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A Delightful Day in Auschwitz - by Garry Craig Powell


A Delightful Day In Auschwitz

By Garry Craig Powell

I took the public bus from Cracow to Oswiecim, as Auschwitz is called in Polish. The passengers were mainly Poles, stout women in floral dresses and vodka-eyed men with flat caps, who had come to the big city to shop and were now returning to their little market town an hour’s ride away. Half a dozen backpackers from western Europe and the States were on the bus too, in T-shirts, tattoos, and “peasant” skirts—which were nothing like the ones the real peasants were wearing. The men had goatees, the women ethnic jewelry. They were cool. I was fifteen years older, but at a glance you wouldn’t have noticed: with my sunglasses, stubble and earring, I looked cool, too.


It was an everyday sort of ride—none of the babble of a country bus in Italy, the Poles are not that cheerful—but there was talk, newspapers, fruit and sweets. The backpackers, slumped in their seats, clutching their Lonely Planets and Rough Guides, looked exhausted, as the young invariably do when travelling, and their faces were inscrutable behind their sunglasses. I wondered, as we left the medieval city behind and entered the limbo of brown factories and concrete towers which surrounded it like a bruise, just what these youngsters were doing. Why on earth leave the gilded Renaissance streets, the art nouveau cafes, the gothic cathedral, the art galleries, the jazz clubs, the vegetarian restaurants, to see a concentration camp? Guilt, ghoulishness, curiosity, sightseeing compulsion? 

Why was I going myself, for that matter? Partly because I’d been urged to by Ania, my Polish mistress. And partly, no doubt, because, having fled both my wife and Ania, I felt guilty and wished to punish myself a little. But at the time I didn’t see my motives so clearly: I knew only that my purpose was high and serious. Seeing Auschwitz was a duty for any responsible visitor to southern Poland; I had to go.

Slowly, the scrofulous suburbs gave way to a flat landscape of furrowed fields, green and brown—a clump of trees here, a pig-eyed cluster of cottages there—and then I saw the sign for the camp, a mile or two before the town. Only I and the other backpackers descended from the bus. At first I couldn’t see the buildings, there were so many trees, tall deciduous trees, and it was all lushly green, like a film of England or Ireland. There were no people, and only an occasional stray car. The air had the pleasant languor of early summer, the sky was blue, the sun shone. I read in my guide book—yes, I had one too—that the birds no longer sang around Auschwitz, but that turned out to be sentimental nonsense: birds there were a-plenty, parliaments of them, packing the trees, piping joyously.

I’d expected Auschwitz to loom ominously out of a filthy February day, slate-gray, cold as permafrost, because it was always like that in the films; I wasn’t prepared for a death camp on a day which belonged in a painting by Monet or Renoir. Yet there must have been days like this. The ovens were stoked while the birds sang; they murdered children while the sun shone and the trees rustled in the breeze.

The first thing which strikes you as you approach Auschwitz is how new everything looks. It might have been built five, ten years ago. In Gdansk, on the Baltic, where Ania lived, I’d seen a black stone tower that had once been used as a torture chamber, but that had happened in an age of fairytales, when people believed in sea-monsters and ogres. This was different. The neat brick buildings of Auschwitz were made in the time of my father and grandfathers, by men like them.

It costs nothing to enter. You walk through the gate with the iron legend, Arbeit Macht Frei—Work Sets You Free, the cruellest joke in history—and notices ask you to refrain from eating or drinking. There are no soft drink stands, no gift shops, no guides. They give you a plan and you walk round on your own, reading the notices in various languages on each building. The buildings are long and low, well-made, functional, resembling schools of the period. Most of them are empty of furniture, but on the walls there are thousands of small photographs of gaunt inmates, with the dates they entered and the dates they were murdered. Some survived only a couple of weeks, others months, some a couple of years. They all looked ugly, their heads shorn, bony and hungry and scared and hopeless—and they all looked the same, as indistinguishable as animals, just as the Nazis wanted.

It took me a couple of hours to walk round. What I remember most vividly is a huge room full of spectacles, a sea of spectacles, hundreds of thousands of pairs of all designs and sizes—wire-rimmed, horn-rimmed, rimless, cracked, stylish, schoolteacherish, tiny pairs taken from infants, antiques snatched from the old—spectacles behind a glass partition, in waves, feet deep, fathoms deep. Then a room full of suitcases, a room full of shoes. Some of the shoes were too small for school-age children, and there were a few toys. It was those little glasses and shoes and toys that brought the tears to my eyes, and I strode outside in a turmoil of rage and disgust and pity.

And there in the sunlight a middle-aged woman was cajoling her teenaged daughter to pose for a photograph. The girl, a blowsy blonde with glasses, looked embarrassed. “Come on, smile,” said her mother, in a working-class accent, English Home Counties. I stood close by, glaring rudely, but the woman didn’t notice, or pretended not to. “Smile for the camera,” she repeated.

The girl stood awkwardly, glancing uneasily at me. “You’re not meant to, are you?” she said. “Here?”

“It’s for the photo,” the woman insisted. “You gotta smile.”

The girl pulled a forced smile which turned into a wince as the camera clicked. I turned away, seething with self-righteous indignation.

By now I was hot and thirsty. I hadn’t wanted even to drink water in the camp, but as I was walking back to the bus-stop I noticed a snack-stall. I decided to pass it without buying anything—you weren’t meant to, here, I thought—but the next thing I knew, I heard myself asking for an ice-cream. And I ate it: just beyond the gates of Auschwitz, in the bright summer sun, by the gently waving trees.

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Garry Craig Powell will be joining the judging team for Leap Local's Guides & Services Competition 2012. This story was first published by Kit-Cat Review.

Garry Craig Powell is an Englishman who has degrees from the universities of Cambridge, Durham and Arizona. He taught English in Spain, Poland, Portugal, where he lived for ten years, and the United Arab Emirates, where he worked for five years on the women's campus at an Arab university and three years at a men's college. His fiction has appeared in Best American Mystery  Stoning the Devil by Garry Craig Powell Stories, McSweeney's, Nimrod, Queen's Quarterly, and other venues. 

His novel-in-stories, Stoning the Devil, will be published by Skylight Press in August 2012: Stoning the Devil is set in the United Arab Emirates, a country of paradoxes, of seediness and glamour, of desert grandeur and Disneyland vulgarity, where public executions and other barbaric customs are winked at by the western expats who run the economy. Colin, a professor of literature, is not the ‘typical’ expat, ignorant and interested only in pleasure and his stock portfolio, but a speaker of Arabic and an admirer of Arab culture - or is he? To his Arab wife, he is an Orientalist who exoticizes and patronizes the locals, unaware of his latent racism.

Powell presents a complex and contradictory set of Arab characters, who are a far cry from fundamentalist stereotypes. He also gives women in the Gulf a voice - as none are completely submissive.

(for more information, see www.garrycraigpowell.com, or the Garry Craig Powell, Writer, Facebook page).