Blessay 17: The Best Meal in the Worst Place

Last week two British schoolboys were arrested for stealing objects from Auschwitz-Birkenau. They took pieces of broken glass, spoons, clothes, buttons and a comb. This was on the site of block 5 where Nazi guards once stored prisoners confiscated belongings. In Resnais’s Night and Fog, probably the definitive documentary on the camps, the narrator calmly says, ‘All was saved even the bones. From the bones fertiliser – at least they tried.’ It’s unlikely that anyone would still find bones. There are no souvenirs, of any sort, to be ever had and they serve no healthy function.

The insensitivity of those schoolboys made me recall my own visit to Auschwitz in 1980. I had lunch in the Auschwitz museum cafeteria. It was stodgy meat balls and potato served on a white plate on a formica covered table. The morning had been spent looking at what the Nazis had collected – human hair, teeth, spectacles and suitcases. The exhibits evoked a pathos and horror that caused my stomach, not to roll from nausea, but groan with a desperate hunger. I needed food to restore life to me again after staring at the belongings of the dead. A waitress collected the dirty plates. My eye caught the remains of a chicken leg dangling on a tray for her food trolley. It was transformed into a skinny human arm twitching in cold gravy. Shocked I spilt the coffee I was drinking. The waitress looked at me, sighed and then scraped peas and mashed carrot onto the chicken. An emaciated arm shook of the waste. The trolley moved away. I dabbed water on my coffee stain, stood up and walked out.

It was a brilliantly sunny October day. I walked the few miles to Birkenau. Before visiting Poland, I thought concentration camps were built in remote spots far away from the public gaze. Either side of the road leading to the railway line, of the death camp, were attractive cottages and large farms. Normal country life carrying on as people where routinely exterminated. Over the gate is the notorious inscription Arbeit Macht Frei – ‘Work will set you free.'( In my German/English dictionary the multiple meanings of macht assault you – ‘might, power, force, strength and authority.’ ) I knelt down and stared up at the sign. It looked as if those words, in that portion of the world, were indelibly written across a cloudless sky.

There were no museum labels, signs or a guide. I wondered amongst row upon row of huts. I entered one and switched on the light. The wooden bunks were hard and dry, scrubbed clean long ago. A few drawings and photographs were hanging on the walls. The low-wattage of the light bulb gave everything a clinging gloom. Yet even with floresecent lighting gloom would flourish in the hut. I returned to the warm sunshine.

The creaking door of another hut was being blown by a wind. I couldn’t close it properly. It’s latch was damaged. Was that recent? For a moment I felt that the Birkenau evacuation had not been thirty-five years ago, but a mere fortnight. Everything looked sinister and accusative, as if only temporarily abandoned.

At the crematorium, I found the lair of the monster. Several visitors were placing their hands into the mouth of an oven. One woman kept rapidly doing it as if there was a ghost of a chance that she might be burnt. She moved away. I approached and stared into the rusting hole. It devoured my attention for too long. I sensed an impatient new visitor behind me.  The fire went out.

The gas chamber wall looked like a urinal wall. As in the huts, names had been scratched here. The longer you stared at them the more they meshed into an image of barbed wire. I heard many people screaming in my head and smelt the damp horror of the place. You didn’t want to linger.

When people use the word Auschwitz they only think of the death camp, not the town of Auschwitz (Oswiecim) near by. It’s a place as normal as the farms and cottages. Then it had a restaurant called Teatr (Theatre). Before catching the last train back to Kraków I dined there. Of all the meals that I ate in restaurants, during my month in Poland, this was the best. A good bigos, sausages, rye bread, pancakes in home-made jam and well brewed iced beer. If the museum lunch had been the filling in of some moral void, then my Teatr supper felt like a reinstatement of goodness. It may sound grotesquely absurd but food comforted me in a place where civilisation had once collapsed. Though on the Kraków train I fell asleep and dreamt badly.

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