Nuremberg, Time And Memory

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I WONDERED WHY MOST OF US DO NOT MAKE FAUSTIAN BARGAINS AS HANS FRANK DID. BECAUSE WE ARE SO GOOD OR BECAUSE THEY ARE NEVER OFFERED?
 

The richness of Wawel is almost indigestible, throne rooms, ballrooms, reception halls all covered in tooled red leather. Medieval tapestries stretch from floor to ceiling, their figures twice life-size. Our guide makes no mention of the use to which Wawel Castle was put between 1939 and 1944. Only my persistent questions lead us to the artencrusted salon that Frank used as his office and from which he earned the title Jew Butcher of Cracow.

I could feel Frank’s presence at the head of a long, carved table, surrounded by flunkies, calculating how best to steal Poland’s wheat, kidnap its workers, and exterminate its Jews. And I wondered why most of us do not make Faustian bargains as he did. Because we are so good or because they are never offered?

Writing about the trial imposed no necessity to go to Auschwitz. Every horror perpetrated there is fully documented in those 1,171 file boxes in Washington. But I needed more than the feel of old papers in a file box. I wanted to bear witness.

We pass through a grilled gate. Overhead, wrought-iron letters proclaim the familiar Nazi mockery ARBEIT MACHT FREI , (“Work will free you”). We engage an English-speaking guide and set out with a disparate band, three West Indians and two blond young men of Slavic mien, one of whom carries a bouquet of roses.

We move through a red-brick building, its walls covered with photo blowups of the victims’ arrival, followed by the separation of the healthy and employable from the old, the sick, the young—those immediately doomed. We turn a corner, and an avalanche of shoes spills forward, every size, every style. The soles are ripped open. The guards would have been looking for hidden valuables, our guide explains. I do not want to remember an anonymous pile. I fix my eyes on a single pair of women’s shoes, pink, delicate, and try to imagine them worn to a dance. A party? A wedding?

Another corridor reveals a small mountain of eyeglasses, thousands of pairs, then another of brushes: shaving brushes, toothbrushes, shoe brushes, hairbrushes. I stand before heaps of battered luggage, the leather dried and stiffened by time. Names are stenciled in white letters on many pieces. New arrivals had been told to mark their bags so that they could reclaim them later. I stare at one case: “Eva Pandor.” Was she Hungarian, Czech, Polish? Was she young? Old? Beautiful? Is it possible Eva Pandor survived?

One display, from a distance, is an unintelligible jumble. As we approach, the items come into focus: back braces, leg braces, wooden legs, mechanical hands, crutches, wheelchairs. Behind another glass pane, mounds of hair are piled, all gray. I ask the guide, Were the victims segregated by age? No, he says, the gas turned all hair gray.

Our guide takes us before a simple gallows. A plaque informs us that here, in 1947, the Poles hanged the Auschwitz commandant, Rudolf Franz Ferdinand Hoess. I have read Hoess’s cool recitation of how the assembly line of death worked in the Nuremberg trial transcript. This, the guide says, concludes the tour.

But where is the Auschwitz glimpsed in a hundred photographs, in dozens of newsreels and documentaries? The red-brick buildings, just toured, we learn, were the retail division of Commandant Hoess’s abattoir. Nearby Birkenau was the wholesale operation. I am informed at an information booth that today, being a Polish holiday, there will be no tours to Birkenau. After we have traveled these thousands of miles, the news is a blow. I find out, however, that a busload of Austrian tourists, with their own guide, is going there. When we track them down, I explain that I am writing on Nuremberg, slip the driver a fistful of zlotys, and we are allowed to stand in the aisle. A fellow passenger tells me the group are all Viennese, all Jewish, all with family lost to the Holocaust.

Birkenau comes into sight on the Polish plain. This is the Auschwitz seared into memory, guard towers spiked with machine guns, electrified barbed-wire fences, miles of weathered wooden barracks. Soon after we enter the main gate, an elderly Viennese, wearing a fedora and a plaid overcoat, asks the bus driver to stop. She sets off purposefully toward a distant barracks. The woman is going to the shed where she was liberated forty-six years ago.