My Journey to Auschwitz
by Amber Kruth

From the writer: I was initially concerned about the depth and truth of my memories of my trip to Poland three years ago. As my thoughts ceaselessly transformed into words, the emotional intensity of visiting the concentration camp there lured me back and all the torment I had repressed resurfaced. As a traveler of both mind and body I occupied two attitudes--one of the past, which exemplifies my egocentric ignorance as an American, and one of transformation, through which I discover my personal triviality.

From the teacher: Our 305 focused primarily on creative non-fiction which we termed experience-based writing; we distinguished the genre very loosely by the following criteria: veracity, personal presence, self-discovery and self-exploration, and flexibility of form. Students' projects were memoir, observation, travel or nature writing. Amber's first piece probed the loss of an important person in her life; this second piece moved towards travel writing, and was influenced not only by our work in 305, but also by her work in an ETS course that focused on such writing. Her thinking about what is involved in being a tourist, a traveler in a foreign country, as well as a moral witness to her experience in this world, informed her thinking and writing from the project's beginning.

From the editors: Kruth takes her readers on a spiritual journey of sadness and outrage at the horrors of the holocaust, a historical journey back to the realities of the Nazi era of terror symbolized by Auschwitz, and a geographical journey through Europe as a young tourist. Her vivid descriptions of the Auschwitz museum and her emotional reaction to the experience are poignant without exaggeration, and remain factual without diminishing the impact of her sorrow and disgust. The essay is an intricate weaving of three separate journeys into one experience. Kruth's subtle descriptions of emotions complement her detailed, factual scriptions of the time and place.

As the train steadily slowed as we entered the station, Anna helped her Uncle Robert to his feet. Anna and I made our way to the train station platform, Robert hobbling behind us down the stairs. The town of Auschwitz was nearly barren, yet a cloud of dust lingered above the tan dirt earth as we walked between the shambled bar obsiugi (quick service eatery) and kiosk (box-store newsstand). Anna, my best friend, was originally from there and she rambled on in Polish with Robert, who lagged behind because of an knee injury.  We walked the mile or so to the bus stop and grabbed the next bus headed toward the Auschwitz concentration camp.

We exited the bus just outside of the main gate of what used to be the largest, most occupied concentration camp in Poland. Rusty iron bars were erected at the entrance where the previously electrified, barbed wire gate stood open. The German inscription, Arbeit macht frei (Work gives freedom) loomed above the gateway, a haunting forewarning of what lay beyond that point. There were no tour guides to escort the foreigners and Poles through the dozens of identical barracks that were precisely charted onto the flat dusty land. Instead poignant black and white photos hung outside of the deserted rooms with inscriptions underneath in Polish, German and English, stating in clear, quantitative facts the horrors that were committed. Even with this emotionally restrained diction, the brutal shadow of humanity transformed the numbers into faces of innocent men, women, and children that were slain because of their belief in God or country. As I whispered the names written below individual mug shots of beaten, shaved men in black and white striped uniforms, the words pierced my lungs, and I stood staring into the charcoal eyes of the incarcerated souls.

Unlike most historical sites in America, there were no tour guides or propaganda cluttering the grounds. Placed on one corner of a quad between the barracks a cubicle brick building, much like the rest, held the first signs of public administration. Inside florescent lights reflected off the white walls, waxed floors and silver fixtures about the room. At the counter we purchased tickets to watch a documentary movie about Auschwitz. While waiting for the next showing we wandered up the stairs to the second floor.

As we ascended, we left the modern light and were taken back to the era of World War II. The layout of the floor was structured like an intestine, folded into a maze so that the surface area along the walls was immeasurable; thousands of pictures lined these walls, and the sight of the millions killed was nauseating. Each of us sauntered along the dimly lit corridor, assuming our own pace as we absorbed the tragedy of each photo. The air was silent and solemn, combining the archive stillness of a library with the heavy-heart consciousness of a morgue. My mind was locked in a trance as the trivialities in my life were overwhelmed with a wave of self-conscious guilt that pointed to my own ignorance and prejudices. Exiting the corridor I was submerged into a realm of humanity that existed beyond human form, a state only possible amidst these treacherous inhumanities.

Every hour, a twenty-five minute film ran in a theater, telling the story of the Auschwitz concentration camp. In side the theater, the hefty truth of the war surrounded me, crushing my chest with despair as the camera scanned warehouses filled with mounds of hair, gold-teeth and watches; numerous, enormous heaps of suitcases brought as travel luggage by the unsuspecting victims--their clothes, shoes and eyeglasses that had been neatly folded prior to their "disinfecting showers" thrown in piles. Everything but the body itself was preserved in theses empty barns. Outside, flowering bushes and hedged gardens marked an eerie irony between the blooming life and the looming reminiscence of death.

Irony does not do this sensation justice, but it was a layered reality to witness, through film, the crimes and casualties that existed in the camp. Words cannot satisfy the inner turmoil one feels when watching a Nazi guard, perched up on a patrol-post, discharging a round of ammunition into a Jew that stood too close to the electrified, barbed-wire barrier; and then to stand in that exact place. I blinked twice to clear the vision of the blood pool stained into the dirt that encompassed the ground beneath my feet. The documentary film made this historical site come alive, and for the first time I truly encountered the power and awe of the Nazis. No longer at a museum, I embraced the courage and impressive self-worth the victims upheld despite the twisted misery of their confines; no longer a tourist, the bereavement sat inside my soul. I sat before a field of open coffins, stretching for miles.

After the film, Anna, Robert and I reentered the grounds of Auschwitz. Directly across from us lay Crematorium IV, the fourth of five buildings built by the prisoners for their own cremation. Two towering chimneys erected from the roof remained still as we descended the stone steps into the chamber. Inside the musty, dark air flooded my nostrils, and I stopped suddenly to let the sensation of sneezing pass me by as my eyes adjusted to the cellar light. Again the familiar parallel structure of this camp was displayed as blocks of brick ovens loomed in the shadows. Each segment was faced by a thick metal door with a latch handle at about waist level and a smaller, sliding cover beneath, where the ashes accumulated. Approximately eighty ovens lined the chamber, and I gaped into one that was left unlatched, noticing it's capacity was larger than it appeared, being able to hold three or four bodies at one time. In a twenty-four hour period almost two thousand gassed bodies were turned to ashes.*

Adjacent to the crematorium ovens was a long, tiled room that resembled locker-room showers. This appearance was not accidental, for it was intended to fool the prisoners into thinking that they were to take "disinfecting" showers. The showerheads that lined the wall were not connected to any water lines though; three cylindrical latches on the ceiling revealed the truth of the room. With no windows and only the entrance door, there was no escaping the gases that filtered down from those ducts; yet I imagine no concrete wall could confine the agonizing outcries that choked in the throats of the caged beings.

Walking back from the crematorium, we passed the notorious Block 11. Prisoners confined to this barrack were inevitably escorted outside to the lot between that and the adjacent barrack. At one time a brick wall enclosed the area, eliminating chance glances by those who passed by, yet all that remained was a black billboard leaned against the back wall upon a one-foot concrete platform. "The Wall of Death" was the last sight many saw as they faced the blackness and were shot at close range in the back of the head by a Nazi officer. Bushels of anonymous flower bouquets lined the ground before it.

It was at this moment that I completely understood the exclusion of public administration at the concentration camp. As a memorial site, Auschwitz held a serene truth and was tactfully displayed for the curious and victimized alike. My eyes fell upon the flowers and then shifted to the two adolescent girls standing next to "The Wall of Death", giggling as a by-stander took their photo. Disgusted, I turned, glancing over my shoulder at the guard-post I stood beneath earlier that day. I then realized that it was the subtle indications of terror layered with stories of mutilation, deprivation, starvation, experimentation and cremation that tore at my heart. I was no longer a tourist in this foreign land, but I was far from home.

*This fact was taken from Kepkiewicz, Jerzy, ed. KL Auschwitz Seen by Thess. Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum: Oswiecim, 1996, 100.


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