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Irena Karafilly

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Ashes and miracles: A Polish journey
by Irena Karafilly   

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Books by Irena Karafilly
· The Stranger in the Plumed Hat
· Night Cries
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Publisher:  Malcolm Lester Books ISBN-10:  189412104X Type: 


Copyright:  1998 ISBN-13:  9781894121040

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An enriched travelogue combining an introduction to Poland, along with a personal memoir and reflections on Polish-Jewish relations.



The sky is the first of many surprises: cloudless and blue as a peacock’s neck when my inner script apparently called for the leaden sky of wartime photographs: I am on my way to Auschwitz. Having decided against an organized bus tour, I head toward Krakow’s old railway station, unreasonably jolted to find my destination – a name haunting millions – printed above a Polish ticket counter.

Today’s Auschwitz – Oswiecim in Polish – is a small industrial town serviced by a commuter train full of Poles bearing magazines, flowers. Wearing sandals and dark dress, I stand in a long queue; then, speaking Polish, say the improbable words, “One-way to Auschwitz, please.” I say one-way because the schedule makes a return by bus more convenient. Auschwitz, I say, and no one blinks or winces. Just another name on an ever-changing map.

I get on the train, sitting across from a red-haired woman frowning over a crossword puzzle. She glances up from her magazine, taking in my English paperback, my well-cut dress. I am clearly a foreigner and she smiles brightly, soon offering me a home-baked cookie.

Her name is Zofia Russak and she is a schoolteacher in Auschwitz. Her father having been a railroad man, the family was allowed to stay on in Auschwitz during the war, after most Poles had been relocated. Russak is too young to remember the war, but her parents often speak of it, she tells me. Her sons, on the other hand, are tired of the subject. “You can teach kids their ABCs,” she says, “but not the lesson of history.”

“What is the lesson, exactly?” I ask.

“Doubt yourself.” Russak brushes cookie crumbs off her skirt.

“Doubt yourself?”

“Your cause, anyway,” says Russak, reminding me of Bertrand Russell who, on being asked whether he would die for his beliefs, exclaimed: “Good God, no! I might be wrong after all!”

“So you think Hitler–”

“Not only Hitler,” she interjects with a didactic shake of her head. “The worst slaughters of history were committed in the name of some worthy cause, no?” She gives me a grave, penetrating look.

“Yes,” I say; then, “my father’s family perished in the war.”

“Ah–” sighs Russak, the conductor’s arrival forestalling further comment. The train clanks, whistles, chugging along past haystacks and grazing cows, and long-skirted peasants gripping black pitchforks. Having only yesterday walked through Krakow’s old Jewish district I find it unnerving to ride, a book in my lap, the very railroad Americans had declined to bomb, unable to believe the reports from Europe. But a trip to Auschwitz is a pilgrimage to the realm of the unbelievable, a mental surrender which perhaps explains the almost-hallucinatory moment I experience on getting off at the Auschwitz station.

I have come up to the second floor for directions, to a vast a area with wickets and tropical plants. Though I am well acquainted with these plants – palms, philodendrons, dieffenbachias – the sight of them stops me dead in my tracks. Never, except perhaps in some botanical garden, have I seen indoor plants grown to such monstrous proportions – all the way up to the cathedral ceilings, aggressively spreading left and right. True, the light is excellent, the pots enormous, but is that enough? It probably is, but standing here, on the edge of Auschwitz, these prodigious plants seem oddly macabre; a row of robust but portentous sentries on the threshold to a nightmare.

I have no relatives on my father’s side – no grandparents or aunts or uncle, no cousins – not even their photographs. Though I do not know where any of them died, I soon find myself at Auschwitz-I, doggedly looking for them among the countless snapshots. There are long corridors in the brick barracks, closely lined with the inmates’ faces. I pause before each photograph and scan the features, names. There are dark and pale faces, plump and gaunt; humble and grim and defiant faces.

“As you can see,” says an elderly woman to her younger companion, “a lot of them were Polish.” And she is right, though the vast majority of victims in the Auschwitz complex were certainly Jewish. According to recent studies, a million and a half prisoners are said to have died at Auschwitz, 10 percent of them Soviet prisoners of war, Polish political prisoners, Gypsies. I am briefly astonished to find that the camera has caught some of the inmates smiling. But then it comes to me: the snapshots were taken on arrival, with many of the prisoners still crediting the Nazis’ relocation myth. There is, in one of the barracks, an enormous room full of chipped cookware, another with a mountain of old suitcases, the owner’s name and address inscribed in white. The prisoners’ possessions, confiscated on arrival, were sorted out in an area known as Canada – symbol of abundance in Poland. They are empty now, these old suitcases, but the handwriting on them is brutally evocative, its individuality so eloquent that it instantly calls up a vision of men and women in chaotic rooms, feverishly packing up for an uncertain journey. But this is a post-Schindler’s List visit. It is difficult to be sure what the imagination would yield without Spielberg’s memorable direction.

My father grew up in a small town called Kazimierz Dolny, son of a religious scholar named Shulom and Braha, his sharp-tongued, resourceful wife There is not much more I know about my grandparents, but I can’t shake the feeling that somewhere, in one of these old barracks, I will stumble upon their faces. When I finally give up on the photographs, it is with the wry thought that had this exhibit been organized by the Germans, the photos would likely be displayed in alphabetical order. Nor am I alone in my adherence to stereotype. Just yesterday, a taxi driver told me, “Poland would be in fine shape today if only it had managed to keep Poles for labor, Germans for administration, and Jews for commerce.”

The Jews are almost all gone now, but their surviving possessions suddenly threaten my stubborn composure. What finally does me in is the display of children’s clothes: tiny, doll-size vests and dresses, much like those once worn by my infant daughter. And then the mountains of shoes, artificial limbs, wire-rimmed eyeglasses, hair. There is a sample of cloth woven from inmates’ hair, and examining it, I feel an inner compulsion to seize some Holocaust denier; drag him up to the glass enclosures, the fading, spurned evidence. Would he, I wonder, deny the denials?

“That’s really sick,” says a tall American girl in white stretch pants. “Imagine using cloth made of my hair!”

The girl’s hair is long and dark, glossy as a chestnut. It would have been handled by one of the so-called crematorium ravens, the Jewish squads forced to work on corpses, cutting long hair, pulling out gold teeth, artificial limbs. In time, these Sonderkommandros too would be gassed, but meanwhile, their teams played soccer against SS teams!

I go out and take a deep breath at this point, looking out at the clear sky, the bleak grounds full of milling tourists. There are elderly couples with halting steps, students in jeans, many Germans and Japanese with video cameras. They walk from one barrack to another, pausing to consult their guidebooks, pose for photographs. I sit on the stone steps, watching all this, surprised to see families with children, some young enough to be clutching teddy bears. Having occasionally been accused of being an overprotective mother, I now ask myself, How old should our children be before we acquaint them with life’s ultimate horrors? When my own daughter was small, I could not even bring myself to tell her that an animal had been slaughtered so she could enjoy her favorite lamb chops. It seemed such a shameful secret, the suffering inflicted on helpless animals.

I ponder this as I go to use the public washroom, taken aback by the cooking aromas wafting from the kitchen. Yes, there is a cafeteria at Auschwitz, crowded at this hour with noisy diners. Though I too am hungry, the sight of the heedless lunch crowd fills me with aversion. I feel I will be unable to eat for hours, days, possibly not until I get back home! And then – perhaps because of my recent musings – I recall my first trip to Greece, where I saw lambs grazing beside their mothers, then butcher shops with lamb carcasses hanging on hooks, attracting summer flies. It was not, in subsequent days, as easy to shut out the brutal facts as it had been while shopping at Canadian supermarkets, but did I – I who had felt shaken by the sight of dripping lambs’ blood – quit eating meat? I didn’t. When all is said and done, it is not all that difficult to shut out the knowledge of others’ pain; to silence, when it suits us, even an exigent conscience.

The grim relevance of all this pounces on me as I make my way back toward the Auschwitz barracks. What troubles me above all is the bald fact that any issue is open to rationalization, the insidious process through which we reach moral compromise, often abetted by society. And yet we ask – how can we not ask, visiting Auschwitz – how intellectual giants like Heidegger fell in with the Nazis; how thousands of ordinary decent people could go about their everyday lives seemingly unperturbed by others’ agony. The answer, as Sir Isaiah Berlin suggested, is not to be found in the common depiction of the Nazis as mad, pathological cases, but rather in the diabolically successful brainwashing of a normal populace persuaded that Jews were a subhuman species inimical to their own survival.

Certainly, any reader of Nazi diaries is bound to be struck by the pervasive sense of moral rectitude. Engaged in mass shootings and gassings, most Nazis apparently perceived themselves a positively heroic. They carried out what they saw as loathsome but essential tasks, cultivating a self-image invulnerable to the most gruesome contradictions. “It is not the German way to apply Bolshevik methods during the necessary extermination of the worst enemy of our people,” states a military court verdict against a notoriously sadistic German officer.

It is this warped vision – the human capacity for self-deception – that makes me recall Zofia Russak as I go on to visit Auschwitz’s Surgical Department. It was in this building, a putative infirmary, that the infamous Dr. Mengele carried out his experiments on human prisoners, whistling operatic tunes. The place quickly became known as the crematorium’s waiting room, Josef Mengele as the Angel of Death. The dashing doctor, however, steadfastly saw himself as a dedicated scientist engaged in valuable medical experiments. Doubt yourself.

As I leave the infirmary, my thoughts turn to the medical research institute where I once worked as a young student. Though I was often unnerved by the condition of postoperative dogs, I did not question the scientists’ moral right to conduct the experiments. I feel I must question it now, even as I wonder: Were my own daughter desperately ill, were it possible to save her through the sacrifice of some animal, would I not jump at the opportunity?

These are the questions that plague me as I pause before the Black Wall, where prisoners – mostly Poles, many of them Resistance fighters – were executed, crying out, “Long live freedom!” Today, tourists stand photographing the lit candles and wilting bouquets, the high windows boarded up to block prisoners’ view of the courtyard. My own camera, full of images of monuments and cathedrals, is back in Krakow. I have brought a notebook but rejected the thought of taking photographs. Why should note-taking seem a more respectful way of recording impressions than photography?

As I mull this over, two young Englishmen and a girl arrive and start snapping pictures. Standing before the wall, one of them slaps his hand against his chest and falls sideways, an imaginary victim of the firing squad. The girl laughs, then turns and asks would I take a picture of all three of them.

“Sorry,” I say and hasten away, shaken, stopping only when I arrive at the old camp gate with its famous sign, ARBEIT MACHT FREI – work brings freedom. Here too the photographers are at work, posing, gesturing, laughing. It is clear that to the young, World War II is ancient history. They are as morbidly curious, as unmoved, as schoolchildren in the Tower of London.

“Oh look, look – what’s that?!” a young woman’s voice cries out suddenly. She stands shielding her eyes from the sun, pointing toward one of the watchtowers. Despite the sun and the summer sky, the towers look as sinister as they do in war films. It is impossible to look up and not experience fleeting surprise at not seeing a truculent face, a pointed shotgun. But what I actually see is a bird nest – a large, round straw nest in which two storks are plainly visible.

“Listen to those tourists,” a Polish woman says to her husband. “They’ve probably never seen a stork before.”

“Probably,” says the husband. He sighs. “We won’t be seeing them much longer either if they don’t do something about the pollution.”

I run into the same couple at Auschwitz-II, known as Birkenau. They are standing in front of the main guardhouse, a forbidding, familiar structure known a the Gate of Death. It was here that new prisoners were made to disembark, after days of travel in cattle cars, to face the selection committee that would decide their fate; here that families found themselves irrevocably separated.

“Left, you died; right, you became a slave,” says the bespectacled Pole. He speaks knowledgeably about the camp, telling his wife a fact new to me: some of the Jews actually had to pay for the ticket that would bring them here! I have hung about, eavesdropping on their conversation, aware of a growing reluctance to go through the gate. Birkenau by all accounts was the ultimate hellhole, the most horrific part of the Auschwitz complex, with four steadily smoking crematoria.

“In comparison with Birkenau, Auschwitz-I was a resort,” a passing tour guide says, eliciting rueful chuckles. When one of the tourists asks where the Carmelite convent stood, the guide points vaguely over his own shoulder. He is not, his gesture makes clear, about to plunge into this particular controversy, not with Elie Wiesel’s speech still echoing all over Poland.

The Nobel Peace laureate, in Poland for the fiftieth anniversary of the 1946 Kielce pogrom, has stirred up an old hornet’s nest with his demand that all Auschwitz crosses – “an insult to Jews” – be removed from the former death camp. The Poles, having reluctantly moved the nuns (but not the twenty-three-foot crucifix standing on the site), as well as halted plans for a nearby shopping complex, have been in an uproar over Wiesel’s latest demands; a little cowed by the notoriety dredged up at Kielce but equally resentful of Wiesel’s opportunistic timing. The ensuing controversy has raised few moderate voices, surprising among them that of Marek Edelman, a commander in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. “Poles, too, died in Auschwitz and it’s understandable that they should want to have their monuments too,” he stated. “Remarks like those made by Wiesel incite people to xenophobia, nationalistic feelings, and religious fanaticism.” Edelman shied away from using the more charged antisemitism, but sentiments have been running high. On the train from Warsaw, I overheard a heated discussion between two couples, fetching up the war and much else besides.

“What does he mean “an insult’ anyway?” one of the men argued. “Why should a cross be an insult but not their star – are their dead more important than our dead; is their suffering greater than ours?”

“That’s how it is,” his wife stated. “Don’t get so worked up about it,” she pleaded. “It’s not worth risking a heart attack, is it?”

I have followed the tour group into Birkenau, a shockingly vast area bisected by a railroad track and enclosed by a barbed-wire fence, towers. The ruined camp grounds are punctuated by the remnants of burnt or demolished barracks, of which only sixty-seven have survived intact. There were once three hundred of them, made of brick or timber, standing in long grim rows in an open, 430-acre field. Originally used as stables designed to shelter fifty-two horses each, the barracks came to house hundreds of inmates, sleeping on straw in three-tier bunks, subsisting on turnip soup and bread. A Toronto friend has a snapshot sent by a surviving uncle. It shows several live skeletons reclining on the pine planks, valiantly raising their heads to look into the eye of their liberators’ camera. “Don’t ask what I had to do to survive,” said the accompanying letter. What I do ask, imagining the striped figures scurrying in the mud, the crematoria smoke, the heaps of dead bodies, is the obvious question, How could anyone who did survive go on to lead what we think of as “a normal life?”

“You can’t imagine the daily degradation,” an Auschwitz survivor told me years ago. “The fights over the slop bucket, a scrap of dry bread from the garbage dump.” Mrs. S. survived because, after weeks spent digging trenches, she was transferred to work in the camp’s kitchen. She would never stop dreaming, however, of whips and gongs and whistles; the endless dread of finding herself among those selected for the gas chambers. It was hell on earth – you really can’t imagine,” she said yet again.

And perhaps she was right just then. With the benefit of countless books and documentaries, however, I find myself imagining it all too vividly now. I also find myself somewhat disconcerted that it should be so easy, though I am for the moment prevented from exploring all the reasons for my vague discomfort.

What distracts me is the voice of an elderly woman who stands with her back to one of the ruined crematoria, pointing to what used to be the Birkenau women’s camp. It was their barrack’s proximity to the chambers of death, she says, that made it doubly difficult for the women to hold on to their sanity. Some of them just couldn’t take it and tried to escape, or else threw themselves against the electrified barbed wire. The elderly survivor tells all this to an English teenager – perhaps her granddaughter? – to whose arm she clings and clings. One day, she says, one of her own friends made a dash for the barbed wire, only to be pounced on by the SS guards’ vicious dogs.

The woman begins to weep, and I turn away, swept by a sudden, peculiar sense of shame. I may be a Holocaust survivor’s daughter, but I have come here with a notebook in my bag, a fountain pen full of ink. I have come to pay homage, I thought, but all at once feel like a trespasser, one groping to make sense of my own chaotic feelings.

Overcome by the need to be alone, I walk away briskly, eventually coming to a small pond where ashes from two of the crematoria were routinely dumped. But here, too, tourists come and go, among them an adolescent with…a walkman? Yes. He pauses with his parents and looks down at the gray water, then strolls away, his fair head bobbing rhythmically. This is one of the most unnerving things I see at Auschwitz, and it reminds me of the Nazis’ own passion for music: the waltzes and tangos that greeted new arrivals at the Gate of Death, the concerts that gifted inmates routinely put on for their jailers’ pleasure. In her fine memoir, Playing for Time, Fania Fenelon, a French singer, recalls her experience as a member of Birkenau’s women’s orchestra. It was headed by Alma Rose, Gustav Mahler’s niece, who had been unexpectedly arrested on a musical tour in Holland. When the distinguished musician died at Birkenau, her corpse was ceremoniously laid out and blanketed with flowers; a great profusion of white lilies ordered by thee grieving SS. The uniformed officers all came to pay their respects, filing past with bowed heads, many of them in tears.

It is the thought of this scene, its power to shock, that eventually leads me to an inner articulation of what has been bothering me. Simply and brutally put, it is the awareness that Auschwitz, a fifty-year-old metaphor, has gradually become a grim cliché. This may seem an offensive observation to some, and an obvious one to others; to me, it is underscored, and made intolerable, by the presence of flesh-and-blood survivors in this haunted landscape. And there is something else, equally disconcerting: one cannot write about the horrors of Auschwitz any more. One can only write about the difficulty of trying.

It is late afternoon when I retrace my steps, leaving Birkenau. Slowly, I make my way back toward town, eventually arriving at the apple orchard blocking all view of Auschwitz-I. In the dappled shade, birds sing and doves call and the apple trees spread their fruit-laden branches over the fence. I think of Yevtushenko reading his poem, “Stolen Apples,” his face aglow, recalling the incomparable taste of forbidden fruit. Impulsively, I reach out and pluck my own red apple; then stop, look at it and, once more filled with repugnance, throw it over the fence.

Only then do I see the child watching me from the house across. I look at the houses – the flower boxes, the billowing curtains – and find myself thinking of Zofia Russak’s family, sitting down to a Sunday meal, with the smell of roasting flesh carried in by the summer breeze. I imagine them awakened in the night by trains, watching through drawn curtains the unfolding of others’ nightmare. I see them shuffling back to warm beds, eventually learning to sleep through it all.

I imagine all his, and an old Holocaust poem echoes in my head, vying with theologian Michael Wyschorgrod’s words: “it is forbidden to make art out of the Holocaust because art takes the sting out of suffering.”

To be sure, but is there any virtue in perpetuating suffering? Haven’t people often turned to art precisely in order to make the unbearable less so?

This is the last question I ask myself as I board the bus, looking out the window at this place called Auschwitz. It is a disconcertingly ordinary town, on whose streets children ride bikes, dogs bark at cars, and women pause to chat under shop awnings. The bus stops, an elderly man gets on, and a soldier jumps up, offering his seat. Beside him sits a flushed woman, steadily wiping perspiration from the face of her Down syndrome daughter. Just over half a century ago, girls such as this were among the first to be herded into the gas chambers. But half a century is a very long time, and this is the sort of summer day on which the Romantics couldn’t resist putting pen to paper. Across from me, on the bus, the Down’s girl hums to herself. People smile kindly. Outside, in front of a cornfield, an arrowed sign says: TO THE MUSEUM.

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