During the war, specialpapers were used to control peoples' movements in Nazi-occupied Europe. Thesedays you don't even need a visa to visit Poland or many other Newly IndependentStates as we minor functionaries now call them officially. We're even exportingcapitalism and auditors to help them get it together and make ourselves somemoney. So, in September, 1993, I went to re-liberated Poland for a week to seewhat's left of the camps near Cracow.
The run-up to the trip was nothing. I kept tabs on the Polish weather and hunted down some tour pamphlets. One ofthe guys I work with was in Warsaw and sent me some Polish national touristbureau (ORBIS) literature, which gave me a good idea of local tour package costsand offerings, as well as air fares and in-country car rental rates.
Youcan't imagine how strange it was to see an icon for Nazi concentration camps on atourist map or color photos and text about Auschwitz as a tour feature. An AAAmap locating and depicting Andersonville would not have phased me a bit! But,the ORBIS map was so surreal that I had to show it to N____, friends, andcoworkers to convince myself it was so. Mind you, only a small fraction of thesites was noted. There was both disclosure and non-disclosure at work.
Acouple of calls to ORBIS in New York, one to the Polish Embassy in D.C. and I wasalmost set. The embassy helped me decide how and where to go. Land travel waseasy and safe, they said, and I could probably see and do more on my own thanwith a tour group. Having heard that, I decided to boogie on trains, planes, andautomobiles. From the 800 phone book, I got the U.S. number of the EuropeanRailway Authority and bought a ticket into Cracow from Berlin. N____ got me agreat air fare from D.C. to Berlin on KLM. I packed all I thought I might needand on September 5, 1993, I took off.
Flying to Amsterdam from D.C. wasgreat! We took off on time at 11:15 pm and I was relaxed and comfortable in thehands of the KLM flight crew. KLM service and food and coffee are superb. U.S.carriers could learn a thing or two from them. But then, who could they notlearn from, especially when it comes to food. At any rate, I was so comfortablethat, after the movie, I stretched out across four empty center seats of thenearly empty plane and slept. In-flight naps are something I hadn't managedsince returning from Japan in 1957. I woke up just in time for breakfast on theapproach to Amsterdam.
We arrived at Amsterdam in mid-morning and I had anhour's wait for the connecting flight to East Berlin. About all I could do washit the head and have a cigarette and buy some more in the duty-free shop at(believe it or not) cut-rate prices compared to home. It was the first bargainI'd ever seen in an airport shop. Dunhill reds were $1.80 a pack as opposed to$2.50 at the Georgetown Tobacco Shop in Tyson's Corner Center or $2.75 at DullesInternational Airport. But what impressed me most in the airport was that at6'1" I was one of the shorter people wandering through. Most others, includingthe women, were as tall or taller. Either that or things had gotten larger thanlife. At any rate, I was wide-eyed and bushy-tailed and on my way. Just 15minutes out of Amsterdam, however, both the past and the future started strummin'my head.
They came in initial disguise in the form of an older, dumpy-but-well-dressedand English-speaking woman who lives in London and has a serious accent. Shealso has an intimate knowledge of German and Polish history and, since she wasborn in Poland near the frontier, more than a passing familiarity with the landsalong their common border. I was seated in front of her and we struck up aconversation that lasted for most of the flight to Berlin.
Having heard mesay I was en route to Cracow, she was curious as to why. Since I'm not totallyinsensitive and didn't want to offend this stranger, who may have had relativeseither in or in charge of a death camp, I just said I was going to visit somehistorical sites in and around the city, which was true.
I swear. Eitherthat woman is a telepath or I don't lie very well. She sensed my purpose eventhough I mentioned only places like Wawel Hill, the old city market, and the saltmines, all of which I knew from the ORBIS travel brochures I had gotten. I alsoknew that Copernicus and Pope John Paul II had studied there. But the effect ofmy deference (naivete?) was nil. I spent almost half an hour parrying polite andmatter-of-fact questions about my understanding, my interest, my motives, and myrace.
It seems to me we dodged and danced around the topics of remembrance,wholesale murder, and killing fields like a cobra and a mongoose. Despite heramity, indirection and grace, that old lady's desire to expose and destroy thisdirty American Jew-lover was palpable. I had never before seen such tearingresentment and I had not seen the hate stare since my hippie days in Texas. Eventhe racist double-speak of the George Wallace rallies in downtown Ft. Worth seemsamateurish compared to what this old gal could do. But, I hadn't seen nothin'yet! More would come.
Despite the quiet conflict, I arrived in Berlin withmy psyche in one piece and I could still appreciate the sights and sounds of newterritory coming under my feet. At the airport, I checked on cab fares and optedfor taking a bus to the metro station and then taking the metro to theLichtenberg train station. A woman at the tourist information center gave me ametro and bus route map and told me which bus to take to which metro stop. Iexchanged some dollars for deutschmarks and ran a few of those through achange-making machine. A one-way bus trip, I'd been told, was DM 1.80 andtickets had to be bought from a machine. Once at a metro station, another tickethad to be bought from another machine for DM 3.20.
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All the machines and maps and schedules and drivers, etc., etc., etc.were in German. There were no subtitles. I only know enough German to say, "Ichbin auslander. Nicht verstehen." And, as it turns out, I can't even say thatmuch and say it right. The language barrier worked against me, but I felt fairlycomfortable about catching the bus since I knew the fare. Sure enough, the busticket machine pumped out a ticket after I fed it DM 1.80 and pressed the gimmebutton. I'd deal with the metro when I got there.
It took less than fiveminutes for the right bus to show up at the kiosk outside the airport and thedriver seemed to understand where I needed to go. It was much later that I foundhe'd dropped me at the wrong metro stop. In fact, I didn't know that until myreturn trip as a savvy negotiator of the system. The bus stopped, the drivermotioned me off, and I clambered out to look for an escalator which didn't exist. But that was OK. I could manage the staircases down to the platform. Hah! Itwas down and up and down and over and up and down again!! Like New York. Notlike DC. I could have kicked myself for being so stupid about what weather Imight need to dress for. My bagged precautions weighed a ton!
Buying ametro ticket was a trip! When I found the machine, I found a wide selection ofoptions and levers on it. I must have stood there and stared at the labels forfive minutes. Then, I put in a some DMs and chose the only menu item I evenvaguely recognized. It said, in part, "Normaltarif". I took it to mean the farefor the common man outside rush hour. A pull of a lever and out came a ticketand the right change.
Gear for all possible weather made my suitcase heavyand cumbersome. A second bag on a continually slipping shoulder strap made itmore complicated for me and my spastic body. To make things worse, the Berlinmetro and train stations are mazes of levels and platforms. There are noescalators and I could find no elevators. So, I horsed my stuff around whilecursing my thoroughness and vowing next time to travel only with my camera andthe clothes on my back. Oh yes, I also had to dodge the few, but headlong,commuters in the process.
Berliners were of no help. But the touristswere. When I realized that, in switching from one route to another, I'd gottenon a train headed the wrong direction, I got out to reconnoiter. The metro mapwas Greek to me and I went looking for help with images of the vanishing cabooseof a just-missed train to Cracow running through my head.
I went right up to the first person I saw to ask directions. It turned out tobe a Japanese-American woman from Frisco who not only spoke German, but knew herway around the city. And she clued me in. First, she said, find the terminalsat the ends of the routes. Next, trace the routes to see which goes by thestation you want. And finally, watch for a train headed to a terminal at theright end of that route. Just check the lead car banner. Simple! And I feltjust that.
What I saw of Berlin (was it West or East ?) from the bus andalong the elevated sections of the metro was surprising. While I didn't expectto see a city of ravaged buildings like those seen half-hidden behind the BerlinWall in vintage newsreels, I was also not expecting to see a city so in need ofrepair. There was little trash and virtually no graffiti, but lots of thingsneeded patching and painting.
In real estate parlance, the city seemed ahandyman's special. For example, many of the automatic doors on the metro traincars have to be forced open or closed by riders when the train stops. But thebuses are modern and immaculate and the streets are in good shape. In fact, Iwas impressed by the abundant and cheap public transit, especially after gettinga $62.00 quote for a taxi from the airport to the train station. But there is asadness about the city and I could feel it wrapping around me. Thanatos,anyone?
That sadness came out in the run-down state of all there was to seeand in the strange quiet. The overall silence of the place was unnerving. I canrecall no other sound than the clatter of footsteps and the bump and grind ofmetro cars. There were no other city sounds. No low roar of traffic or aircraftoverhead. No screeching tires, sirens or horns. Virtually no conversation. Andthat was what was most noticeable. I mean, you know how public transit means achance to meet and greet a few natives. The Berliners I saw were not open tothat. They were more than aloof. They were stone stiff. It startledme.
Everyone was outwardly in good shape although seemingly dressed inK-Mart seconds. But no-one spoke to anybody else save three or four beleatheredand multi-colored new age kids sharing snotty remarks about me in German. Eyecontact was not made, not possible. Even my bumbling efforts to make sure I wason the right metro route were waved off by slight movements of a woman's hand notraised from the lap in which it rested.
No-one looked around the car. No-one looked out the window. Each stared at a blank spot straight ahead. Theyseemed to go out of their way not to see or be seen. I felt that my lookingaround, my presence, my obvious outward difference made everybody uncomfortable. They seemed to squirm just because I was there, now. But I got to the trainstation, which was no mean feat. In fact, it's remarkable, since, as I said, Igot on the metro at the wrong stop.
Once at the railway station, I had tosort out which platform I needed to get to. A woman at the ticket office said togo to C, but left me on my own as far as which way to turn to get there. I justfollowed letters and arrows, seeking divine guidance all the way, and I found theplatform. There, I had to anticipate which train. In that, I had a couple ofhours leeway and there were handy tips printed on my European Railway Authorityticket. Find the diagram, it said, and match your train number. Then locate yourcar number. And give the ticket to the conductor at boarding time.
Diagram? What diagram? How about some paper train cut-outs glued to apiece of yellowed white poster board inside a wall-mounted, glass-doored, dayschool display case? Each black construction paper locomotive was numbered, aswas each yellowed and curling white paper car. The direction of each train wasshown by the position of each locomotive. Locomotive on the right means goingthat way as you face the board. On the left? Going the other way. No hint ofdestination. No posted schedule. Just those pre-school cut-outs. My sixteenmonth old daughter would have caught on to the instructions immediately.
I,however, was looking for a "diagram" with "information". The platform attendantsin the large, 360-degree glassed kiosk which bore the bulletin board might havecleared it up for me with a word or two or some pidgin-sign. I know they saw meand that my bewilderment was plain. But they were too busy not noticing anybodyand going about the drab business of making unintelligible announcements over thePA system.
It took an hour and a two-trains test of my hypothesis about thediagram to assure myself I'd get where I was going. Having done that, I bought acan of Coke at the platform snack stand and began to wait and watch. It'ssurprising how much there was to see in that nearly empty complex of platforms,track, and overhead power lines.
There were people all over the station,although they were few. As trains came and went, people moved in and out in thelow-angled orange cast of sunset. There were all sizes and ages moving this wayand that under the platform canopies. Most wore denims, sweaters, and lightjackets. Some were more well-dressed than others. There were some benches oneach platform, but few people other than me sat down to wait. I thought that wasstrange, since some had arrived before I had and would leave even later than I. They just kept shifting in place or moving a few steps away from chosen spots andthen back.
The crowd on each platform grew and thinned in time with thepulse of arriving and departing trains. Backpacks and canvas totes seemed themost popular baggage, with a couple of plastic fortnighters and leather suitcasesthrown in. Mine was the only bag with its own wheels and handle and people ogledit politely, then me briefly.
Singles, couples, and small groups paced toand fro a few yards as they waited and the trains came and went. Some trainswere obviously locals. Others were long-haul. The most impressive I saw borethe red, green and gold of the Red Army and had the word "Moskva" all over it. That one had a style I envied after seeing what else rolled through. It wasclean and well-kept and seemed to have a dining car.
As the trains came andwent, there was no sound of laboring or idling engines because they were allelectric. The drivers shut down the motors if they stopped for more than acouple of minutes, giving the impression they were parking for the night, whichscared the shit out of me the first time it happened on my track! Had somebodyexercised their right to make schedule changes without notice?
Seeing allthose electric train sets was more than a little disappointing. I had hoped fora steam locomotive, since I knew them to still be in use in that part of theworld. But the diagram cut-out engines were diesel-shaped and the wires abovethe track had already hinted at electric. The wires were right. The whole routewas wired and I was becoming so.
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It had been a full travel day and I was headed for the heart of thebeast - the General Government of WWII days. I felt better when, just beforesundown, the train for Cracow arrived. There were maybe ten of us waiting forthe sleeper cars. Another fifteen or so were going coach. No more than a dozengot off at that station. I had booked a $127 compartment all to myself, butneedn't have bothered. The car was almost empty and I could have boarded with an$18 share-a-room ticket and still have gotten a private compartment. Cheap.
We boarded the train on our own. There were no porters and theconductor only checked our tickets and passports (and kept them, which worriedme). He did not help with luggage, I noticed, so I followed the lead of those inline ahead of me. The floor of the car was above waist high to me, which meant Ihad to throw my wheeled suitcase up and in and scramble up two steep steps andthrough the narrow doorway after it. You had to be quick to keep from havingyour heel stepped on.
Once on board, I grabbed my bag and headed down thecorridor along the left bulkhead of the car to find my compartment. There wasnot room to walk with a bag at my side. It had to go in front or in back of me. And the corridor runner wasn't tacked down. Thus was my high-tech suitcaseconfounded and I made to stumble around with it raised up in front ofme.
Another man was in my berth when I reached it. But after a couple ofminutes in flustered debate with himself, he moved his stuff a couple of doorsdown. After about fifteen minutes, everyone was aboard and the conductor madehis check. As he came through, I gestured for him to raise the center bunk in mycompartment and he did so. I could not have sat erect on the bottom bunk if hehad not.
From Berlin to Cracow is a ten hour overnight trip. I couldhave flown in and saved some time, but I wanted the train. That's how themillions of deportees had gone, though not in such luxury. And my situation wasdefinitely luxurious by comparison with a livestock car and even by what I nowknow to be Eastern Bloc standards.
Each compartment had three bunks,mattresses, blankets and a corner sink and vanity. At one end of the car was adeclining, soiled, lockable, unisex restroom with sink, soap, flush toilet andnewsprint roll. At the other end was the conductor's combined berth, office, andconcession stand, for which I was grateful. Two dollars worth of deutchmarks gotme some bread, butter, cheese, cold bottled water (with gas), and a surprisingnumber of Polish coins in change.
My compartment was small and well-lit. Idoubt it measured 6' by 7'. On the right were the three bunks with blankets,sheets and pillows. Each bunk had a reading light. The top bunk was barelyeighteen inches from the ceiling. Only a little more separated the center fromthe top and the bottom from the center. Leather netting hung loose for use, Ipresume, by the top bunk occupant or as a baggage restraint. On the left was aten inch deep alcove with a clothes-hanging rod and sliding fabric curtain. Alsoon the left next to the window was the sink and the lighted vanity andmirror.
The window could be opened and was fitted with both a tattered,off-white, vinyl blackout screen which could be pulled down and a more opaque redcurtain on a horizontal top track. A baseboard-type (steam?) heating unit withvalve was below the window, but it gave off no heat. All the surfaces wereearly, brown and white woodgrain, institutional formica. I could not stand withmy shoulders squarely in the doorway.
The whole train had seen better days. All the cars and the engine needed painting. The compartment and corridorcurtains were clean but stained. In the corridor, some of the windows could notbe securely closed and some could not be opened. Wall-mounted ashtrays in thecorridor were empty but caked with ash and tar and seemed never to have beencleaned. Weatherstripping on the windows was too worn to beeffective.
Moisture condensed on the windows both inside and out making itimpossible to watch the world go by through the streaked and dirty glass. Corners of formica were chipped and surfaces scratched. The blankets and sheetswere ample and spotless, though, which was comforting. But the overall drabnesswas impervious.
We had started boarding in the twilight and darkness fellbefore we were all settled in and on our way. There might have been a dozenpeople in my car, which would accommodate about thirty. All but the conductorseemed to speak English as well as German or Polish.
The couple in the nextcabin forward turned out to be from the University of Maryland and was headingfor an annual reunion and three-week stay with Polish fellow academics. Wetalked a little bit and I took advantage of their experience and got severaltouristy questions answered. They even had a year-old travel booklet on seasonalhappenings in Cracow, which they gave to me and they suggested the conductormight have something more recent. They had gotten their booklet from theconductor the previous year.
If it hadn't been for that couple, I wouldn'thave visited the conductor's cabin. And if I hadn't done that, I wouldn't haveknown about his little snack stand. And I'd have gone hungry and thirsty for thenext ten hours. But I did visit. And he had some cheap snacks, as well as amore current (and free) Cracow booklet. I got from him what I could and returnedthe Maryland couple's tour booklet with sincere thanks.
Between the bookletand my neighbors, I got all my questions except two answered - How could I getto the town of Oswiecim (renamed Auschwitz by the Germans) and could I find atourist hotel there? The couple next door said they didn't know but were certainI could find out from the Polish friends who were to meet them in Cracow. Ithanked them again for all and they soon retired.
Everybody retired but theconductor and me. He stayed up to catch up on his paperwork and I just stayedup. Smoking wasn't allowed in the berth but was allowed in the corridor. I leftmy door open and went restlessly from sitting on the bunk to standing and smokingin the corridor while looking out an open window. There was little to see, butthe air was nice.
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Occasionally, one of the other passengers stepped out for a smoke. But I was soon enough alone again and tired. After fiddling with my papers andsuitcase, loading my camera, and scarfing up my snacks and water, I went to thehead and came back intent on sleeping. About ten minutes later, a knock on thedoor interrupted my getting ready for sleep. It was the conductor returning mypassport and ticket book. Now, I might sleep peacefully.
Sleep didn't comequickly. Just before it did, the train jerked to a stop and snapped me back. Border check! And a moment of panic. How would it go, I wondered. The cold warwas not that long ago and I was traveling with unused Polish visa stamps alongwith a few Barbadan, Venezuelan and Brasilian entries and exits, not to mention abit of paranoia. After all, this wasn't just the third-world. This was anoutpost of The Evil Empire!
Three or four well-armed, young and healthysoldiers stomped down the corridor and back. About two minutes later, theystarted knocking on doors. I stood in my compartment doorway and watched a whileas they went about their business. When they got to me, I gave them my passport. Two of them looked it over together and then one left. The one who remainedlooked at the passport picture and then at me and then at the passport again ashe held it up to a light in the corridor. He then pocketed the passport andleft. After several minutes, a third soldier came to my door with my passport inhand. He, too, looked at me and then at my passport. I breathed a sigh ofrelief when he gave it back to me and, having cleared the border, I closed mydoor. Shortly, the train rolled on and I slept.
Dualities dogged me thewhole time I was on the train. I was at once aware of my comfort and my freedomand reminded that others - deportees - had headed in on trains without amenities,watched over by far less benign officials. I knew they had traveled on this samerailbed, if not these exact rails. I knew that some had seen in daylight whatdarkness and fogged windows now kept me from seeing and that others had seen thegreater darkness of cattle cars and boxcars, not knowing where they were or whatthey were passing or where they were going. They had come in stifling heat andin deadly cold. I would see my family again. They had not.
The wraith oftheir hardship floated around me and I was awakened by its chill. It nudged mehard when I drew down more blankets from the upper bunk and sat huddled in themnot wanting to move so that it couldn't slip under them and possess me. What somany had suffered gnawed at me and I couldn't sleep again. My discomfort wasminor, since the temperature was only in the fifties. But, with no heater, Ifound myself hoping that every next stop would be Cracow. The effect of thecontrasts I drew was profound.
I know you know the cliche. But, have youever felt the icy fingers of death? I did on that night as I wandered through mystore of images. Blanketed against the Fall chill in the middle of a clean andcomfortable sleeping car, I felt myself in a dark and stinking place in Winter. My heart froze. Not my physical heart, but the heart of me, deep in my chest. Everything that is me - my center - was penetrated by a point of intense cold. And with that cold came loneliness and despair so deep I could scarcelyacknowledge it. Had I tried to grasp it, I think I would never have recovered. Once just something about which I'd read, the miserable emptiness of transportbecame part of me. A door in my soul that leads to that desperate landscape isnow forever ajar. I can push it open at will, but it will not close.
Thatawful cold and bleakness are now as real as anything else and all that I am orhave been now goes into my understanding. I can touch that emptiness any timenow, but I do so only for moments and not often. It can be difficult just torecall the moment on that train when I first felt that dreadful cold. The sorrowis wrenching and when I confront it I start to cry and could go on and oncrying.
Now both a husband and a father, I have internalized the horribleconfrontation and separation and revelation of the deportees in ways I could notwhen I was younger or on my own. In the morning cold of that Fall day, in mywell-equipped railroad car, I began to truly know what I'd vowed never to forget. For the rest of the trip, I sat looking out the window through which I could seenothing and wondered what was to be seen.
Daylight came on a little beforewe reached Cracow. It was still in the fifties and overcast. I dragged my buttand my bags off the train at about 5:30 in the morning of September 7. Thefriends who greeted the Maryland couple were of no help. In fact, they weredistinctly unfriendly about Auschwitz (as my traveling companion called it) andequally unfriendly about whether there might be a hotel in Oswiecim (as I calledit). So, I went looking for the tourist information center.
What a clod! A tourist center? If there was one, it was closed. So, I wandered around thestation and bus kiosks and taxi stands trying to get my bearings. But I wasn'tup for dragging my suitcase all over Cracow. After trekking as far as the end ofthe cul-de-sac serving the station complex, I decided I'd go to the hotel whosename I knew the most about, the Holiday Inn. Thus resolved, I went back to a taxistand I'd passed and negotiated a ride. Five clicks later I was there.
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Endof Part II