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Saturday, January 30, 2010

Round Trip to Auschwitz

The train to Auschwitz left from Platform 4.

Peron 4. A sign pointed the way.

It had been a leisurely morning. A cheerful voice greeted me with a seven o'clock wake up call. I hit the snooze button twice, finally shambling off to a warm shower at seven thirty. The small hotel in the Kazimierz district of Krakow served a marvelous breakfast -- scrambled eggs, perfectly prepared, with chives and bacon, a warm croissant with sweet Danish butter, crisp fresh pineapple, orange and grapefruit, salad (Europeans always need some sort of salad for breakfast), a bit of brie, a chilled glass of freshly squeezed pulpy orange juice exactly as I like it, and perfectly brewed rich black coffee.

I took a direct route to the train station, stopping only at a Bank-o-Mat -- in this case a German bank -- for yet more zloty, and dodged the occasional car heading up onto the sidewalk, where parking is customary. The street was torn up as new tram lines are being laid down but that has nothing to do with why cars are on the sidewalk. Cars are always on the sidewalk in Poland. The narrow streets leave no other choice for parking.

I strolled on, happening upon shop owners cranking out their awnings and sweeping the stoop, readying to open for the day. I passed students hurrying back from a quick trip home to the villages, barely in time for a new week of classes at Jagellonian University, one of the very first chartered universities in Europe. These students dragged suitcases, lugged awkwardly heavy backpacks. I followed a smartly dressed businesswoman of my own age, who knew exactly the most efficient way to navigate the maze of paths and obstacles through construction zones, one way streets, and tunnels. We bridged a ten-foot-deep trench on a sturdy plank and stepped around the worker in his royal blue and, so far, neatly pressed overalls. He was laboring to level ground for new paving stones.

The sky was clear blue with only a faint hint of the early morning haze, dew rising from the rolling fields just beyond the city. The sooty dank coal smell that I remembered from visits in the 1980's was conspicuously absent. It felt fresh and new and good to be about.

I arrived at the railway station with twenty minutes to spare. I bought a round trip ticket to Auschwitz/Oswiecim for 22 zloty. Coke Zero cost 3.5.

The train left precisely on time, at nine fifteen, as Polish trains do. We stopped at the Krakow Business Park, a skyline of red and yellow cranes putting up a score of modern office buildings to join the gleaming multi-storied corporate offices already there.

I believed I'd found a forward facing seat in the front car of the train, my choice. But when the train began moving, my mistake was obvious. I was in the last car. Looking back.

Did my unconscious will out after all?

No matter, I moved forward at the first stop and found a comfortable place across the aisle from two young women speaking in their animated, cheery French about friends, travel and ordinary things, about life. (I love eavesdropping.) The older man facing me read a succession of periodicals, a daily tabloid newspaper, a more serious newspaper, a magazine about Formula One car racing, and finally another lightweight weekly. His briefcase sat on the vinyl seat next to him. He got up, then checked the time on his cell phone several times, apparently anxious to get to an appointment on time. His grey tweed sport coat, stylish striped shirt and smart tie put me in mind of an architect. His glasses were new and of the very latest and highest fashion and his serious mien seem ill-suited to his choice of reading material. Of course, I never did figure him out. A journalist, maybe? Nah. Who knows.

Another, younger man in the last row of our car looked like one of Sarah Palin's 'Joe Six Pack' fixtures. He spent his time with a book of crossword puzzles, or else staring out the window, his arm resting on a small, brown canvas duffle bag.

The countryside from Krakow to Auschwitz ranges from gently to bigger, then big rolling hills, from woods and forest to patches of farmland, some villages and small towns. We passed through Dulowa, a sprawling village of two-story stucco houses, set at the base of a small hill surrounded by woods. A modern church, built to resemble the prow of a ship rose from the midde of nowhere, between this village and the next one.

Homemakers were out, taking advantage of a warm dry spell, hanging laundry to dry, digging around in gardens. It was wash day in Galicia: brightly colored blouses and skirts hung like flags and waved freely in the pleasant breeze.

We passed through Trzebinia, the biggest town on the route. A power plant with a tall red and white tower rose like a lighthouse. A railworker stood in the weeds of the trainyard, curly blond hair tossing rings around her face, talking on a cellphone. Several people got off in Trzebinia. A few others got on. The railworker was still on the phone.

Autumn was in its waning moments. Leaves turning from gold to brown, falling, drifting, like lilting notes of a completed season, or sonata. The trees looked bleached out and tired. The willows drooping, pulled down by the weight of life. Beech trees, cottonwood, all spent.

The man across from me checks the time evermore frequently. Pulls out a presentation folder. A printed document. Is it a lecture? A business proposal? His phone rings. He seems relieved to have made contact.

Ten eighteen. We stop in Chrznew.

The man is restless. He pulls out a well-worn gold appointment notebook, very old-fashioned. Then his wallet. Then he reviews all the documents contained therein.

Getting close.

We are now surrounded by woods. A few fir or pine, I can't quite tell which. We go under a bridge being constructed as an overpass for local cars. Life must be picking up around here. The train bed becomes rockier, then so much so I have to stop writing. The train bed is sitting up fifty feet above the forest floor. I'm a little freaked out.

Did everyone brought to KL Auschwitz arrive by train? On these tracks? Didn't I read that the first, Polish political prisoners arrived by truck transport?

There are freshly painted gray coal cars sitting, empty, on a siding.

The French girls who were laughing earlier have become more serious. The man combs his hair. Again. A few minutes later he does the spit and polish on his hair, using the cell phone's face as a mirror. Now he's checking the packages in the big Bass (brand) bag he has alongside.

Clutching both bags. We're not late. Why the restlessness? Is he coming to be interrogated? Tested?

Or is he on a pilgrimage too?

We pass a lovely large yard with rich green grass, an ornamental windmill, trees heavy with fruit, a small orchard of trees well-pruned. A big house is nearby, still under construction, the roof beams exposed.

The man across from me finds and checks another wallet but he doesn't seem frantic, searching for some lost item, just perusing. He checks a credit card or two, then reviews some business cards.

He reminds me of myself on some of the business trips I used to take, fumbling out of nervousness, low-level anxiety, boredom, eagerness to get on with it. I think ADD or something like it.

Now I see that all of the trees are completely washed out. Nature is past its peak. Even the pines look faded, bleached, tired of holding on.

But here and there, a brilliant red or gold band of trees stand out among the barren. Occasionally, the silvery trunks of birch gleam in the sun, which has been playing hide and seek all morning. We move along very slowly, bumping over the rocky train bed.

A French girl yawns. The other one, with darker hair, is quite quiet, pensive.

The man checks his watch again. And fidgets with his pockets, pulls out a slim red lighter. And a cigarette.

Forest on either side of us now. I think, it would be easy to hide in that forest, even now, with all its dense undergrowth.

We approach another tall smoke stack, painted red and white, another lighthouse. Full coal cars sit on the siding.

It is ten forty. We have stopped just short of, in sight of the Oswiecim/Auschwitz station.

We will arrive on time.

The girls take out packets of candy and each have one, their talk now strangled in the chocolate. They chew heavily, their jaws working like presses on the sticky candy.

We speed the last few kilometers, rocking rather wildly from side to side. A fringe of red oak lines the edge of a clearing. A large corn field extends beyond the woods into the distance.

More houses, small plots, typical edge of town. A big yellow Caterpillar sits on the next track, obviously rebuilding it, laying down steel rails. Whose equipment was it that helped the Nazis build the extra rail lines they required to KL Auschwitz-Birkenau?

Now we are wobbling across a bridge that spans what reminds me of a northern Colorado irrigation ditch, like the one where my father learned to swim and carouse with his cousins. We pass old, faded red brick, two-story square houses. They all have satellite dishes installed on their sides. There are newer stucco houses too, even a lime green one. They have satellite dishes too.

And we're here. Auschwitz/Oswiecim.

We're late.

I wonder, did that happen a lot?

My trip by train to Auschwitz.

Does anyone do this and not think. Not think about what was. About what was then. Was horrific. Terrifying. Brutal. Inhuman, inhumane.

How did a simple banal train trip become, in time, at one time, evil?

The last train back to Krakow today leaves at 19:17. I don't want to miss it. I take a photo of the schedule so I don't get mixed up. I get to go home. Today.