It begins with a fence, because this is a city of perimeters. It begins with me walking, walking alongside the wire, walking in the late afternoon, in the autumn half-light. Walking with my eyes closed and my arms crossed, walking and swerving, with a hangover, nauseous, shaking, inappropriately dressed, freezing but sweating toxins, walking and wishing already that I wasn’t here. Walking and panicking a little, that maybe this is futile anyway, that I’m too late, that I shouldn’t have hit is so hard last night knowing that I had to make this trip, knowing that this box had to be ticked today, walking and wondering where I am, following the fence, trusting the fence, hoping that at somewhere along it, an entrance point will appear.
There are hulking soviet apartment blocks. There is washing on balconies. There is a mother and daughter, dressed in identical white hooded anoraks, tightly fitted, waiting at the bus stop. There are dudes in track suits with pitbulls. There are endless driveways, but no cars. There are works in progress, new residential developments going up, construction noises, billboards with floor-plans and artist’s impressions, of new kitchens, new bathrooms, new living spaces.
Alongside the things to come, the things that are. The things that have been here always, next to the thing, the thing that cannot be incorporated into the new, The thing that everyone comes here to see, the thing, which while not the geographical centre of town, nonetheless forms it nucleus. Other cities open onto market squares. They move inward from the outskirts toward a central space that is shared, open, claimed and inhabited by everyone. But this city, this small city, about two hours from the old capital by bus, is built around an enclosure. What is fenced out exists in relation to what is fenced in: they look each other in the face, daily, with dull recognition. Disinterested, they observe the flow of outsiders. Millions of them. Every year. This point is marked in bold on any tourist’s map of the eastern states: it is not only the centre of town, but was once, by a certain system of logic, the designated centre of Europe.
This city has two names. There is the name of the actual location, the Polish name: the name on the window of the bus that gets you here, on the police station and the post office. This name, Oswiecim, belongs to the people who live here. The town has another name, a Germanisised version inherited from an occupying force. Its this name that is known and spoken everywhere, a shorthand reference to monumental horror. It hangs, in heavy black lettering, as much a graphic representation of an idea as a word. More than half a century after the invasion, this town remains occupied territory: It is occupied by the living, who co-exist with the multitudinous dead. It is occupied by its own irreducible significance as a site of pilgrimage, the property of world history. It is fully occupied by history, as an empty room is fully occupied by emptiness.
I can’t find the entrance. I consider a cigarette, because smoking is what you do when you’re lost or waiting. I was out until breakfast, drinking with a 19 year old millionaire from Warsaw. I had been at bar in Kazimierz after a gig with some friends, and and his retinue descended on our table for no obvious reason other than to extend their largess and command our attention. He had two bodyguards in tow, one for personal protection and one to ferry trays of shots between the bar and our table. This is, surely, the pinnacle of tourist kitsch: I found the vodka, and now I have to find the death camp. I get up and keep walking, keep following the fence.
Eventually I come to a gate. I make my way through the parking lot towards the main building. It’s squat and featureless. A few shrubs and a rock wall, a gesture to the niceties of landscaping. I can’t see any people. Anywhere. There are a couple of cars parked outside though. And through the glass doors at the entrance, I can see a light on.
It’s almost five. I halfexpect the doors to already be locked, so I push on them gingerly. To my surprise, they open, and I find myself in a long corridor. Green lino. Flurescent light. It’s like a hospital. I stand at the entrance for a few moments. I become aware of a low murmuring of voices, coming from somewhere deeper in the building. I move off in search of the ticketing booth, and find it at the end of the hall.
Behind the glass, there are three attendants, all women in their sixties, identically dressed in grey v-necks, all sporting silver blow-waves and spectacles on chains. They’re chatting to each other, emptying tills, punching numbers into eftpos machines, counting notes with rubber-tipped fingers. It’s looking suspiciously like the end of the day. I’m standing at the counter for a while before one of them looks up at me. She looks at me for a long time, silently, with and expression of complete disinterest which quickly mutates into contempt.
I want to buy a ticket, I tell her.
She shakes her head briskly. The museum is closed.
There’s a frustrated exchange. The guidebook told me 7pm, I say. In the summertime only, she says. I’ve come from Krakow, I say. You can go in on your own, if you like, she says, and I think she’s being sarcastic, but she’s not. You can go in on your own and you’ll have to find a security guard to let you out. Though it’s getting dark and you might not be able to find your way around without someone who knows the compound, and many of the exhibits will be locked. It’s your choice she says. I stare at the floor and consider my options.
I hear some footsteps approach from behind, a pair of sensible boots on a mission, moving quickly and decidedly in the direction of the door. The blowwave looks up, over my shoulder, and gestures for me to turn around. There’s a man passing, carrying a backpack, and empty lunch box and some other remnants of a working day. He goes to wave goodbye to the attendants but halts when he sees me.
Here is you’re solution, says the attendant. A private guide. He will cost you 200 zlotys.
He approaches the counter. Looks at me, looks at the attendant and there is a brief exchange between them in Polish, which I can assume goes something along the lines ofdo you mind, I know it’s been a long day, but this idiot has come all this way and she needs someone to show her around. He nods and smiles, an in that moment I’m very grateful for that smile.
He’s young, maybe thirty. Very tall, and awkwardly aware of it. He stoops to introduce himself, extending his hand. Pale eyes, blonde, with a short fringe, crowning a high forehead. Kakhi parka. He introduces himself as Wojeich. He stuffs his lunchbox back in his bag, fumbles his beanie back onto his head and says, we better get going.
He explains the situation. This is the main compound. Birkenau is a ten minute drive down the road. IfI want to see it, we have to get in his car and go now. There’s no electricity out there he says, we have to catch it while there’s still some light.
He leads me out to the parking lot and we jump into his white hatchback and tear off down the road. It’s a long, narrow road, across a plain. It carves an uncompromisingly straight trajectory through emptiness towards one point. It’s a new road, built to connect the two sites, laid down parallel to its shadow, which Wojeich points out to my right: the old train line, the dark rails still intact but sinking gradually into the pale grass. This was the main transport line. I think about this word. Transport.
And there it is: the brick watchtower, the fence and the lamps bowing their massive heads down towards the ground, but issuing no light. Suddenly we’re in a colour reproduction of something that should be in black and white. We are in a photograph, we are on the set of a film that has been made and re-made so
Memorial and evidence are, of course, not the same thing. If evidence is comprised of objective physical remnants, or otherwise, what is, then memorial operates on another level of representation. They do not occupy the same space; at first sight, evidence is dumb. It is a building, sitting in a field. It looks smaller, there is no accompanying soundtrack, it is not part of any cohesive narrative. The connection is delayed, the symbolic fails, the engine of feeling stalls. Given the right circumstances, this will change. The field of Memorial is a vast one, with many master architects in its employ. The means and methods of constructing a memorial may be as varied as there are events that warrant memorialising, but the basic principle remains the same: evidence and memorial (site and narrative) exist in relation to each other as the train tracks do: parallel, never meeting, but working in confluence to bring us to one point. That point: evidence, plus memorial, equals, Monument.
We park and make our way in. We pass through the archway and step out onto uneven ground, sloping downwards towards the first row of wooden barracks. There’s acres of healthy looking grass, with networks of paths trodden into it. There is a name for these lines, a beautiful name: Desire lines. So called because they mark out the shortest route between one point and another, in this case, the archway and the row of barracks. These paths have been worn-in by visitors. Originally, there would have just been mud and ice. No system for foot traffic, no clear path for entrance or exit. There would have been no grass here, Wojeich tells me. People would have eaten it.
Maybe he always starts with the grass. Maybt this is always the first on his practiced litany of details.
He leads me into the first of the buildings. It’s like a stable, the walls are not walls but rows of planks, shoddily hammered together. There are shapes, which gradually take the shape of objects and structures: Rows of reconstructed bunks, of stone squat toilets. Everything exists in rows, in barbaric uniformity. He shows me around, rattling off his script at speed, with the flair of an estate agent showing off a grand home to an interested client. He points out the main features but laces his description with finer points, points of humanity, points to bring this massive thing into focus. He is allowed just enough poetic license to bring the dates, statistics, big numbers, to life. His, perhaps, the only licensed poetic, the sanctioned poetic of the experience of which he is the officiate. In this light I can’t read any of the information panels, so I rely entirely on his verbal record, which just keeps rolling, as if he’s got it on tape.
When we step out of the barracks it’s almost completely dark. the ground, the buildings, the path: it has all become indistinguishable from the settling night. There are two points of orientation: to the north, the watchtower, a contained hub of electric light. To the south, a forest of shadows. The outline of a thick woodland at the farthest perimeter, cut out against the sky. The sunsets of central Europe, at this time of year, are so strange. So orange, such a fiery apricot, not unlike the colour of an Australian sky in bushfire season, but cold. Everything below the outline of those trees, by contrast, has sunk into black. This gives the impression, for a moment, that we are suspended at the mouth of a vast pit. The ground, the invisible ground, is what stops us from falling.
We stand at the mouth of the main line that divides the two halves of the camp. The central passage, the backbone of the compound. Wojeich gestures into the darkness, pointing out faintly visible shapes: down there is the Judenramp, where human cargo, in inconceivable quantities, was efficiently offloaded and sorted, individuals assessed and marked for labour or for death. Beyond that, there is the site where the two main crematoria stood before they were frantically destroyed by the SS in the days leading up to liberation. There are warehouses, the colloquially named Canada A and Canada B, so-called because they were ʻplaces of plenty’, where the possessions of prisoners were sent for sorting before being repurposed or redistributed on the open market. But it’s dark and neither of us can see these things, not so much as an outline. They’re vast images, projected into vast darkness.
I’m standing there for a while before I realise that I am alone. Wojeich has already turned and made it halfway back up the hill. We have to leave now, he calls back to me, walking quickly back in the direction of the gate.
The archway is illuminated by the accidental light cast from an open door. As we pass I look in: fluros, buzzing security monitors, broadcasting different shades of nightvision green. In this world, things are seen in reverse: the black buildings become grainy white, the brittle trace of a fence is visible against a dark background. There’s light grey carpet and formica benchtops. I can smell instant coffee and vinyl and damp wool carpet. under the parapet of the iconic archway, the frozen mouth of Birkenau, there’s an office. It smells and sounds like every other office on the planet.
There’s a group of guards inside, about 5 of them, milling around or sitting with their booted feet up on the tables, talking and laughing. They’re wearing the generic uniform of state authority: navy blue v-necks, boots, shaved heads, utility belts. They could be bored transit cops at a suburban railway station.
Wojeich is walking ahead of me. He pauses for a beat at the door. When he sees the guards he flinches. Utters a nervous csezch.
The guards look at us. They say nothing. One of them smiles. A smile that’s spiked with something, a bully’s smile. The man holds Wojeich’s gaze silently for a moment. Then turns to me. His grin widens.
Come, Wojeich urges, before moving off, quickening his pace, dragging me quickly away as a mother might drag a small child from the sight of something lurid.
We walk over the icy road in the direction of the white hatchback. We can see it, parked 50 metres or so down the road. I can sense Wojeich’s panic, He’s walking briskly, a little too briskly, he’s so keen to get away from this place and into the safety of his car. I worry that if I don’t get there in time he’ll just jump in and speed off. I struggle to keep up with him. I can hear his breath. I can see it, issuing from his mouth in an urgent plume, like steam from a locomotive. There is, in this moment, a very real sense of being pursued by something shapeless and immeasurably threatening. We are both working hard, over this short distance, to suppress the creeping onset of hysteria, to keep walking quickly but calmly in the direction of the car, and most importantly, to not give in to the impulse to break into a run. Or, conversely, to stop entirely, turn around, a look back.
We make it to the car and Wojeich’s veneer of professional composure is teetering on the brink. He jams the key in the lock, wrenches the door open. We get in. Slam the doors. Wojeich’s hand slams down on the locks. He grips the steering wheel with both hands. He’s shaking. His eyes are closed, he’s breathing heavily through his nose. He has retreated from his well-oiled performance as museum guide and sole protector of bewildered female tourist, into a private negotiation with his own fear. I wonder if his fear is different to mine. What is its substance, its form.
I hate coming here at night, he says. I hate it. I got stuck out here once. On All Souls night. The car broke down. There is no mobile reception. I had to sleep all night in the back seat. He starts the engine, The dashboard lights up. I could not sleep. All night I felt outside there were people. Watching through the windows. People trying to get in.
We have shifted again to the exterior shot of the Birkenau watchtower. The greater outline of the building is invisible. What we see is a small hub of light, contained by the archway, suspended in darkness without limits. And within it, the figures of five men. Arms folded, watching us as we pull away.
It begins, again, with a fence. A fence within a fence, and another open gate. Another iconic entrance point, crowned with scrolling iron fretwork, following a decorative curve. From the inside, the German words Arbeit Macht Frei read in reverse. Beneath the famous declaration, there’s another sign, nailed to a stake at tourist eye-level. A picture of an ice-cream cone. Of all things. With a big red line through it. A friend in Krakow had told me to look out for this. Ice-creams prohibited. Who the fuck, he had asked me, would want to walk around Auschwitz eating an ice-cream?
The first stop on the tour of the main compound is the gas oven. The bunker-like structure is humped under a mound of turf, like a shoebox under a rug. It’s not more than 100 meters from the first row of barracks that would have housed prisoners. The same distance away, in the other direction, beyond the high wire fence, is an apartment block. Somebody just turned their balcony light on. The face of the building is made up of a tessellation of small windows. Some of them you can see straight through. Others are covered by curtains. Through one, the ghostly flickering of a television, and through another, the cut-out shape of a fern in a hanging basket. Through another, someone’s fridge door, covered in magnets and photos. You can’t help but wonder what it would be like to live in an apartment with a view of the Auschwitz gas chamber, to coexist so intimately with one of the greatest human atrocities in known history.
Passing through the low door into the chamber the first thing I do, the first thing I believe most people do, is imagine my own death. I’m struck by the predictability of this reaction, as well as it’s obscenity.
I stay inside for a long time. Wojeich hovers near the door, silent for the most part. He jumps in every now and then with a statistic or a description, something I should know, something about the pope’s visit, or something about the twin incinerators (which are reproductions), decorated with wreaths and burnt-out yarzeit candles. But mostly, he leaves me to my own devices.
The eye is drawn to detail. It is unable to bring more than one object, or even more than one point on the same object, into focus at the same time. I notice the pipes. Chips in the paintwork. Condensation on the roof. Shadows and electric light. I focus for a moment right into the glowing tungsten of the bulb in the ceiling, let it burn into my retina. Then close my eyes: the glowing imprint floats there, on the surface of darkness, like a leaf in water. What they eye clearly sees is miniscule relative to what the eye is peripherally aware of. The eye will be drawn to things which correspond to it’s own size and shape, just as the body will be drawn to another body, and the heart will be drawn to another heart, again, of familiar substance and dimensions. It’s not that numbers are cold. 6 million is not a cold number. But there are certain processes of connection and understanding that must happen first on a human scale. You have to take them first, on some level, into your own body. Why else would anyone feel the need to visit Auschwitz in the flesh? This is not empathy. It cannot be. Perhaps, in a language other than English, there is a name for this particular process of identification. Perhaps this is a part of the persistent lack I feel in Australia, where housing estates are built on massacre sites, where atrocity goes so frequently unmarked and unacknowledged. The first death I imagine, when I enter this space, is my own. My own body is the first body. The second body is Wojeich’s, and his is the second death. Only after those two can I begin to extend my understanding the idea of a blurry multitude. And even in the smoke, I’m trying to make out their faces, trying to give them names and occupations and families, imagining the anomalies of their naked bodies, crowded into this room, the size of their feet or their hips, the length of the women’s fingernails, how strange or how familiar they might have been to each other.
It’s quite pleasant in the summertime, Wojeich tells me. After pointing out a patch of grass, in between the chamber and the Kommandant’s residence, and telling me that this is the spot where a gallows once stood, he adds that it’s also the spot where, when the weather is nice, he likes to have his lunch. It’s true that compared to the wild expanse of Birkenau, Auschwitz, with its arcades of plane trees and old brick buildings, is almost cosy.
Wojeich slips much more casually out of his tour-guide register now. As we walk he complains about the unevenness of the ground. This museum gets more money than any other museum in the country, he says, and they can’t even fix the footpaths. I have the feeling of being drawn into his confidence, and there’s comfort in this. There’s fascination too. There’s a peculiar sense of after-hours intimacy. We have mutually entrusted ourselves to each other. We are both so glad to have someone. At this moment in time and in this place, neither one of us wants to be alone. I agree with him, the ground is very uneven. It’s a menace, he insists. He tells me that once he had on elderly lady on his tour who tripped and split her knee open. He had to take her to the infirmary, another guide had to take over the tour, it was a huge drama. He tells me that he sat with the woman as they fixed her up. I nearly fainted, he tells me. I can’t stand blood or the smell of bandages. And she was so old. Her bones, bones so old, they just snap. Inside, Wojeich has to fumble for the light switch. In the darkness my hand touches a cold railing. A little bit sticky, like it’s been freshly painted.
The lights flicker on. We’re in a stairwell.
In the attempt to reconstruct the exhibits in writing, I’m assailed by odd details. We walk up a flight of steps which lead to the museum and the archives. We come to a room full of maps and documents. There is a large one of Europe, which takes up a whole wall. the land mass is painted salmon pink, crossed by a network of taut wires, strung between nails. a nail hammered in at Dachau, another at Buchenwald, etc. The lines between them representing the transit passages. Auschwitz-Birkenau is right at the centre. Here, everything converges.
If this was a convex trajectory, we would be standing at the vanishing point. Of all things, I’m reminded of an image from a cartoon. An episode of Dangermouse that I watched as a kid. the characters go into outer space and get sucked into a black hole. It was salmon pink too, with swirling lines, sucked inexorably downward, to one point. This is the first of many unrelated, occaisionally absurd images and memories of my own, flotsam and jetsam from my childhood for the most part, which begin to arise, continually floating to the surface of my mind with each new piece of information that the exhibit offers up: in the faces of murdered men and women, I can’t help but see people that it know. When we enter the infamous room full of human hair, I single out a single black plait in the mass, I’m reminded of the dismembered braid that my mother keeps in a drawer at home (I had it lopped off when I was 15). I look at the glass case full of spectacles and my eyes are drawn to a pair of frames that look exactly like a pair worn by a friend. I wonder what this process is achieving, if there is a kind of narcissism inherent in any process of understanding. Familiar images, entirely banal in their nature, are chosen at random. These images hustle and assemble, it seems, to
aid the assimilation of a horror of such a magnitude into the mind of a person such as myself, who’s life has never been directly touched by war or genocide. Horror, as a filmic or literary genre, relies on familiar settings to achieve its effect. Perhaps true horror, the horror of atrocity and its remnants, relies on the same, if it is to be understood. If Horror is a genre by which a thrill is elicted by a making strange of the familiar, then perhaps museums of atrocity (and I’ve visited many, besides this one) reverse this process: the unimaginable is made personable, and the pathway to this is detail. Endless accumulation of detail. Spectacles, shoes, suitcases, gloves, hair. All of these things were stripped from prisoners on their arrival, then sorted in the Canada warehouses. I wonder why they kept the hair?. did they use it to stuffmattresses? did they sell it to wigmakers? like the shoes and everything else, the thing that haunts me most about these objects is not what has been collected, but what has been dispersed. The belongings of the dead were processed and sold on. I’m reminded of a bucket full of leather gloves at a second-hand store in Kreuzberg. I picked out a pair for myself and a pair for my girlfriend. They would have been about the same vintage: 30’s, 40’s. There were hundreds of them. Like limp fish in a barrel. How do you account for the providence of everyday things? Does atrocity spread, like an insidious and invisible fungus, into the tiniest cracks of the ordinary? How longs does it hang around for, and how does it mutate?
The question persists: why did they keep the hair? There was a purpose for this, I remember Wojeich telling me what it was. And I remember another conversation that I had with a Kurdish artist who makes large-scale sculptures from human hair. Nothing will live in it, she told me. Nothing. Once it’s cropped from the scalp, it’s the deadest thing you can imagine. She said, I have clumps of it in my garden. No animal touches it, not insects or birds. Nothing will build a nest out of it. It’s like it’s cursed.
This is the final exhibit: a series of empty rooms. In the basement of the barracks which houses the museum, there’s a labyrinthine complex of cells. Again, as we descend, the first thing I’m reminded of is something from my childhood: the sinister crawl space underneath a house I lived in, and my brother playthreatening to lock me down there. This memory comes to me with it’s edges sanded-off, blurred with dreams and other realities. What lingers is not an image but a sense, a recognition of the subterranean as something fearful. It is, it seems, the earliest part of me that connects with this fear. Barely suppressed beneath the sensible adult, there is the raw panic of a very young child.
There is a long corridor illuminated by bare bulbs. Like the bronchi that feed each lung, the core pipeline spiders off into ever-diminishing passageways lined with cells. The cells dimensions range from the size of a domestic bedroom to the size of a domestic closet. These are “starvation cells”, a vertical version of the Oubillette, (Fr. Oubille, to forget) which is to be found beneath the dungeon floor of most medieval castles throughout Europe and the UK. It’s a medieval idea, medievally barbaric, which stands out against the modern, industrialised barbarism, for which the Reich is ignobly renowned. In each cell there is standing room for a single prisoner, who would be sealed in there without food or water, left literally to die on their feet. Even in the denigrated, half-starved state in which most prisoners would have made it into these cells, death by starvation is still a lengthy process. It’s weeks, in most cases, before the body begins to devour itself. This is one of many contradictory answers to the assertion of the Reich’s cold efficiency.
The walls are greenish. They are covered with scratches. What looks like a frenzied scramble of marks from a distance reveals itself at closer inspection to be incredibly intricate graffiti. It’s predominantly religious in motif, and every major faith of Europe appears to be represented, as well as every language. The Polish Catholics, with their particularly developed grasp of the aesthetics of iconography, are the most visible. It’s when I focus on a elaborately carved image ofthe crucifixion that, for the first time on this strange, numb journey, I feel completely overcome. I can’t fathom this to be out of any particular attachment to the image itself. I had a secular upbringing. Christ on the cross is, like a Star of David or a statue of the Buddah, another religious symbol which I recognise as such but to which I can claim no particular personal or emotional connection. But in its presence (and this thing is a presence, beyond representation) something connects. This image is the dying moments of an individual made material. It is the heart-sized object, which in the wash of mass inhumanity, my own heart has been seeking to grab onto. On the wall of a starvation cell, it’s so passionately, intricately, and sensitively carved. What moves me is the artistry of the thing. Its beauty.
Wojeich has removed his beanie and is needing it with both hands as he speaks. He tells me that it was in this basement that the Nazis first began experimenting with Zyklon B. The chemical used in the gas chambers was a readily available industrial pesticide, used in factories to kill vermin. It could be bought cheaply in bulk. Upstairs in the museum, there is a cabinet containing a pile of empty cans.The labels are peeling and age spotted, with blue lettering. It doesn’t look like a murderous substance. You’d think that such a thing would make an effort to
conceal itself; napalm doesn’t come in domesticated little tins, clearly labelled. The first group were predominantly sick and disabled, old people, and children. About 200 people were confined in this basement. He gestures to the row of grates, near the ceiling, they were sealed, making the basement “hermetic” to use his precise choice of words. The gas was filtered in, in different concentrations. It was too weak. The instructions that came off the shelf with Zyklon B presumably only indicated the right concentrations for killing rats. They had vastly underestimated how much they would need. It took the prisoners 2 days to die.
He’s saying this, and suddenly, he’s interrupted by the sound of laughter. Muffled laughter, coming to us, it seemed, from no particular direction. We look at each other. We hear the door slam shut. The heavy bolt slide into place.
Wojeich bolts up the stairs. I’m glued to the spot, staring at the outline of my frozen shadow on the concrete floor, my heart thumping, a constriction in my throat.
He’s screaming in Polish and hammering the door. The sound of his voice rebounds off the walls, and multiplies. suddenly the room is filled with screaming, with a host of voices. For a moment I’m glued to the spot. Then, my body chooses flight. I run up the stairs after my guide, feeling like there’s something clinging to me, pulling me backwards.
The bolt slides away and the door opens. There’s a security guard standing there. Grinning disingenuously. He laughs raucously. Slaps the terrified Wojeich on the shoulder. What a good joke. Wojeich’s knuckes are clenched an raw from banging. I see the red in his eyes, the tears on his face. The string of spit
hanging from his mouth. His breath.
He walks me to his car.
You’re very brave coming out here, alone in the dark like this, he says. I mean, it’s not Disneyland.
It wasn’t my intention I say. Just bad planning.
Wojeich wants to leave. He wants a job in a city museum. Something in archiving or preservation, something out of the public eye. He’d like to spend his days immersed in a less hostile history. Handling quiet objects in quiet halls, things that take nothing from you and leave no residue. His girlfriend is restless too. She works as a receptionist in a sports club. But she, like Wojeich, is a historian by vocation. They both hate Oswiecim. They’re doing time here, until something else comes along. It’s particularly hard for her, he tells me. She’s not polish. She's struggled to learn the language, has difficulty making friends. I ask him where she’s from. She's a Berliner, he says. Echte Berliner, born and bred.
He doesn’t know when or if a bus will arrive to take me back to Krakow. The bus station is a space-age construction, fresh out of the plastic, on the outskirts of town. It’s lit-up like an aquarium and totally empty. The screens inside are all blacked out. Wojeich waits with me in the cold on the side of the road for a bus that may or may not arrive. He talks about England. He spent six months travelling there. He loved it, he hitchhiked everywhere, improved his English chatting to lorry drivers. He asks me where I live. I tell him, a small town in the West Country. He mentions Thomas Hardy. Him and his girlfriend want to move. Maybe to London. Maybe to Berlin. They met in Berlin, and she misses it. As a city, Wojeich likes it a lot. There’s good music. Good falafel. State Museums are free to visit every Thursday.
But London is so exciting, he says. London is an engine. And there are a lot of Poles there.
We spend almost an hour like this. Talking in circles, talking a fence around what has gone before, sealing it off.
When a battered transit van approaches, Wojeich flags it down. There’s a scrawled cardboard sign reading KRAKOW propped in the front window. The door slides open: inside, the radio is croaking out the hit parade, the driver is smoking, the passengers are talking, each in their own language- Polish, German, French, Spanish- a simmering potlatch where a strand of one becomes entangled with another. There’s room for one more.
I shake Wojeich’s hand, and thank him.