Monday, 10 September 2007

Quiet days are the most dangerous

Quiet days are the most dangerous. Days that are in between more important days.

Like today in Krakow. Yesterday we arrived by plane. Tomorrow the trucks carrying our bikes will catch up with us and we will start our holiday journey to Budapest. So today is a free day and we have time on our hands. There’s no point in unpacking.

A town called Ozwieczim is only twenty kilometres from Krakow and we decide to go there. It’s a hot August day and we share the cost of a taxi. The countryside is green and wooded. We pass small farms where the harvest is beginning.

It’s mid morning when we reach Ozwieczim. There are many other visitors. During the war the German occupiers gave the town a new name: Auschwitz.

Our guide is Polish. She speaks quietly and our group has to stand close to catch her words. She leads us through what is left of the camp: rows of brick-built barracks and tall tenements that remind me of nineteenth-century factory buildings. Between them are gravel paths and many tall trees. And it’s quiet: leaves rustling overhead, dappled sunlight, our guide’s soft voice.

Here are the main gates with the inscription ‘Arbeit macht frei’ – work makes you free. Here someone has threaded a white carnation between the bars. Here the transports arrived. Here new prisoners lined up. Here the separations were made: to the right those fit enough to join the working parties; to the left, all others. Here is where the prisoners slept and ate and defecated and became infested. Here is the ramp down to the bunker where they undressed. Here are the heavy metal doors. Here are more flowers.

We go into one of the tall buildings where there are maps and photographs. At each stop our guide speaks briefly and then the group silently separates to look at what is there.

In some rooms long sections of floor have been angled up. Tumbled out on these slanting surfaces are the prisoners’ possessions: a tarnished slope of a thousand silver cigarette cases; a slope, wide as a playground, of dolls and teddy bears; a slope of jumbled artificial limbs; a slope of false teeth; a slope of hanks of hair.

And then the longest slope of all, extending the full length of the long building. The slope of suitcases. Suitcases and suitcases and suitcases. Nothing else. Each case has a name and address painted neatly on the lid by its owner: Stein, Rosenberg, Pehrlmann; Warsaw, Berlin, Dresden.

And I stand in that quiet room and I look and I think.

I think of every case I’ve ever packed for every journey I’ve ever made. Suitcases packed in hope for arrivals safely achieved. I choose one case and read the neat white painted name and I try to picture A E Bergmann packing it on a quiet day like this. I turn away.

Outside it has grown hotter. An Australian family tags on to our group, the father balances a video-camera on his shoulder, seeing the camp through its lens.

Near the gate a taxi is waits to take us back to Krakow.

No comments: