The name may not carry as much horror as the word Auschwitz, but it should.
Unlike Auschwitz I, the red-brick camp with the infamous Arbeit Macht Frei sign, I saw the entrance to this second camp, Birkenau, from a long way away.
Converging railway tracks glint under the cloud-covered sky and race up to the watchtower’s mouth, pulsing right on into the heart of the camp. Architects designed Birkenau for incarceration and then extermination on a colossal scale, to ease the congestion at Auschwitz I.
A few people mill around the entrance, taking photos and waiting for their friends.
I step over the tracks that brought Jews here from France, Holland, Hungary and beyond and go in. After a brief spell of confusion, I’m waved up a staircase and am thankful that the crowds have gone.
When I read that the Nazis executed over a million people here, the number overwhelmed my imagination. Standing in Birkenau’s watchtower, the meaning behind those zeros becomes clear. Over my left shoulder, a few tourbuses are idling, but to the right, line upon line of chimneys rise out of the wasteland like burnt stalks at the end of a harvest. Railway tracks shoot straight down the centre, scars with no end in sight.
Back on the ground, I feel lost. Birkenau is preserved, not restored, and there’s no such thing as a visitors’ guide or a recommended route. It is what it is, the place seems to say.
So I wander in a clockwise direction, the icy water and mud introducing me to new leaks in my boots and my feet soon become numb to ease the pain. Each row of blocks looks the same, stout chimney, barrack space, snow and barbed wire. On and on and on they go without further explanation. But then, can there really be any further explanation?
Apart from two men in dark jackets who peer into the wreck of one building, I am alone. Eventually a small sign tells me that the collapsed pile of bricks used to be the gas chamber and that the next pile of rubble was a crematorium. Dynamite destroyed them both before the Soviet army arrived.
After around forty-five minutes, or maybe more, I reach the end of the railway track. A previously bright bouquet of flowers lies there, shivering and shuddering in the wind, with melting ice drowning its petals. The watchtower that loomed over me at the entrance is barely visible, such is the size of the place, the length of the track. On these platforms, a sign says, “selections” were made: workers on one side of the camp, the rest to the chambers.
This section is busier, and a group of teenagers pass by, led by their teacher and carrying Israeli flags. The blue stars burn bright against the whiteness, making the snow look drab, though while the adults look earnest, their students look bored and cold.
The same unease creeps over me as it did in Aushwitz I, perhaps more so here where there are fewer exhibits or references to tie together history with the reality of a waterlogged field. What makes this place meaningful? These bricks and these chimneys or the stories we carry with us, burned into our past?
Just then, I reach a low-ceilinged building, one that stands out because it still has both walls and doors. I find two other solo travellers inside and we follow one other self-consciously through the echoing chambers. A reflective wall bears photos of the missing and the dead. Furnaces make me flinch until I read that they were used for sterilising equipment. A grim concrete shower block… that was used for showers.
Then I’m back into the snow, where tall pine forests stretch into the skies. In memory of Anne Frank, I search around for a sign of beauty, for something to pin hope upon, despite the torment that rages around. But I fail. The barbed wire is everywhere, the snow a tainted, filthy brown, and the bone-seeping cold makes me want to cry out with pain.
I am wearing a ski jacket, hat and leather boots, not striped pyjamas, and after two hours here I cannot feel my wrists, my ankles, my face. I pass monument after monument but by now I just want it all to stop.
I stumble on, slipping and sliding on the uncertain ground and catch a glimpse of the candy-pink houses that line the edge of the camp and overlook this monstrous swamp.
My misery is interrupted by the waves and shouts of a man beyond the fence.
“Are you the girl I’m waiting for?”
“Er, probably not,” I say as I get closer.
“Well, I dropped a girl at the watchtower but I’m supposed to meet her here,” he pats the side of his car. “I’m a taxi driver. You can call me Jan.”
My eyes still stream from the cold and I weigh up the reality of the distance between me and the original bus stop, several miles away.
“You have seen Auschwitz?” he asks.
“Then you have seen all you came for, you are finished, yes?”
I look across the vast expanse of endless snow and wire, twisted remains and dark history. “I suppose so.”
“Then you have seen all you came for, you are finished, yes?”
“I’ll drive you back then,” he offers. “And then I’ll come back for her. It’s a very long way otherwise. I learned my English in America you know, we left when the communists were here but then we came back to Oświȩcim…”
I climb in, grateful, oh so grateful for the warmth.
“Here’s a picture of my family,” we swerve across the road as he stabs at a photo, “they have a house just over there as well.”
I don’t want to seem rude but I can’t help but ask, “Why? Why here?”
He shrugs. “Why not? It is good land and it is cheap. After I came from America, you are not American, no? Australian? Ah, English. Here have a sweet, no? An apple…” and he continues merrily to himself until we screech to a halt in front of the minibus, blocking its departure.
He calls out in Polish and the driver opens the door.
“One more, eh?” Jan says to me. “I said there’s always room for one more. So, then, now you are back and now you have seen everything.”He hands me his card. “For you or your friends the next time you are here.”
I don’t really know what to say. “Thank you,” I mumble. “Dziękujȩ.”
And that’s it. Ninety minutes later I’m back in Krakow, in the rush hour stream of21st century life. Beyonce’s Beautiful Nightmare accompanies the commuters and shoppers, while fluorescent lights shine over the latest Zara collection and women sell salt-encrusted Obwarzanki from kiosks sheltered from the wind.
I go to buy one and find two pieces of paper in my pocket. Jan’s card and the square cut-out from the first bus driver. It lists the departure times from Auschwitz back to the modern world.
It’s only small, but perhaps this was the sliver of beauty and hope that I was searching for.