Auschwitz in November was cold and dank. We had driven down from Warsaw, stopped to see the shrine of the Black Madonna in Czestochowa, and proceeded south to where the highway ended and the road became narrow and the peasants, since it was Sunday, wore traditional dress. We drove in and out of rain and then by a route I do not remember we were outside Auschwitz, veered and proceeded to the extermination camp at Birkenau. It was huge, bigger than I had imagined, and devoted totally to murder.
We parked the car and we walked. We walked first through Birkenau, the barracks, the places where the gassing was done, the crematoriums, and then we went over to Auschwitz itself and walked some more.
We went in and out of the barracks and we looked at the building and I, of course, took careful notes, precise notes because I am a journalist, until it became hard to breathe and I felt like someone must when they have emphysema. I gulped and it seemed the air would not come, that there was not enough air there or in all of Poland, and sooner than I thought, I ran from the place and went back to my hotel to write. Only I could not.
Earlier I had been to Treblinka. We had driven there in the late afternoon, gotten lost, and arrived at night. The car poked its way slowly into the camp, which is now nothing but a forest. We went for what seemed a long way and it was there I started to understand how immense this business of killing was.
Suddenly, the car's lights fell upon commemorative stones in various languages that said what had happened there and listed, by nationalities, the numbers killed. We read the stones and felt the forest moving in on us and got scared, so we left. But I am still there.
I had gone to these places in my capacity as a journalist-human being-Jew to write about what I saw and what I felt, only there were things I could not write because I felt feelings I had never felt. I had sat at a table in the town of my grandfather's birth, doing the history of my family, and had come across the name Cohen over and over again--so many Cohens, but only a few of them my family.
The phone books of major American cities are full of Cohens and so when I learned that most of those whose names I saw had been murdered in the Holocaust, I felt nothing special, which is to say I felt sadness and rage, but nothing special, until by going back and back, turning the pages of the registry of births and deaths, I realized that in this small town all the Cohens were my family and they were all dead.
Later, much later, I sat in a living room in Washington with a family friend and members of my family. There was a stranger there, too. He talked to my friend and they discovered they had been at Auschwitz at the same time. They said nothing more. They did not jump up or exclaim or even ask all the silly do-you-remember questions you would ask if you ran into someone from your old camp or high school. They said nothing. And none of us had the nerve to say anything, either.
All my life I have known about the Holocaust. It stalks me, makes no sense to me, reduces me to tears and then to rage and then to something else. It intrudes on moments of joy, nags at me while on vacation, comes in and out of context and then demands its own context. There are days when I think the world ought to do nothing more than reflect on the Holocaust and days when I think it would be better off forgotten, taken out of the newspapers and put where it belongs--in a theology class where cosmic questions are fitted with second-rate answers.
So now the survivors of the Holocaust are among us in Washington. I have done my reading, my Dawidowicz and my Des Pres, my Weisel-Appelfeld, Thomas, Arendt, Schwartz-Bart, even the criticism of them, and all the recent stuff in the newspaper.
I know a lot about the Holocaust, the dates and the numbers and the places, but I can say nothing about its meaning and nothing to the survivors but welcome, welcome, and understand that while newspaper columns are supposed to have a conclusion, this one will not.
Just a cold, dank feeling that clings like a stain.