Thursday, February 19, 2009
Allergic to Gas
May 30, 2002
I didn’t plan on visiting Auschwitz on the 59th anniversary of Mengele’s arrival at the clinic there. If such had been my plan, I could have waited another year, and then it would have been the 60th anniversary, a more significant marker. Not that that occurred to me – and even if I had known of it at the time, I would not have chosen to commemorate the Angel of Death’s first day as medical director of a death camp. And anyway, I was marking my anniversary, not that of the “Angel of Death.”
The day I went to Auschwitz -- May 30, 2002 -- also happened to be Corpus Christi, or Feast of the Pentecost. Not a holiday I normally celebrate at the scene of a mass grave. In fact I never celebrate it at all, although I have no trouble believing the Holy Spirit can descend on us at any time and cause us to speak in tongues, or no human language . Looking back, the timing of that also seems appropriate.
Dr. Anna Novak, the cousin of a friend of mine, came along with me to Auschwitz that day. Anna is an allergy specialist. This was one of those odd coincidences because in a roundabout way, my allergies had brought me to Poland. For much of my life, I had suffered from respiratory problems. Childhood pneumonia at age 3, followed by chronic bronchitis at 11, and later, allergies.
Anna proved very open to my eccentric notion that some of my lingering respiratory issues stemmed from my death in the gas chamber at Auschwitz in 1942. Allergic reactions, she told me, can be triggered by all sorts of things – even a photograph of a plant or flower to which one is allergic. So it made sense, to Anna, that I was allergic to gas chambers. Especially if I had died in one.
Because it was Corpus Christi that day, and Poland is a devoutly Christian nation, the road that wound through the countryside after we left the main highway from Krakow, was strewn with flowers from a procession that had passed an hour before. We drove those last few kilometers over fronds and scattered petals. Overnight it had rained, and clouds still hung overhead but you could see the sun trying to break through the curtain of mist in places. I remember I had a sense of floating in the dampness of a dull yet dreamlike landscape. Anna was driving, and I was gazing out the window, trying to make something of the scenery, which was lush, chaotic and formless -- nothing like the disciplined German vegetation I was more used to.
We came to the town of Chrzanow – familiar through a friend whose mother was deported from that village, along with her six sisters, none of whom survived the war. My friend had asked me to look out for that place-name on the way to Auschwitz, and here it was.
As we cut through the shabby centre, I looked for signs of a cemetery, or other remnants of the pre-war era, but there was only post-communist greyness and decaying modernity as in a project which has been aborted or abandoned. There was life, but I knew it was nothing like life had been back in the days when it had been her mother’s village. That old life was gone like the people, and existed only in photographs like the one I found on a wall later that day in one of the buildings at Auschwitz, showing men and women of Chrzanow being led away by German soldiers in caps and steel helmets. It looks like a morning in early spring, and the people wear their coats unbuttoned as they file to the train, unaware that they are leaving this familiar world, forever.
Anna and I had been on the road since yesterday morning. Our sightseeing trip had taken us from Anna’s home in Wroclaw the day before, over to the capital of Warsaw to visit a government office where she was applying for a visa to Canada.
After having coffee in a famous cafe, we continued south to Krakow – a circular marathon through countryside flooded in many places from the heavy rains that year. Along the way, we stopped to buy strawberries from local farmers at a roadside stand. For a few zlotys, you got a large basket of the juiciest, most delicious fruit imaginable. But here on this small rural road, which had just seen a religious parade go by, there were no fruit vendors. It felt like Sunday although it was Thursday. In no time, it seemed we had left the mist behind and arrived at the village of Oswiecim – less than 2 km from the infamous death camp. I remember passing the abandoned slave labour factory that had once been IG Farben’s, at the edge of the village where the rails veer off to the left.
Parallel to the tracks, the road ran to the entrance to the parking lot of Auschwitz. We were at our destination. Walking away from Anna’s car, I almost ran to the Arbeit Macht Frei gate. I had expected it to be enormous, but it was much smaller than I had imagined.
I had brought the wrong clothes, thinking the weather would be hot, but in defiance of all the predictions it remained wet and freezing. In the photos Anna took, my hair is flying out from my head. I’m dressed as if for a camping trip where bears made off with my clothes leaving me in my pajamas. In some photos, I seem detached from surrounding reality. Often I am smiling, as if actually “enjoying Auschwitz” although that was not my intention. The truth was I didn’t want to be photographed and would have preferred to drift around the place, invisible, just taking it in.
In a way, I was glad to be “back.” Sixty years had passed since the day in February 1942, when a transport arrived carrying hundreds of Polish workers, labour organizers, intellectuals and resistance fighters to their deaths. The Final Solution had been formulated by Himmler at the Wannsee Conference one year earlier, and it would be four months before mass deportation of Jews from their ghettos to Auschwitz began the following summer of 1942. Before it was used to exterminate the Jews in their millions, the system had first to be tested on other enemies of the Reich who were being rounded up in great numbers at that time.
That transport had left Wroclaw on Valentine’s Day, 1942, and arrived late the same night at its destination. Had “I” been on that train? The full horror of that trip had surfaced four years earlier during a past life regression, back in Montreal, and was hard to dismiss or ignore. Under hypnosis, intended to pinpoint the source of certain fears and unconscious phobias that were interfering in my life, a few faint images had coalesced into a nightmarish physical reliving of a ride in a freezing box car that ended at the gas chamber.
When it was over, there was no doubt in my mind that what I had just relived was real. I was sweating from every pore, as if I had just run several miles. In reality, I was lying on a mattress on the floor, the therapist next to me pounding on my back and urging me to cough out all the gas that remained in my lungs from that other lifetime.
More details came up as I researched the period. Further flashbacks took me back to wartime Europe. I saw myself as a woman in her twenties in a long black trench coat, bicycling from place to place delivering money and papers to people in the underground. Some were young people from the city, who had moved into the woods and were blowing up German trains with homemade explosives. I saw myself involved with a young Wehrmacht officer who was helping the Resistance by providing information about things like Nazi troop movements and plans. We would meet in a small single-room building near railway tracks in the countryside. In fact, these small buildings, which might be storage facilities, can still be seen beside the railroads in Germany and Poland. That life had come to a sudden end in a train station in a city which might have been Wroclaw, where we were rounded up early one February morning and shipped to Auschwitz.
On a quest that became an obsession, I decided to travel back to Poland and retrace that long day’s journey sixty years earlier. I would go there in my new, or slightly “used” 50-year-old body. There would be much to catch up on and explore.
We began with the photographs of thousands of camp inmates, attached to identity cards lining the walls of the first exhibit. I stared into one face after another, thinking one of the faces might trigger another memory or flashback.
There is much to see at Auschwitz. A day is barely enough. There is the famous room with its glass display of shoes and human hair. Outside are the trademark guard towers, the encircling barbed wire fences stretching into the distance, and the endless rows of barracks. Auschwitz is a ghost town with its own literature and history, and of course its own architecture of repression and torture stretching back into the nightmare that gave rise to Nazi Germany.
I had my limited, personal agenda. I wanted to verify a number of peculiarities from my regression, four years earlier. I wanted to walk the same route I would have travelled in 1942 as an injured woman on a transport carrying hundreds of others. By my reckoning, it took less than two hours to be hauled out of the hospital wagon and straight to the gas chamber, in a small cart that ran on rails alongside the train tracks.
The first thing I looked for at Auschwitz was that small set of rails running parallel to the main tracks where the transports unloaded their passengers. They were there. As for the cart, I found one at Birkenau later that day.
The former kitchen was in a large building now housing an exhibition of photos dating from the war. I was reading the captions and moving from photo to photo, when I came to a halt in front of one. At the centre of the blurred photo, a small ragged band of Jewish partisans were gathered in the woods. Some proudly displayed their guns. Many were smiling for the camera. All of them were likely long dead. Oddly, I began reacting to the photo before I had even made out what it was. Tears welled up, and a feeling of sobbing and choking – which made it hard to decipher the caption before I bent forward to see the faces.
Outside, I pulled myself together. It seemed I had just met my old friends. Continuing my walk through the streets with their brown brick buildings, built by slave labour, I came to the Wall of Death, which stands to the left of the Gestapo prison also known as Block 11.
Next door to this bleak courtyard where prisoners were shot after being interrogated and tortured in the prison on the right, is Block 10, the infamous clinic operated by Auschwitz’s “Angel of Death,” SS Doctor Josef Mengele.
A black sign with white letters, reading “HOTEL KRANKENHAUS -- CHIRURGISCHE – ABT,” marked the facade behind which experiments were done on dozens of children, many of them twins. They’ve since renovated it, remodelled the steps, painted the door a rusty brown, reopened the two small windows which were bricked in the day I visited, and removed the black and white signs. The day I visited, there was also a No Smoking sign – I’m not sure why -- and the street number 21 was clearly posted out front. The clinic remains closed to this day. The horrors that went on inside, considered beyond the pale of the imaginable, exist in a category of inhumanity defying description or inquiry.
In this photo, taken by Anna, the door behind me appears to be standing half open. It seems possible to look inside, or even enter the building although I remember it being permanently closed to visitors. Until now, I never looked carefully at this photo, never noticed the half-open door or the reddish fog spreading down from one corner of the roof. It looks as if blood is staining the branches of the tree and the brick wall of the building. On the left is the digital date “5 30” – day of Mengele’s arrival exactly 59 years earlier. If you look closely, a figure like that of a doctor with a handlebar moustache, wearing a two piece suit, seems to be peering out of the left-hand second floor window. In the window on the right, skeletal faces and bodies are pressed against the glass.
But of course, these are all mere illusions, tricks of light or bad film processing. Holding my guidebook, posing for Anna on the steps, I am oblivious to whatever is behind my back. I look unreal and almost transparent, in contrast to the building which seems tortured and alive, its mismatched bricks and glaring windowpanes bursting with secrets still trapped inside. Even the shadow of the tree on the cobblestones seems to be pointing a scissor hand at the entrance to this house of horrors. Though much of the reality of this medical torture chamber was unknown to me at the time, I felt the need to stand there marking the spot. Looking at the photo, I am reminded of all that happened later.
The last detail I hoped to verify was the gas chamber. At the climax of my hypnotic regression, I had found myself lying on a bare cement floor. The room surrounding me was small, no bigger than a one-car garage, and the walls were shiny and wet from recent whitewashing. I also noticed a small round object just overhead, which fascinated me, until the gas began to pour in and I began choking. As the air became deadly and un-breathable, I abandoned my body on the floor and went hurtling into space. (And strangely, once again, as I type this description I find my lungs becoming congested and I am sneezing – not the first time this has happened!) I t turned out these details, too, were correct, down to flakes of old whitewash that still clung to the walls. I touched them, but took no photos.
The Crematorium was right next door. I had no memory of that room – after all, I would have been already dead when I entered it. Like countless others who ended there, had I gone up the chimney as smoke?
In the regression, I experienced what people often report in near-death experiences: hurtling down a long tunnel at high speed, I couldn’t stop laughing at how simple and funny it is to leave one’s body. At the end of that long corridor, as if from the wrong end of a telescope, I saw a round image of my future parents. My father wore wire-rimmed glasses; my mother’s hair was long, dyed black and parted in the middle. They seemed taken aback, as if they had just received notice of a pregnancy. For them, it was 1950 and they were not expecting twins. We arrived a few months later.
Had my trip into my present lifetime with these parents begun in this crematorium? Were death and life so intimately connected that we can step out of one body and into a new one, almost as easily as shedding our clothes? As I stood looking at the ovens, other tourists were coming and going, taking photographs of the room where so many lives had been reduced to ashes before their time.
Anna was waiting for me outside when I emerged. We had lunch in the car: sandwiches and juice.
Then we drove the short distance to Birkenau, a huge, desolate expanse which swallows up visitors as it swallowed inmates in the past. The sister camp to Auschwitz, with its wide gate perpendicular to the train tracks, is familiar from photographs. I walked back and forth for a while on the siding where Dr. Mengele used to stand in his uniform to meet the trains, calling out “Zwillinger, Zwillinger” as he scoured the crowds for twins and other victims for his experiments. While Anna waited in the car, I ran inside, following the signs directing visitors to barracks and gas chambers. A few minutes were enough.
I joined Anna for the long drive home to Wroclaw that would take us north through the coal mining region of Silesia.
In the bookstore, I had bought two books. One was I WAS DR. MENGELE’S ASSISTANT. I carried it with me back to Canada and read it in one sitting the following week. I had the whole summer to read and go for walks and bike rides – and look for another teaching job. It turned out no job materialized. The following autumn, my belongings would go into storage as I began a process of investigating themes that had surfaced for me at Auschwitz. I had left Auschwitz behind, but a ghost had followed me home.