It is thirty years since I didn’t go to Auschwitz. The memory of not going has never left me.
In 1985, I was living in Kraków, just 40 miles on the slow stopping train from Oświęcim. I could have gone there at any time, but I didn’t. And then I could have gone on a very particular day, but in the end, I didn’t go then either.
It started with a conversation with my cousin. I had been staying with him in Wrocław, where he then lived, but before the war he and his – my – family had lived in Tarnów, a small town almost 50 miles due east of Kraków. It is from Tarnów that the first transport of prisoners set out for Auschwitz on 14 June 1940.
My cousin’s brother was one of the 728 men on that transport. He was Zbyszek Matys. He was prisoner number 71. He was 17 years old. He died at Auschwitz on 15 January 1941.
Auschwitz was liberated by the advancing Soviet army on 27 January 1945, seventy years ago today. On 2 July 1947, the site became a museum. And sometime that year or in 1948, my cousin went to visit. It is not within my power to describe that experience, and nor did my cousin have the words. Sometimes only poetry can carry truth.
When all the women in the transport
had their heads shaved
four workmen with brooms made of birch twigs
and gathered up the hair
Behind clean glass
the stiff hair lies
of those suffocated in gas chambers
there are pins and side combs
in this hair
The hair is not shot through with light
is not parted by the breeze
is not touched by any hand
or rain or lips
In huge chests
clouds of dry hair
of those suffocated
and a faded plait
a pigtail with a ribbon
pulled at school
by naughty boys.
The Museum, Auschwitz, 1948
Translated by Adam Czerniawski
My cousin had not been back since that first visit almost forty years earlier. Now he had decided that he should go again. I think he felt it as a compulsion, as an obligation, rather than a wish. He did not want to go alone, and asked me to accompany him. I am not sure why he chose me. I was both close and alien. We were family, connected by blood and history. But we were strangers, communicating in my stumbling Polish, interspersed with occasional words of German. And perhaps it was because I was both those things that he felt able to ask me.
We made arrangements. He would travel from Wrocław to Kraków, stay the night in my flat and then the next day we would go together to Auschwitz.
The day came. I prepared dinner, to his great astonishment, as he found the idea that a man might cook almost impossibly bizarre. And he told me that we were not after all going to Auschwitz. Four decades on, when the moment came, he could not bear to go. And so the next day, we didn’t go to Auschwitz.
Instead, we went the other way, to Tarnów. First we went to a small bakery, where my cousin insisted that we buy napoleonki – cream cakes providing a faint echo across the centuries that there are still places where Napoleon is remembered as a hero. Then we walked to the cemetery. At the gates, we paused to buy candles and matches, then went to find our family graves. There the ashes of my grandfather who died in exile, unable in life to return to his homeland, are interred with my cousin who died in Auschwitz, never leaving his country, but torn from it into a time and place of nightmare.
We tidied the graves a little, brushing away leaves and soil. Then we lit our candles, paused, turned, and walked away, leaving their small lights flickering behind us.
We went back to the station from which that first transport had left, our train following the first part of the route it had travelled. At Kraków we parted.
That was the day I did not go to Auschwitz.
Minor editing changes and a photograph added, 27 January 2016
7 thoughts on “On not going to Auschwitz”
I’m not sure how to comment on this, and yet — I feel like it deserves company. The online equivalent of sitting with you and your words, taking them in and being with you while they are around us.
I’m grateful you were willing to share them.
Stefan. Poignant. Disturbing. Don’t know what else to say but likewise, I want to acknowledge your words and time and the agony of your family. Damn. When will we learn to stand up as the tide creeps in instead of only when the water is inches from destruction.
Stefan – I included this in the all company email we send with some things worth reading from the past week. This is what I said:
“Can’t really finish this week without mentioning Auschwitz, and I’ve read quite a lot of the pieces that have been re-published (for example this extract from Primo Levi and Leonardo de Benedetti’s “Auschwitz Report”): .
But the most unexpected piece I saw was by the Polish Briton Stefan Czerniawski’s account of *not* visiting Auschwitz with his Polish cousin:
(I realise that you may have a view on being described as a “Polish Briton” but brevity is a requirement…).
No problem with the description, and thank you for sharing this more widely
A very moving post, Stefan. My father-in-law was born near Lviv and the part of his family which remained in Poland was moved to Wroclaw when Poland was shifted west; we still have four generations there.
I had a chance to visit Auschwitz during the Polish-German student exchange trip and I will never be able to forget it.
The most moving experience of my life…still remember “mountains” of hair, shoes, clothes… being taken away from their owners..…and omnipresent silence…
Stefan, I visited Auschwitz a few years ago and was shaken – my feelings, which I haven’t been able to express as articulately as you have done – are reflected in your poem. It saddens me to think we haven’t learnt any lessons from the past. Thanks for sharing 🙏🙏