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.