June 19, 2002
KRAKOW, Poland: The airport empties quickly after my flight’s arrival—it seems to be the last of the day—and I am the last person standing. I have neither cash nor transportation, nor do I have Polish, not that that matters: I walk up and down the length of the terminal for an hour or so and see not a soul. At last a taxi, passing on the highway, cruises in, I manage to communicate my predicament, and he delivers me to the Holiday Inn, which turns out to be a converted palace, remarkably comfortable and stylish for the brand. I’m taking a break here for a few days between a UNESCO conference in Prague and a criticism-teaching gig in Bytom. They give me a room up in the roof, with deep, sloping ceilings and a view of the courtyard.
I acquire a supply of the country’s small, tidy money and take a walk around the lovely old town, a mini-Prague without the gaudy tourist trappings. The church on the town square plays a trumpet call each hour to memorialize a medieval warning of imminent invasion—only five notes, eerie and evocative, breaking off mid-phrase to mark the moment an invader’s arrow pierced the trumpeter’s throat.
A climb up Wawel hill to the castle in hot Sunday-morning sunshine. In the Turkish art museum there’s a room of captured banners, stained deep red and richly patterned, and sabres, and jewel-encrusted horse dressings: you can hear the clangour and cries of battle here, the sabres swinging, the arrows flying.
In the castle cathedral I light candles for the ones who’ve recently gone—well, for everyone, really. Cathedrals engender melancholy, at least for me, with their crypts and reliquaries and all their permanent reminders of our transience: a stroke, a heart attack, cancer of the brain, an arrow in the throat, the slash of a sabre, it’s all over so fast. In the crypt of the poets, kids are lining up to sign the book of respect.
As you climb down the inside of the castle hill to the Dragon’s Cave on the banks of the Vistula, the air grows cool, then colder. For a while I’m the only one there, in the clacking pebbles and sandy rocks and dripping darkness. I try to warm up at the National Museum, but it’s filled with gloomy portraits and tenebrous references to the Impressionists. Better to be out in the sunshine with the townsfolk, though a violin busker sitting on a window-sill seems exhausted, and an awful clown, swathed all in white, mocks passers-by outside a church.
I check out the Historical Museum of Krakow: hussars’ medals, flintlocks, robes and mitres, a pair of mounted cannonballs found in an attic in 1848 (an important year everywhere—“the spring of nations,” they call it here), a photo of the covered swimming pool at the Institute for Neglected Boys, circa 1900—a couple of dozen boys in baggy wet shorts shin-deep in shallow water. A note on the wall tells us about the famous brigands of the Podhale—“their legendary good looks are said to have left the highland girls breathless, while their baldness discouraged the representatives of the law from fighting them.” Baldness, indeed. Maybe they were the first skinheads.
AUSCHWITZ: People at the hotel say don’t go, but I catch the bus from Krakow through pleasant rolling countryside—chickens and ducks in a tiny front yard, red poppies scattered in the long grass, wooded areas round an old monastery, the soothing blur of fields of oats and barley, a man raking hay, an old woman in a shawl and a black skirt, immobile in the doorway of her brick cottage, watching the world rush by.
To what? To a place I was not prepared for. “No smoking on the grounds,” says the sign at the Arbeit Macht Frei entrance, which seems a little insensitive, forgive me for saying so. The place is as it was: a grim agglomeration of buildings, barracks, rough bunks, punishment blocks, a shooting wall—a perverse killing machine, its gas chambers and its crematorium. Young Jews were made to strip the gassed prisoners of hair and gold teeth and the plunder was stored in the camp warehouse, known as Canada, because Poles looked on Canada as the promised land. Holocaust deniers be damned, this place couldn’t be invented.
The most chilling aspect of all: not the two tons of women’s hair (greyed with age now, it was used for mattresses and brushes), not the tangled heaps of spectacles, not the 40,000 pairs of used shoes, not the heaps of suitcases the detainees brought with them, not the thousands of shaving brushes, not even the actual gas-chambers and the actual ovens … what is the most chilling aspect of it all is the calm efficiency. It was the final solution and it was being carried out with a mechanical ruthlessness that takes your breath away. The enormity is staggering.
I am not the first to wonder how human beings could do these things to other human beings, and I won’t be the last. And it continues still, despite this horrifying evidence. Is the need to kill wired into our beings? On the bus back to town, someone is keeping an eye on the World Cup games on his phone, and shouts out the news whenever someone scores.
Back in Krakow, trying to clear my head, I visit the Jagellonian University, one of the oldest universities in the world; a gorgeous arcaded courtyard and an ancient clock high on a wall where, on the hour, a bunch of figures do a semi-circular parade to the tune of something like (but not quite) La Marseillaise.
In one of the old rooms is a tiny hexagonal table designed entirely for cigar smokers, with fitted pits for the ash and a little cutting tool, plus a short bed, from the time when people slept sitting up against the backrest in the belief that lying flat was the posture of the dead and thus an unnecessary invitation.
This university was the home of Copernicus; on a stand is one of his books, open to the page showing his diagrams of the positions of the earth and sun. His astrolabe, a rolling reading stand, the stone passageways—it’s not hard to sense the medieval atmosphere. (A goon-guard with drunk’s eyes bangs me on the shoulder when I try to take a photo.)
A display of severe, minimal Ensor etchings gives a harsh twist on the experience of Auschwitz. It’s a grim, unsparing view of humanity. Death, pain, dread are everywhere, all of it scratched in drypoint and broken-line etching, very much the bonfire of the vanities. Even his carnivals are filled with unhappy celebrators and obligatory jollity, very Grösz-like. In one famous painting, “devils give angels and archangels a sound thrashing.” Indeed they did. And do.