My roommate has some sort of condition where she gets freaked out by small holes. Trypophobia is what she calls it. It is hard not to make immature jokes about the fact that she is scared of holes, obviously, but for her this fear is very real.
I’ve never understood it. There is nothing frightening about holes. Holes are empty. If you dig a hole in the ground you can hide inside it, you can cozy up and feel the edges pressing in, nice and safe. A small hole in a sweater is something you can poke a pencil through, drag your fingernail around when you are nervous. Comfortable and secure. Nothing to fear.
What I do not like is the idea of small particles; miniature bits of a thing. Amathophobia, my friend Frank explained once. Fear of dust.
The thing about tiny particles is that they used to be part of something bigger but broke off, seceded from the mass, or maybe the mass disintegrated. I do not like these particles because it is not clear to me at what point they stopped being a part of the larger mass and started existing as their own small things, and this ambiguity makes me nervous. It is impossible to sort out when the particles lost the essential nature of the thing they used to be and became a flake, or a kernel, or a tiny morsel that is absolutely nothing at all besides the flake kernel morsel; that stands for nothing bigger than its atomic unit; that has no higher meaning than its small, miserable self.
We shed 1.6 pounds of skin every year. Live skin cells become microscopic dust. When my skin peels away from my body can I stare at the tiny skin flakes on the ground and say, there is Eliya? Of course not. So what does that mean about the skin flakes that are attached to me right now? Are they any more Eliya than the skin flakes on the ground? Structures of identity begin to crumble very quickly when particles get involved. I do not like it at all.
I know that I do not want to be here as soon as we step out of the van. I can feel it all over, my whole body sinking into itself, sending my brain a firm no, thank you. The sky is a bumpy sort of grey, like there are a lot of tiny particles floating around, like pointillism without any of the colors. But I am here, so. My brain with apologies sends my feet trudging forward.
My classmates and I sip coffee while we wait in the security line. We arrived in Poland the night before, and none of us have slept. We’re all in that kind of dull sleep-deprived stupor that feels a little bit nice as long as you’re with other people. But every time I look past the line of people and see the hazy sky in front of me, I have to fold my hands together to keep my thumb from twitching. I would like to leave, it is telling me, stretching of its own accord to point in the direction where our van is parked.
A group of girls glides to the front of line and hovers at the entrance. When there is a gap, they slither forward, approaching the security counter.
“Cutting the line at Auschwitz?” my friend Mitch whispers, eyeing the girls. “Jeez. Not a good look.” We all giggle quietly.
After security, a mittened man hands us headphones. The tour is thoughtfully orchestrated so the guides do not have to yell; because even on a day as windy as this one, the information we are about to hear is not meant to be screeched. The guide murmurs a greeting into her speakerphone; it lands directly in our ears. Thank you for being here. Crisp and clear. So we will not miss a word.
We follow her to our first stop: the metal ARBEIT MACHT FREI sign that hangs over the entrance to the camp, and this moment feels like plunging my head into ice-cold water, because suddenly there it is, here I am, that sign, this place, really really.
I am thinking back to the young adult Holocaust novels I pored through as a child, many written autobiographically by survivors of Auschwitz, most of whom, on their way to a hell they cannot yet contemplate, pause underneath the lettering, which seems to loom incredibly, monstrously large, to have a think. Arbeit macht frei. Work will set me free? Hmm. These soon-to-be-heroes never seem to believe the sign’s promise. Clever Jews.
I know it concerned my parents, the ferocity with which I flew through these concentration-camp memoirs. Are you sure you feel okay reading this? my mother would ask me gently. Can we talk about what you learned from your book? Are you upset about that? It was an oddly maudlin habit for such a cheerful child, but I couldn’t help myself. I was doing research.
Mostly, my interest was theoretical. I was curious in a clinical, distant way: what is it, exactly, about me and mine that made a whole lot of people want to make us go away forever?
But every once in a while, I heard about how someone painted a swastika on a highway barrier nearby, or a kid in my Sunday school class who went to an elementary school in rural Ohio told me they made fun of his yarmulke, and I thought about how Granny was born in 1938 and Hitler did his thing in the forties and Granny wasn’t all that old, really, and if one person (Granny) could live long enough to watch the world swing from scary to safe, it was not out of the question that another person (me, maybe) could watch the world swing all the way back.
And in those moments of paranoia, the YA Holocaust books became how-to guides. This boy, how did he escape? This girl, she lied about her age. That is a good trick. I will lie about my age, too, when the time comes.
I used to ask my friends: If there is a second Holocaust, can my family live with yours? Are you sure? My dad eats a lot, can you promise to feed him? You’ll need extra groceries, you know. And a sliding wall, do you have one of those? One girl I read about lived behind a sliding wall. Well, maybe you should build one. Just in case.
So when the guide starts talking about how someone stole the ARBEIT MACHT FREI sign recently, a tiny little part of me is thinking: I should practice how to cry quieter. If the people who ever stole the sign come to steal me, I will hide in the attic and they will never hear me. One of the girls in one of my books did that and they never found her.
But the mature, rational part of me knows this is silly, knows I am safe, is focused on staring ahead, like the rest of the group, calmly taking in the sign. It’s smaller than I expected, I decide. Like when you see a macho celebrity in the airport and discover he’s actually only 5’7”. Not so intimidating, actually.
Often in my books around the time the narrators encounter the sign, they have some sort epiphany about the sky. They stare up, as high as their necks can crane, wondering if anyone is up there thinking about the people on the ground, but all they see are flecks of ash dotting the sky, spreading out infinitely in every direction. And then they realize that these small dots comprised, until very recently, a person who was actively producing thoughts and feelings and sweat and excrement and is now a tiny piece of white flake drifting dully through the sky.
And sometimes these books have an additional horrific moment wherein a character has been assigned the task of cremating the dead bodies, and comes across his own father, inert in a pile of similarly cold naked emaciated Jewish men. Or watches her sister march into the gas chambers and hours later smells the scent of burning flesh. Smelling is just inhaling tiny particles of a thing into your nose.
Our arrival in Poland comes just a few months after 60,000 white supremacists march in Warsaw; a month or so after the government announces a ban on the labelling of death camps as “Polish” in an attempt to remove implication from the Polish people for the massacre of Jews, to refocus the conversation on the non-Jews who suffered and died during the Holocaust; and just weeks after backlash against this law spurred increasingly virulent anti-Semitic epithets, sentiments, and demonstrations, like the march where Polish nationalists carried signs that read “Take off the Yarmulke - sign the law” and “stop Jewish aggression against Poland.”
It is also a month or so before a survey emerges concluding that people are forgetting about the Holocaust: 66% of millenials cannot say what Auschwitz was. I do not know this particular statistic when I am there, but I know the trends. Rising white nationalism, Holocaust denial, xenophobia, anti-Semitism.
A few days after we tour Auschwitz, we visit the Schindler Museum.
I like historical museums–these places of quiet communion with the past. Sometimes in museums I stare at an antique uniform or a cluster of words on the wall and I feel like it’s just me and history, alone together. And then I look around and there are so many people inside our little museum cosmos; there is a pleasant hum of empathy because we are all here, we are all absorbing these narratives of times long ago, forming silky threads of connection, soaking up the past and thereby affirming our faith in the future.
I assumed this museum would be about Oskar Schindler, but I find very little of the information on him. Most of the museum’s focus is on World War II in Poland. There is also a lot of preliminary information on the history of Poland. I learn things like how Poland was sort of tossed around by a lot of Big Kahuna colonizers that kept trying to inhale it, like Russia, and how World War I was a good thing for Poland because it finally became an independent nation. And how when World War II came, the government told the citizens not to worry, that this war would be quick and neat and they would all go back to celebrating their newfound countryhood lickety split.
I also learn a lot about how much the people of Poland were not in charge of their fates, and how such loss of agency therefore disqualified Poles from being in charge of the fates of other people, like Polish Jews. How the Nazis pinned posters everywhere with lists of Jews and intellectuals and other unacceptable people for whom they were searching; how they threatened to murder entire families belonging to adults who knew but did not disclose the whereabouts of these listed people. How they cut the Polish people off from credible news sources and distributed newspapers that justified the Nazi cause and played propaganda films in public squares.
I am thinking about today’s Poland, the way many people are sick of the interminable guilt. It makes some amount of sense, I conclude, that they are fed up with the rhetoric of blame. Maybe there is a difference between atrocities committed out of malice toward others and those committed out of fear for the self, and maybe the people in this country have felt seventy years of guilt for the things their great-grandparents did because they were confused and afraid. And maybe the recent push for new laws came from this place of frustration.
“Polish people are people,” our guide tells us. “They need art and entertainment to live on just like everyone else. Of course they were going to…” she trails off. “To watch the films.” And turn in Jews, I think she means to add.
In Auschwitz, I am not thinking at all about the Polish land we are standing on or the Polish people who may or may not have condoned the atrocities here. I am thinking about the Jews and the others and myself and death and the Banality of Evil and mostly trying to cry quieter because people are starting to look at me and I feel like an idiot. Plus I only brought one tissue and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find dry real estate for nose-blowing.
We pass through dark rooms, empty except for the glass display cases. Each has a different theme. A pile of silver pilfered from prisoners. A mountain of shoes. One display case is full of baby’s clothes–tiny dresses, period onesies. A whole room of hair. So much hair, heaping piles of it. I don’t understand how it is in such pristine condition. Doesn’t hair decay? Perhaps seventy years is not so much time after all; not enough for decomposition to set in.
Our guide explains that the Germans wanted to use every part of the people they captured. Redistribute the precious items. Turn Jewish bones into hairpins, skin into couch cushions. Waste not.
In one barrack, we pass through a long hallway. On its walls are photographs of people who died in Auschwitz.
There is a Polish theater artist named Tadeusz Kantor who made a lot of avant-garde art about both world wars and he has this thing about how photography complicates the idea of death. According to Kantor, if you can look into someone’s eyes in a picture and see life inside, this person can never truly die. This makes sense to me intellectually, but in reality, I think it just makes the pain of death more acute.
Like the picture of Anne Frank on the cover of her diary, my favorite of all the YA Holocaust memoirs I ever read. I thought Anne was hilarious and cool and self-aware and brilliant and everything I wanted to be; I felt that she understood my angst and I—so far as I could empathize—hers. Plus everyone told me I looked like her, which I loved. In this picture, she stared up from her desk, caught mid-sentence, a huge grin, bright eyes. I used stare at her face for hours and think how easily, with a simple cosmic switch of birth years and locations, this girl could have been me, how horrible it was that this person had to stop living.
In Auschwitz the people on the walls feel the same. The hallway is so long and the pictures do not end, it feels like, there is just face after face, staring me down, eyes that believed they would keep blinking until the new millennium and on but that instead went cold just years, months, days after this image froze them in time.
Eventually the hallway of faces ends and we go down a tiny staircase that is dusty gray–like everything at Auschwitz, except the lower we go the dustier and grayer it gets until it is very difficult to see anything. It begins to smell a little bit, and I try very hard not to think about the tiny particles flying up my nose.
We go lower and the guide is murmuring about how down here is where they kept disobedient prisoners. They implemented all different kinds of torture regimens, she says, take your pick, empty dungeons everywhere. On your left is the cell where insubordinate prisoners had to stand up without a break for days and weeks and sometimes months, too narrow to sit so they just stood until they died. Or look to your right, this one’s a bit roomier, that’s where they starved people to death. Shuffle forward please and here if you peer into this peephole you can see the tiny room for suffocating which is exactly what it sounds like, just a lot of Jews in a small room and not enough air to go around. Voila.
My tissue by this point is so saturated with liquid it has no more capacity to absorb anything and as I am futilely wiping my nose, my thumb begins to twitch again, like it did at the beginning of the tour before I knew quite how much I did not want to be here, and I drop the tissue on the ground. The tissue is so wet and the ground is so dusty; I cannot pick up the tissue because in its wetness it has attracted specks of brown and if I use it I will be wiping tiny parts of dead Jew, little molecules that once were faces on the wall, onto my sticky lip. I stare at the tissue where it sits collecting pieces of jew and my snot, untissued, begins to plunk itself in droplets in the dirt. Does snot contain DNA? I decide it does. I am leaving a piece of myself here, I think, and I can’t tell if I like this.
Our group is leaving so I grab the tissue, carry it between my nails so my fingertips don’t have to make contact with the powdery brown specks. We are shuffling so slowly and now there is another tour group blocking the stairs but we go up them anyway, pushing past limbs and torsos and feet. Over our headphones the guide is saying how we are passing by the place where they tested the first gas chambers and ssssss–the feed cuts out and I cannot hear what she is saying–the first time they tested the gas chambers they didn’t put enough sssssss and when the guards went to check after a full day the people inside were still alive so ssssssss coughing wheezing prisoners trapped inside forced their way toward clean air but the guards ssssss slammed the door, locked the Jews back in the sssssss put another dosage of poison so ssssss the next day ssssss some dead some alive sss and sss two full days sss slowly dying until ssssssssssssss—By this point I am shoving people out of my way, which I have not done in my life ever, but all I am thinking is that I have to get out of the underground place so the static in my ear will turn clean again because now I’m taking shallow breaths so I can stop inhaling dead people particles up my nose, because I’m getting a little bit dizzy, because it is hot and crowded and the air is goopy and I’m getting droopy and—
But I am being silly. There is no Zyklon B seeping through my skin, no one slamming a deadbolted door in my face. The only thing between me and clean air is a few tourists walking a little too slowly. I shove my way toward the top of the staircase and emerge into the gray sunshine.
Apparently Hitler wanted to make a museum about Jewish people once they were all gone. That’s why we have most of the stuff that the Nazis didn’t burn or redistribute—the piles of hair, of baby clothes.
I can’t stop thinking about this as we explore Krakow. Because in this city, I am coming to understand, Judaism has become not much more than a relic, something fragmentary from another time. A poorly curated museum.
A tiny mural on the corner of a building, handpainted: “IN MEMORY OF THE BOSAK FAMILY, RESIDENTS OF KAZIMIERZ 1633-1941.” The occasional Jewish star paved at the foot of what might have been a synagogue. A Jewish museum where the man tells me there are no Jewish employees, “but we had a Jew intern here a few summers ago. Josh. From California. Maybe you know him?”
At the Schindler museum, the guide mumbles something about “One hundred fifty left” in the middle of a vague sentence about demographics, so when she is done speaking I pull her aside and ask her to clarify.
“Were you saying there are 150,000 Jews left in Poland?” There were 3.5 million Jewish people in Poland before the Holocaust, so I suppose this number makes sense.
“Sorry,” she says. “We have to keep moving.” I cannot tell if she is being odd or if she does not understand me. After the next stop, I ask her again, loudly. What does this number mean?
She stares at the ground. “One hundred fifty, yes. In Krakow today.”
“One hundred fifty thousand?” I ask.
“One hundred fifty. Jews. Living in Krakow.” She does not look at me once during this conversation.
After we leave the Schindler museum, I call my parents and tell them about what I learned—the way the Nazis coerced, threatened, propagandized the Poles. Maybe it isn’t fair to be so angry about the Polish bystanders, I say.
Maybe none of us are very good anyway and maybe these people were scared and misinformed and knew not what they did and who are we, really, to say that these people were so evil.
“Yes,” my mom says. “Fair. But Polish people turned in Jews at far higher rates than practically any other country. A lot of people there really hated Jews.”
“Did and do,” my dad chimes in. “Poland is like, massively anti-Semitic. Probably the most anti-Semitic nation in Europe. Sorry, sweetie.”
I hang up the phone, feeling silly. I knew this, of course. But in the warm, cobwebby narrative I began to tell myself of this pretty city, I switched out hatred for apathy, and the whole thing felt a lot easier to swallow. An easy mistake, I suppose.
Halfway through the Auschwitz tour my leaky face dries up, because the human body can only store so much water, and I drank a lot of coffee waiting in line.
We have landed in the center of Auschwitz I, facing the camp’s wide gallows. The guide points in the distance to a picturesque yellow house. This is where the head guard lived with his family, she says. In front of me, another man on the tour has reached his hand over to cup his girlfriend’s ass, and watching this interaction makes my stomach churn, so I turn away from the group and stare at the house for a while.
It really is very pretty. In a tasteful way. Pretty yellow house for a pretty yellow-haired family. Pretty pretty, and suddenly everything is pretty, and I am watching this pretty Aryan family, so happy, blonde and coiffed, bouncy pink cheeks; cozying up in quilts when it gets cold, driving to the beach when it is warm. It is nice, I see this; nice to have so much space, to be able to stretch their strong arms and legs wide, yawning into the lebensraum nice Herr Hitler made good on: throwing open the curtains to let sun beam down on the manicured carpets, peeling the windows open to breathe fresh air on calm days. And then, on days when the breeze picks up, discreetly shutting the windows, so the ashy particles floating by don’t contaminate the tiny lungs tucked safe inside the tiny blonde children tucked safe inside this pretty cottage tucked safe inside this horrifying death factory; lungs that will stretch and grow and inhale for years and years, even as tiny lungs this very same size wheeze and expire elsewhere in the camp.
The guide has turned her attention to the gallows. These ones were for group hangings, she explains, but the nooses are gone and everything still looks pretty, so all I can think is that the structure looks like a big swingset frame. You could probably fit six or seven swings on it. Six happy children, swinging, shrieking; fourteen little legs, Jewish legs, pumping higher and higher; stretching to reach heaven, I imagine, like babel.
And then the man in front of me who was fondling his girlfriend has now pulled out his phone and is scrolling through Facebook, and it is not pretty and nothing here is, but before I can decide whether I should punch this boy, the guide is saying “here is a crematorium” and my Mortal Enemies have chosen this time for a photo-op. They crouch next to the smokestack, this couple, and pose for a selfie. In my head their smiles stretch so wide their gums are shining and the smiles turn to grimaces and blood oozes out of their mouths, staining the ground.
I want to sit down, I want to call my mother, I want to scream. Why did you come here? Why the hell did you come here? Because if here in this place we are not all feeling the same pain then dear god how can there possibly be any potential for shared empathy anywhere else?
The guide is saying that one of the big-name Hitler cronies was killed here after the war, that his war crimes judge sentenced him to hang from the same noose he had forced thousands upon thousands of Jewish necks into. I know this man was probably not born evil, was likely just one of those strong-jawed sheeple who wanted to feel special, who fell under the spell of a system that told him he was born superior. He was just following orders, following rules, I know. I know that a life is a precious thing to lose. In this moment I do not care.
When I imagine the man’s stiff body swaying languidly in the breeze, tiny flecks of skin drifting off cell by cell, until he is no longer one body but a million pieces of indistinguishable dust, it is my turn to smile real big. Cheeeese. It is pleasing to me. Molecules of Nazi, signifying nothing. This death is sweet.
In a gift store on the streets of Krakow, I find rows of tiny porcelain figures sitting on a shelf. They have cute bug-eyes and cartoonishly large noses and payot—traditional Hasidic hair curls—and yarmulkes and prayer shawls. And they are all clutching a real one-cent Polish coin the size of their tiny porcelain faces.
I show the figurine to Mitch, who is with me in the store, who is also Jewish; I hold it in the air with my eyebrows high and he stares at it for a moment and then says—
“Aw! So cute!” and returns to the chess board he is inspecting as a gift for his grandfather, the one who escaped Krakow with his family when he was a little boy and the Nazis were just about to close in and never not one time came back.
“No,” I say, and point at the money my figurine is clutching. “It’s a Jew begging for money.”
“Oh,” he says, and we stare at it for a little while. “Or is he showing off how much money he has?”
The version of me that I would like to be in this story pockets the little Jew and glides out of the shop and then throws it on the cobblestones outside, smashes it to tiny pieces, bashes its head in so that no one can have this perfect little Jew, so that no one can take it home and put it on the window sill to laugh at. And then this ideal-me picks up the little Polish penny that the Jew used to be clutching from where it has landed on the sidewalk and adds it to her wallet alongside the abundant America coins that my plush paint-bearing ancestors earned in a place that was not Europe while people less fortunate than Mitch’s grandparents choked on poison. Because waste not a single part of the Jew.
But in the version of this story that actually happens, I just return the figurine to the glass shelf from whence it came and nod shyly at the stoic lady manning the counter. Sorry, I try to say, except I don’t speak a word of Polish.
The thought of stealing the figurine doesn't occur to me even until much later. I follow the rules. I am a rule-follower extraordinaire.
The town we pass on the ride home from Auschwitz is dilapidated and feels very empty. There are rundown gas stations and graffitied signs advertising something via photos of sexy, windswept women. Presumably people live here, because there are all the requisite signs of civilization, although we don’t see any of them.
I wonder what it is like for the people who live within walking distance of this place where millions of people took their last breath. Does it feel haunted? Probably it feels like nothing at all. In America we live in a country that has taken land from people and killed other people and subjugated even more and I think that if aliens learned our history and then came to visit they would wonder how we could possibly live with the knowledge that our ancestors did this thing and we’d be like “idk I don’t think my actual ancestors did the actual thing so it’s not really my emotional burden” and they’d be like “yeah but you inherited all the benefits of the thing they did” and we’d be like “yes” and then we’d go back to our knitting. Probably life in this rundown Polish town is unremarkable.
I don’t feel much like chatting on this bus ride, and I have seen enough of this town, so I pick up my phone. There isn’t any service, not much to do; I flip halfheartedly through my photos.
I took two pictures in Auschwitz, both of them in the final segment of the tour, Auschwitz II Birkenau.
While Auschwitz I was created for torturing and punishing and killing enemies of the reich of all sorts, Auschwitz II had a much simpler mission: it was constructed after the head honcho Nazis decided on the Final Solution for the express purpose of killing as many Jews as possible. Complete extermination of the Jewish race. Auschwitz II Birkenau is where the massive gas chambers once stood, before the Nazis burned them down to cover their tracks.
This section of the tour is less directed, so we’re all sort of wandering around, staring at the rubble. I expected to be able to feel the evil rising up from this place where so many hundreds of thousands of human beings lost their lives. But there is no sense of anything powerful buried in the charred wreckage. It’s just vast structures crumbling into increasingly smaller pieces. Someday there will only be piles of soft ash left, someday even this will be gone entirely.
I wander around until I come upon a series of rectangular stones with words inscribed into them. I find the one written in English. Its message is bleak—“For ever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity,” it begins. But what I like about the inscription is that lower down I see the word JEWS, and that next to the English stone is another stone and another and another, maybe twenty stones that all say the same thing, each in a different language, each language’s word for JEWS. JEWS JEWS JEWS.
And here amidst the ruined gas chambers, surrounded as I am by charred lumps devoid of meaning, suddenly the plenitude of JEWS is something I would like to quantify. Because they tried to make us go away but here we are, everywhere; the massive diaspora endures. So I take a picture.
I am still trying to fit all the stones into one frame when our guide wanders past. She doesn’t appear to be doing anything, so I make my way over to her. I ask her awkwardly because I do not know how to phrase it, why does she do this thing that she is doing. She is very nice and does not seem offended. She tells me in a voice much softer than the tinny one I had been hearing over the microphone that her grandmother was forced to do manual labor for the Nazis and her grandfather was part of the Polish resistance and tried to save Jews. She says that she gives tours at Auschwitz because of them.
I ask her, because she seems amenable, what she thinks of the recent laws restricting the way people talk about concentration camps. “I do not support my government,” she says, looking steely.
She tells me that she has been doing this for twelve years, Monday through Friday most weeks. I ask her how she does this every day, because I cannot imagine that I would be able to return here ever again, least of all make this place into a habit.
She shrugs and shakes her head, like she doesn’t know how to answer this. Does it help to not think about what she is saying? I ask. To make herself a little bit numb?
“No. Never,” she says. “I will never be indifferent to what I am saying. Not ever.”
As for the second photo: this one happened on our way out of the last barracks we visited, the very last stop on the tour. I noticed an etching here scratched into the wall. So high in the sky I almost missed it, all caps, no punctuation, scratched so faintly into the light brick I could only just make it out.