
This might sound like a stupid thing to say – naive, at best, by now – but somehow, being there on the ground impressed me with the enormity of the loss in a way that reading about it never could – and in relation to aspects of the Shoah that I had never before considered.
This is not to say that it was a gloomy trip – it wasn’t. I look forward to returning for further photographs and more family records, but it was certainly an odd trip – unreal despite the warm sun, brilliant blue skies, and the hospitality of the people we encountered.
Our last day – a return to Pless / Pszczyna
We had intended to take a day to go to Breslau/Wrocław, where my dad had been at university, but the train service between Kraków and Wrocław is terrible – very slow trains, and very few of them. So, we decided we would give that a miss and go somewhere closer, especially as we had to travel home the next day.
At the station, looking at where trains ran to, we briefly considered Tarnów, but similarly realised that what ought to be a short journey would take forever, and when we got there, according to Lonely Planet, there was an abbey and a holocaust memorial and that would be about it. I couldn’t face another memorial – more absence where lives should have been.
We decided instead to drive back to Pless. My husband wanted to look at the castle, and I quite liked the idea of having some more time there – we’d seen very little of it on Tuesday because of the imperative to find the records on the two days that week on which the record offices were open.
We had a pleasant, typically Polish lunch on the square, on a day that proved to be very different from our last visit. Where the market square on Tuesday had been almost silent, today was the long weekend formed by the national holiday, and it was packed with families. It was rather nice. When we lived in the Netherlands for a time, we used to joke that the national holiday pastime seemed to involve bringing the contents of shops from the inside out onto the pavements; and at the end of the day, putting them all back inside again. I dread to think what UK national holidays look like to visitors! In this corner of Poland, it seems to consist of families going out into the sunshine specifically to eat the most delicious-looking array of enormous ice-creams. While we had a leisurely lunch across the square from what I increasingly called ‘grandfather’s shop’, the ice-cream parlour next door had a long queue the entire time we were there – involving many happy faces – and many little sticky fingers too!
We entered Pszczyna castle and it was indeed worth the visit – a fascinating, unusual collection, throwing out all kinds of questions that we didn’t have time to get into. But among them was our wondering whether Leopold might have been a ‘go to’ man for any of the fancy items on display. After all, he imported all kinds of lovely fabrics and decorative items for homes; and his shop was diagonally across the square from the castle. Although I also wryly remarked that in being able to view the rooms like this, we probably got much further into the castle than any townsperson or Jewish shopkeeper would have done in the 1920s and 1930s.
While waiting for my husband to complete his more detailed tour of the armoury, I went back outside into the sunshine and had a look at the guide book, wondering what other Jewish sites there might be in the area. It mentioned the site of the old synagogue – now, disgracefully, a scruffy old cinema, with not so much as a memorial plaque – and the Jewish cemetery, some way out of town, of course.
We decided to make a brief visit to both. Looking at the cinema – and noting the absence of any kind of memorial in relation to the town’s Jewish inhabitants at the site of the synagogue, something changed inside me. It was picturesque here – but it was also about twelve miles from Auschwitz, and having once had a thriving Jewish community, the town seems content to forget. My stomach knotted, and for the first time since arriving in Poland, my heart hardened. I know people have to live in the present – in the here and now – and I know this is no longer Germany – but not even a memorial plaque? And a cheap, scruffy entertainment site where once stood the town’s Jewish focal point? I think I started to feel empty – cold, despite the warmth of the day.
Viscerally, I realised that I didn’t belong here.
One tiny area of grandfather’s shop now houses a florists. Earlier, after we had had lunch, I had gone into the shop and bought three roses: one deep red one, and two champagne pinks. I had a vague idea that I would press and keep them as a memento of Leopold and Else and my dad. A shaming part of my mind niggled away at me buying anything here, but I pushed that thought aside, wanting something – and knowing also that this thought was both unfair on the present owners, and unworthy of the context.
Pszczyna Jewish cemetery
The final place we could visit to commemorate the one-time Jewish community of Pless was the cemetery. In many places, this is all that is left now, and I have been told that most are in a terrible state.
We drove up the hill out of Pszczyna, following the guide book directions. My husband spotted a huge beflowered cemetery on the right and stopped, though I said this would not be the place. I knew about the state in which Jewish cemeteries have been left; he did not. I’d always lived with the knowledge of how we are perceived – as far back as I could recall; he had not. And indeed, this was a beautifully kept Catholic cemetery with flower sellers outside, a car parking area, and neat borders. It was very much still in use.
We left the car here and walked on up the hill. Crossing a busy road and a roundabout, we left the town further behind us, thinking we’d somehow missed it, when we glanced to our right and saw two of the town’s community waste bins.
There was no signage to the cemetery, but behind the bins was an old, dilapidated red brick archway with the Star of David above.
I guessed we had found the Jewish cemetery, and with it had a further sense of how some seem to view the past inhabitants of their town: there were the bins, and rather than flower sellers, two people had brought their dogs here to defecate.
It was a small place, and two men, gardening in front of their homes, watched us as we approached the gates, their conversation stopping until we had passed by. Perhaps they keep an eye on the place – perhaps they help with the upkeep – who knows.
We wandered around the cemetery, trying to read the names on the gravestones. I hadn’t really expected to find a family name, but I did photograph any that I recognised, ‘just in case’ one later turned up in a search. Some kind soul had been through here recently with a strimmer – the very recently cut long nettles still stung my feet and legs through my summer sandals – take note, and wear trousers and shoes when visiting Jewish cemeteries in Poland!
It was difficult to move around the broken stones and ragged grasses and weeds; I soon started to feel helpless and vaguely upset. I live in the countryside and have dogs, so am well used to the vagaries of rough ground and overgrown patches – it wasn’t the physical difficulty of looking around the site that got to me. But a very strong sense that there was nothing here for us: for me. Nothing here at Pless cemetery, and nothing except scant traces, at best, for millions of us across so much of the European landscape.
The words that I had written on arrival in Poland came back to me. Since then, I had become swept up by the charm of some of the people we had met, and by the sheer scale of the warm, green countryside, but my first doubts returned very strongly as this our last day started to draw to a close, the sun lowering among the gravestones and trees:
"Under any normal circumstances I would have been making this trip to see my family - wondering behind which doors a warm embrace would wait. Instead - I'm wondering what it is that I am feeling - having touched down on the soil where my family were killed - where my people were so nearly obliterated."
I felt alone, bereft, in a silence that ran deep through me.
The missing rose
When we got back to the car my husband started to programme the Sat Nav for Krakow, but I turned to him and said, ‘Please detour, and take me to Auschwitz. I want to visit where my grandmother died’.
We had of course discussed at some length whether we’d visit Auschwitz during this trip to Poland. I had gone to and fro with arguments for and against, but had pretty much decided against it, at least on this first trip. I didn’t want it to be all about death, but about finding records of life. A wonderful friend from childhood, with whom I grew up and whose father was Polish, had generously offered to accompany me, should I ever wish to visit. I’ve always loved her and her family, but this offer touched me like nothing else we had ever experienced together. So, I knew I could go at some unspecified time, with a very dear friend, on some other occasion.
I had also been fearful of the fact of Auschwitz now being a huge tourist site, of the place itself, and of what I might experience there.
Not least, the idea of paying to go to the place where my family was murdered … you’d never normally pay to go to your family’s last resting place – now part of some ‘must-see’ tourist site. It was macabre – too awful to contemplate – going through that – with people taking photographs and being on holiday.
But suddenly, now, I had to go. I had no intention of looking around the site, but I knew there was a place where one could lay flowers. I wanted to walk to that site, lay down my Pless rose, and leave. I had also picked up a stone at the base of the cemetery wall in Pless – I had told myself that I didn’t know why, or what I intended to do with it, but at some level, I think I already knew.
There would be no other site – there would be no more family to meet – no warm embrace.
There would be no other memorial – and no gravestone to find.
There would be only the absence and the silence that had haunted me all my life.
I had to go.
Surreal. We rounded country corners, drawing ever nearer, as my legs turned weak. We followed the Sat Nav, and watched, disbelieving, as we drew within a couple of miles of the place: families were out in the late sunshine, cycling, laughing, living. Just around the corner from Auschwitz.
I’m not passing judgement. I just don’t understand ‘how’.
It was as though I was holding my breath, when suddenly we rounded another corner and the Anglo-Saxon expletives came. I had no idea that so much of the place was left standing. I had believed it had been pretty much razed to the ground as the Germans left. But as far as the eye could see, that camp stretched out ahead of us.
So the scale of it – of what remained – was a shock.
What was perhaps equally shocking was the death camp’s proximity to the road. The barbed wire runs parallel to hundreds upon hundreds of meters of road.
Open barbed wire, parallel to the road.
So close, you could walk along the side of the road and touch it.
Any notion that people wouldn’t have known about this place – and what went on here – went out of the window. I guess I had long known this to be the case – but again – being on the ground and seeing it in so stark and shocking a context … It means that you ‘live with’ the knowledge afterwards – it becomes part of you – rather than being part of what ‘you know’ in some abstract sense.
I then had a brief worry that I wouldn’t be allowed in because we hadn’t booked (I did say that this all felt very surreal!). But the place didn’t look busy, and I tried not to think about how I would react or feel if I wasn’t ‘allowed in’ after all this…
We parked at the side of the road in still 30-odd degree heat, on a narrow strip of land set aside for cars. Our eyes ever drawn across mile upon mile of the fenced in, iconic death camp.
My husband and I have been together for thirty years – we married young and have been together far longer than we have been apart. He said that he would come with me if I wanted him to; otherwise, he would wait in the car.
With gratitude and calm certainty, I knew then that this was something I wanted – needed – to do alone.
I took my flower and my stone, and got out of the car and walked towards the gateway. My legs felt weak, but I was driven – by something beyond myself. I didn’t feel like myself; I don’t know who or what I was in those moments that day.
Just inside the gateway to Auschwitz is the ticket office and a bookshop (which answers the question of what on earth do they sell in the Auschwitz museum gift shop!). I went in and garbled out a question – asking where the memorial was, so that I could lay down flowers for my grandmother, which is what this seemed to have distilled into by now. Unfazed, the Polish man at the counter smiled casually, and waved his arm in a sweeping gesture: ‘It’s all a memorial,’ he said. And apparently I didn’t need a ticket at that time of day. I haltingly asked where the actual memorial was located and he directed me down the long path that stretched beyond the gates. ‘Straight down that path to the end. But it’s very hot. Be careful. Wear a hat’.
So I walked down that long, straight path under the brilliant blue skies above Auschwitz death camp.
I was careful … I wore a scarf over my head against the sun, sunglasses shielding my eyes from all that was around me.
I barely looked to either side, though my eyes often reached for the train tracks that ran parallel to the path I was walking down. On either side of me ran high barbed wire fences. I didn’t really want – or need – to see what lay beyond them, and I focussed on the pale dusty path at my feet. I felt small – tiny; I felt insignificant. Eventually, I saw the memorial site and speeded up, focussed only on that end point.
The long scarf drawn over my head against the heat seemed to help me block out all else. There weren’t many people visiting on that early summer evening. It was quiet except for the odd tour group, and the site was so large that I didn’t really feel the presence of anyone else.
It was just me and my ghosts.
I was here to say goodbye.
After nearly 50 years of waiting.
I was here to say goodbye.
As I approached the dark, heavy, meaningless monument, no-one else was about. I went around the back of it and looked out onto beautiful green trees, leaves and branches drooping in the heat, dragonflies flitting about, birds singing. My breathing calmed. And I watched the trees. And breathed deeply. I had my back turned to the camp and over me flooded a sense of peace and a sense of beauty and a sense of the utmost silence – a good sense of aloneness. Of deep, deep calm.
I couldn’t see – and didn’t look back at – the camp for some time. I breathed in the warm greenness and felt, mainly, that 70 years on, there was a beauty to be found in those trees – a peaceful resting place – and I was so grateful that I had come. Part of me didn’t want to leave, but by almost 50 years of age, I sometimes know when not to push my luck…
I can’t help it if that sounds odd, or wrong, or worse, to some. I simply felt how I felt that day, in that moment. I won’t excuse it, I can’t explain it, and I won’t apologise for it. It was utterly unexpected. I expected trauma and fear and a terrible sense of death. What I experienced down there before the trees, however, was entirely different and it felt completely right.
I turned back to the memorial and went around to the front, where inscriptions in different languages give a focus for those coming to remember their dead. The language is rather formal and sounds more political than personal, but it is all we have.
I quickly, self-consciously checked that no-one was near – and realised again how utterly alone I was. I laid down my flower and weighted it with my stone.
Kaddish, after a fashion
I have noted in holocaust testimonies a real fear among victims that there would be no family left to say Kaddish for them when they were killed.
I was not brought up as a Jew – and I do not regard myself as religious. But this trip was only partly for me. I felt very strongly that this was a visit I had to make, for a family much larger than I had ever known.
I had carried with me to Poland an English translation of a Kaddish prayer, and while I was neither a son nor a group of people (both of which are traditionally expected, I gather, at a reciting of a Kaddish), I was all that was left, and I would have to do. Something would have to be better than nothing – and whether others would understand that or not didn’t matter. In one of her letters, my grandmother said that she feared that God had abandoned them: I felt that the least I could do was to show that I had not. Grandmother Else, I felt, would understand both my limitations and my sense of what was right under the circumstances.
First, I said the names of all the family members whom we knew or expected had died here and elsewhere at this time – I named them each, out loud. I then got out my crumpled paper, and recited the translated Kaddish.
It was over.
As I walked back up that long straight pale and dusty road, towards the gates that would take me back to my husband and to my life, I paused and picked a wildflower growing in the grass at the side of the rail tracks, to press with the two remaining roses.
I can’t express how completely at peace I felt. A lifetime of need became a calmness I had never known, and that has not left me, deep inside, months later. I hope it will always be with me.
I can’t quite believe what I have been able to take away from this visit, but I have somehow acquired the sense not to question it too deeply. I am so grateful that I was able to experience that hour in that way – alone, surrounded by the sun’s warmth, close to my family, doing my best to do the right thing by them.
When I saw my husband back at the car, I said, ‘I can die now, knowing I have done this today’.
And as I had walked up the long path, back towards the gates of Auschwitz, I once again spoke out loud: ‘For my family’; and, realist that I can be, ‘For myself.’
Finally, as I pulled back into the present again, and made my way towards a group of visitors on the path ahead, I added, ‘And for you, my dad – you could never have made this journey. This is also for you’.
From numbers to names