Sunday, November 28, 2010

Railway in Birkenau

Photo credit: Sig Other


It’s the stairs I’m struck by.  From the first floor to the second, they’re terribly worn - warped and wobbly from years of use.  We’re walking through the barracks and around the grounds of Auschwitz and I’m struck not by the numbers or the stories but by the stairs.  Auschwitz is made of three parts: the original camp which was a former Polish army base, Birkenau which was built exclusively as an extermination camp and Auschwitz 3, the labor camp, which no longer exists.

As we travel from Auschwitz and Birkenau I ask about the stairs.  I worry I’m not clear – I don’t know how to ask what I want to know.  Agnieska, our young Polish guide, understands immediately.  The wear, she tells me, is not from the footsteps of concentration camp victims – she knows that’s what I was thinking.  It is not from any of the 80,000 shoes that represent a mere fifth of those who perished.  The wear is from the shoes of visitors.  “Remember,” she tells me, “the victims were here only five years.  Visitors have been coming for over sixty.”  Millions of feet stepping where victims stepped – tens of millions of visitors tracing the footsteps of one million victims – tracing but not fully getting the picture.  I find comfort in the wear of the stairs of Auschwitz – comfort in the familiarity of dips and grooves.  I’m not sure why.  Maybe its knowing that so many have come to see – so many have come to try to understand – so many have come to remember.  Or maybe it’s just that I fixate on the worn stairs and find comfort in the familiar amidst the unfathomable. 

Agnieska doesn’t go into the room with 80,000 pairs of shoes.  It’s the thing she cannot tolerate.  The display of shoes, to her, is the most upsetting sight.  It isn’t the shoes that bother me.  It’s the wax.  Across the hall from the shoes is another room with a display of brushes and combs on one side and a case holding tins and tins of wax and shoe polish.  Shoe polish is something you take with you when you believe you are leaving home to build a life elsewhere – to live in a place where you want to look presentable, build a new community, celebrate family birthdays and anniversaries and weddings.  Shoe polish is not something you take with you when you believe you are leaving home to die. 

I ask Agnieska about herself – how she chose this job.  I know she is not a Jew and I am struck by her youth – such a young woman to choose such a serious job.  Her grandmother, she says, was sent to a labor camp in Germany during the war.  As a girl, Agnieska would listen to her grandmother’s stories and became obsessed with the holocaust and so she studied history and Hebrew and became a guide so that the stories would continue.  She speaks with great pride about her country – about the Polish people and how they suffered during the war.  The camps, she is quick to point out, were not just for Jews.  The Poles were the first prisoners of Auschwitz along with a few hundred Jewish intellectuals.  As she speaks we walk slowly down the gravel road of Birkenau and snow begins to fall.    

The barracks of Birkenau are lined up in neat rows, as they would be in any army base.  They’re made of brick or wood.  Row upon row of standing barracks followed by row upon row of ruins – skeletons of chimneys and outlines of buildings that once were - all precisely stacked up on either side of the long road to death.  Past that, the woods – dense and beautiful – a sharp contrast to the haunted foreground.  It is stunning in its simplicity, in its austerity, in its quiet. There are no signs blinking “death to the Jews”, no splashes of blood on the walls, no emaciated skeletons reaching from the dark.  There are only barren buildings, scant photographs and the chill wind whistling between buildings once stuffed with humanity waiting for extinction.  It is the familiar of this place that is so striking - the absolute everydayness of it.   Sig Other notes that it is shockingly ordinary.  Without thinking, I say it is actually beautiful in a way.  He looks at me funny and walks on.  I feel odd, using that word in this place.  But it is, in a way.  Or rather, stunning.  It is orderly and ordinary and stunning in its simplicity.

Auschwitz does not bring you to your knees in the moment.  There were no tears shed as I walked the long road that runs parallel to the railway track that leads from the entry gate of Birkenau to the memorial erected between the ruins of the gas chambers number two and three.  Auschwitz sneaks up slowly – etching itself indelibly in your brain and cutting deep into your chest where it lives forever as a haunting memory of lives not lived.  

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Hail to the Snotty Chief

I marvel at the brilliance that is seventeen.  Seventeen means you can drive yourself, it means you can drive your siblings and your friends, it means you are old enough to self-regulate to a certain extent.  Seventeen is accompanied by a fair amount of adult freedom and responsibility.  It is also accompanied by a fair amount of insecurity and uncertainty and the emotional swings that come with adolescence. 
Our seventeen year old, our Child One, has all of these things.  She has lot of that adult freedom.  She’s incredibly responsible and she comes and goes as she pleases.  But she is not adult.  She can’t vote.   She can’t drink (not that she wants to).  She is still, legally, a minor.  Seventeen, I’m often reminded in spite of her poise and maturity, is still quite young.  Take, as case in point, a moment with her earlier this week. 

Child One had given a brilliant speech at a fancy Beverly Hills fundraiser a week prior.  She was a little nervous.  Her voice was maybe pitched a bit higher than normal.  She held her head maybe a little more awkwardly than she might otherwise.  But only those of us who know her best were aware of any of these flaws.  The rest of the room saw her as brilliant and articulate and composed – a performance belying her few years – a performance worthy of a well-educated, secure adult.  After her speech, several admirers approached – people who had never met her before – people impressed by her ability to speak with such command at so young an age.  One man, a rather wealthy and powerful businessman, asked her where she intended to apply to college.  And then he told her she could do anything – he told her she could be the next President of the United States.

This may seems silly – a grand statement from a complete stranger to such a young girl after hearing one speech on a Wednesday night in a ballroom in Beverly Hills.  But the man meant it.  And why not, really?  Why shouldn’t Child One be anything she wants to be, even the President of the United States? 

The excitement of her speech behind her, Child One re-engaged in the rigor of her daily life - she continued to obsess about schoolwork and SATs and college apps and internship and her senior project.  Bedtime continued to come too late and mornings began too early and as anyone who lives a busy life can tell you, Child One started to break down.  It started with a stuffy nose and deteriorated to a low grade coldy/flu bug.  Our brilliant, strong, vibrant girl turned into a weak, sleepy, snotty little kitten. 

And then last night, after anxious tossing and turning, after hours of organizing and re-organizing and sheep counting and white noise, Child One succumbed to the adolescent side of her seventeen year old self.  Child One did, as she had when she was a tiny girl, what every small child does when they can’t self-soothe – when they can’t put themselves to sleep.  Child One crept into our room at 3am and crawled into bed next to Sig Other.  “I can’t sleep,” I heard her say.  “Shhhh,” Sig Other soothed, patting her head, “stay here and I’ll put you to sleep.”  Within three minutes, Child One was snoring soundly.  So there we were – me, Sig Other, Beta Dog and Child One – all jammed into bed together.  I knew that Sig Other wasn’t asleep – I knew he was trapped in an awkward twist, one arm under Child One, one around her back but neither moving so as not to wake the sweet girl.  And I certainly wasn’t asleep, kept awake by the drone of the buzzsaw of Child One’s snotty snore.  But neither of us would speak, lest we wake the sleeping child.  And so I looked across the bed, past sleeping Beta Dog, past wakeful Sig Other and over at the now blissful Child One and I thought to myself, “oh look – there she is – the future President of the United States.”

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Ground Control to Major Domo...

I love rich people.  I don’t mean people who are financially secure or people who don’t worry about paying for college or retirement or even people who have more than one home.  I mean really rich people.  The kind of people with staff.  Not nanny or housekeeper staff.  But full-time, round the clock, take care of everything staff.  The kind of people who have a major domo.  I met one of those people the other night at a dinner party meant as a social networking function for business women.  I pulled into a fancy property through a fancy gate, handed my car off to a well-dressed valet and was met by a suited gentleman who introduced himself as “the Major Domo of the household” before whisking my coat and handbag away to a closet the size of my bedroom. 

Major Domo.  Sig Other’s fantasy – someone to organize the house, keep the pantry well-stocked, fix the little heres and theres that fall apart, stop working or otherwise fail to function at their highest capacity, someone to bathe and care for the beasts and finally, to bring Sig Other coffee and the paper in bed.  The latter task we sorta figured out.  The papers arrive via internet onto Sig Other’s bedside companion, the iPad.  And most days (though I confess not EVERY day) coffee is delivered to him in bed by yours truly with a smile and a little dance.  In fact, most tasks on the list of things that would be otherwise handled by the Major Domo are, in fact, handled by me.  This is not to say I am without help.  It would be ludicrous to suggest that I work full time AND manage to do every household task on my own.  I have housekeepers and a gardener and pool man and even a part time assistant (though I desperately miss my last household assistant who doubled as a brilliant manny to Child Two – he was as good at Rock Band and Halo as running errands). 

And yet I still consider it a great failing of my personal and professional life that I have no truly rich friends – no friends to offer up their vacation homes or whisk us away on the jet to their Mediteranean-moored yacht or private Italian villa.  I’m not entirely sure how I’ve managed twenty plus years in a city full of rich people and have not one single stinking rich friend.  Don’t get me wrong.  I know some rich people.  I’ve been invited to some rich peoples’ houses.  But I don’t have any friends who are truly rich.  Truly, sick money, filthy nasty full-time staff rich.  Child One has failed us in this manner.  She has lovely friends from her fancy private school.  But none of them has fancy rich parents.  None of them have vacation homes that they want to invite us to so we can all spend grand holidays together in exotic locales with delicious food and indulgent wines.  Child Two has failed us as well on this front as he is simply not terribly social. 

But lately, it doesn't seem to matter much.  Lately, Sig Other and I have reasoned that we would be, in fact, very bad house guests.  We’ve realized that being guests in someone else’s home, no matter how fancy, is not actually our idea of a good time.  We like hotels where there is room service and maid service and a certain level of assumed privacy.  And we like our own home where there is actual privacy.    So the idea of really rich friends with fancy vacation homes may be a terrific fantasy, but in practice would serve us not at all.  A major domo on the other hand…