“In .7 kilometers, enter round about and take 2nd exit to Ulica Stanislawy Lesczynskieji”
It takes 2 GPS units, one Iphone and a lot of swearing, but Theresa and I finally make it out of the hotel parking lot in Krakow on our way to Auschwitz, the 1st concentration camp on our production trip. One GPS informs us we’ve “Left The Path”; the other keeps losing the Satellite reception. My Iphone is pleased to show me the route for $50 a minute and it promptly turns us down a one-way street with 10 other cars, where we come to a dead halt and must all back out into incoming traffic. Good times.
We’re loaded down with camera gear and high expectations. One of the purposes of visiting concentration camps in Poland, Germany and Austria is to not only retrace the footsteps of the survivors whom I am interviewing in my new documentary, but photograph each camp for the film. I also need to decide whether or not the visuals we encounter at the camp warrant bringing my entire film crew here for live footage.
Though I have been to Dachau concentration camp several times, I have never been in Auschwitz. Neither has Theresa and we both have images in our head about what we expect to see and experience. The Auschwitz-Birkenau camp system is arguably the most well known and although none of the survivors in my documentary were processed through this camp, it is still a vital part of this trip. The Birkenau side of the camp housed a large population of Roma/Sinti’s (popularly known as the gypsies). This group, like the Jewish people, was targeted for complete annihilation. I recently discovered in the Dachau archives during my research this summer, Nazi historical documents the spoke of a “Final Solution to the Gypsy problem.”
Today, Roma’s and Sinai’s continue to be marginalized and severely decimated against and what they suffered during the WWII Holocaust remains largely unrecognized and unknown. I am hoping this trip will help educate me on the history of the Roma and Sinti people and allow me to help share their story on film in “Forget Us Not.”
But first things first, we have to actually GET to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Despite the fact more people visit this site than anywhere else in Poland, there are approximately zero helpful signs. The GPS brings us to a stretch of railroad track and an empty boxcar, which is a haunting and powerful image, but we both agree it couldn’t be the entire memorial. At last we find the parking lot and pull in. The sour faced woman at the gate tells us to “Go right!” This rather vague direction brings us down the long drive, which we assume is what she meant. Since there actually IS no place to “Go Right”. In fact, it goes nowhere, we wind up driving in a big circle and having to cut through the bus lot to circle around and try again. She is VERY irritated with us and snaps “TO THE RIGHT!” Confused, we ask her to the right of what. She throws up her hands, marches forward and beckons us to follow her. Apparently, what she wanted us to do was drive up over the curb and park on the grass and sidewalk. Who knew?
We quickly get lost in the swarms of people heading instead. It is beyond crowded and almost impossible to move around inside the initial museum. We discover to our dismay that we are not allowed to walk around on our own. We must have a guide. I knew this would make taking our time to do our photography difficult. The sour faced guy handing out the headphones is not very helpful when we ask where to go. He practically throws the headsets at us and growls “ENGLISH GO THERE!”. We wisely decided to give him space ton continue processing his negative feelings about the upcoming tour.
With a few minutes before our tour starts, we pop into the cafeteria-style café with the intention of getting some coffee, tea and perhaps a quick snack. I order one coffee and Theresa orders a tea in what we think is passable German. The sour faced cafeteria lady barks “NO! RESERVATION ONLY HERE!” and hustles off. We look at each other completely baffled. First of all, it is totally empty in the restaurant. Second, it’s a walk up and order style café. Third, why do you need a reservation for a cup of coffee and tea?
The German man, woman and teenage daughter who were behind us order the exact same thing and sourpuss pours their drinks with no fuss whatsoever. Now we have NO idea what the hell we did wrong. The sweet teenager finally takes pity. “You have to tell them you want it ‘to go’ and you are not planning on sitting down at the reserved tables.”
Call me crazy, but wouldn’t it have been easier and perhaps better service to simply tell us that instead of leaving us there staring at them with befuddled looks on our face for ten minutes?
We order again and stress we would like our coffee and tea to go. My coffee is undrinkable. I mean, I like strong coffee – but I prefer it to not require a spoon and chest hair. Theresa is not fairing better with her tea, which is actually hot chocolate. We decide to quit while we are behind and not bring this to their attention. Besides it is time for our tour.
We are divided into 3 groups of around 40 people and are instructed to turn on our headsets, which picks up the voice of our tour guide. She plods along listlessly giving us history in a monotone voice as she has done hundreds of times before. We are stuffed in long, single file lines through the old barrack brick buildings that now house exhibits. It is difficult to take everything in because they are really moving us through at a clip. And the impact is lost when someone is droning in your ear
“On the right is the hair. One the left is the shoes. Next room please.”
Theresa and I manage a few extra minutes photographing the exhibit of braces, crutches, artificial limbs and other handicap aids that were removed from the murdered disabled people. I point out to Theresa the extreme irony in the fact that the one disabled man in our group has to keep waiting outside in his wheelchair because the exhibit buildings are not handicap accessible. By the time we get to the cremation chamber, I simply rip the headphones off my head. Being in this low slung, dark smoke-stained stone building is all I need to feel the chilling connection to those who lost their lives here. I don’t need to hear “Oven on the Right. Gas Chamber on the left. Move ahead please!” to get the picture.
Our guide instructs us to reconvene over at the Birkenau site location. Theresa and I take this opportunity to hustle to our own car rather than the tour shuttle and ditch the group. Unsurprisingly, the guard lady does not wave goodbye.
The Birkenau site is a vast wasteland of barracks, gas chambers and other somber relics of a camp that housed and was the final resting place for tens of thousands of murdered victims. Here in the empty stillness of the ruins, both of us felt deeply connected to the past. We went our separate ways to capture Berkenau with our cameras and just spend some time alone absorbing what was before us. I am hoping to see the barracks area where the Roma and Sinti’s were isolated but that area has been completely demolished.
We end our last day in Poland the way we celebrated our arrival – with shots of cold vodka. This Polish tradition is one we have taken too at the end of each day. Both to help us unwind and get ready for whatever tomorrow may bring. For us, it means a flight to Berlin and a day spent in the city, which was the seat of Hitler’s power during WWII. Then back to back trips to Ravensbruck and Sachsenhausen concentration camps and an interview with the nephew of a German man who was held for 6 years in one of the worst concentration camps in Austria because he was gay.
We may need more than one shot of vodka.