Wednesday, January 27th
Sixty-five years ago today, the Russian army liberated the concentration camp at Auschwitz, and today, I witnessed the ceremony commemorating that event. We only arrived back at our hotel 4 hours ago (it’s 11:30pm here), so the ceremonies ended about 6 hours ago. That’s not particularly long ago, yet it isn’t the ceremony that sticks out in my mind. Don’t get me wrong, they were nice. A number of Polish survivors spoke and big wigs including the President of Poland and the Prime Minister of Israel. It was difficult to really understand what was going on during the speeches because they were made in Polish, and obviously (because I am an American, and thus dismally ignorant of other languages) I cannot understand more than 10 words in Polish. There was a very nice woman behind us though that was from Krakow, at the ceremony with a few British friends, and she translated some of the speeches for us so we knew what was being said. After the speeches, which took place in a heated pavilion while we stood outside, the dignitaries and survivors came outside. There was a number of prayers in Hebrew, and then a number of Christian prayers in Polish. After that, notable individuals took what appeared to be either large oil candles or small lanterns to the base of the memorial. Eva was one of three survivors to place a candle at the memorial with the Polish president, so that was really cool.
But I said it wasn’t the ceremonies that are foremost in my mind. No, the ceremonies took up a mere 2.5 hours of the 6 we were standing out in the cold (essentially waiting for them to happen) and so what is foremost in my mind is the cold. The bone chilling cold that rose from the ground through my shoes, the three layers of socks I was wearing and the three pairs of pants. The frigid air that bit through my gloves and deactivated my hand warmers (yes, it is possible for it to be TOO cold for them to work). The fact it took me three times as long to tie my shoes because I couldn’t feel my fingers, and that I slipped countless times (only falling once though, thank you) because I couldn’t feel my feet inside my shoes.
I remember the cold, but also the measures that were taken to give us just a little comfort. The white tents set up along the path where we could step off the snow (you have no idea what kind of difference that makes in keeping feeling in your toes), be sheltered from the wind, and even get some hot tea. The coal burners as well, that were set up along the path, so that we could huddle around little fires to keep us warm. The press in their tent and the survivors and dignitaries in theirs had it much better. Heated tents, hot drinks, pastries, internet access. I wont say as much for the press and the dignitaries, but the survivors at the very least deserved this treatment. But how different it was from the treatment they had received that first time they entered Auschwitz more than 65 years ago. No pastries and hot drinks, only a little water, even less bread, and what Eva describes as white stuff that looked like Cream of Wheat, but you couldn’t cut it or chew it, and it appeared just to be given to them to infuriate them with their inability to eat it. There were no heated tents. Only stark barracks, with nothing to keep them warm but whatever they could scrounge together to start a fire in the tiny ovens. No coats and layers to keep them warm outside, only one skimpy dress for Eva and shoes with so many holes they were practically useless.
I felt lucky to have survived out there for 6 hours in 3 layers of clothing. Yet who am I? I was uncomfortable, no doubt about that. But so what? I almost feel weak for walking back to the warming tents to get tea. Weak for warming myself with a group of Italian kids at a fire. Weak for being cold when I had three layers of clothing on and only the slightest part of my face exposed. Weak for begging Kiel (our Museum Coordinator) to bring a pastry for us from the press tent. I don’t know that I could have made it out there for 2 days sans proper food and clothing, Eva and other survivor’s abilities to make it out of that camp after 7 months or longer (granted for Eva only 2 of those months were during winter, but still) is startling. The human will to survive must be a powerful force indeed.
We laughed the other day. Eva said she didn’t like making the trip in January, if only they had been liberated in April, it would have been a more pleasant trip, but then “I don’t know if I would have made it until April.” It was a joke, and she meant it as such. That is the way Eva is, more than willing to joke. Of course, we could have come in a warmer month. Eva’s made trips in the summer before after all. But I think this is better. Oh I’m miserable in the cold. But I think that’s the way it should be. I shouldn’t be comfortable at Auschwitz. Walking around in shorts and a t-shirt, with the warm sun beating down and perhaps a cool breeze? No. Not here. Not at Auschwitz.