A man's tour of Auschwitz doesn't go as expected...
|The Shadow of History
Peter Schuster couldn’t remember how he had gotten separated from the rest of his guided tour group. He had been looking fixedly at something with vague horror for so long that he hadn’t noticed the movement of the group. What it was, he couldn’t recall. There wasn’t anything in Auschwitz that didn’t fill him with a sense of vague horror.
Suddenly, he found himself alone in a brown-bricked building, running. On both sides of him were rows of wooden cots, triple stacked. Here, Jewish inmates would sleep three to a cot. Over 1000 inmates per building. The tour guide had illustrated this fact by allowing visitors the chance to lay down on one of the cots. Peter had found it a tight fit for himself. He could recall that. But how he had ended up back here all alone, he couldn’t remember.
Peter stopped running, despite his urgency, to marvel at the barracks building, untouched since its inception in 1940. Square openings between the roof and the brick walls let in the light and the outside weather. A chill shivered up Peter’s entire frame. Odd, he thought, for such a beautiful June day. He passed it off. Just the shakes. Who wouldn’t get the shakes in a place like this? Time to find the rest of his tour group.
He ran the length of the barracks, checking his watch, forcing himself to remain calm. Its not like the train is going to leave without you, he assured himself. Even if it did, the camp hosted tours at regular intervals throughout the day until 7PM. The day was still early. He would be sure to catch a train, even if it meant getting back a bit late. Hell, if he didn’t feel like waiting, it was only a 25-minute walk from the camp to Krakow Glowny, the main train station, if you followed the rails. Or to the Dworzec MDA, the local bus station, located right behind the Glowny. The weather had been gorgeous all day and Peter supposed that he wouldn’t mind a chance to stroll past some of Poland’s rural vistas and make the most of his trip. But something else, a feeling that he couldn’t quite place, made him feel directly compelled to find the rest of his tour group at once. To get back on the train to Oswiecim, then back to his hotel room in Krakow.
At the end of the long gallery surrounded on both sides by columns of cots, Peter exited through a solitary wooden door. Outside, rows of similar brown bricked-huts stretched down the length of the camp. Peter had to stop again to appreciate the structure of the huts. They held up remarkably well, Peter thought, despite the span of some 70 years. Seemingly untouched by rot or decay. He wondered if the museum had put in any efforts at restoration. It seemed, to him, distasteful in theory to renovate that which should have been destroyed long ago, even if for the sake of remembrance. He looked around but couldn’t seem to find any information plaques or displays. Come to think of it, he hadn’t seen any in the barracks hut either. Strange. After the effect wore off, Peter was struck by another strange sensation. The sky, formally sunny and cloudless, was now dim and moody, almost dark. Deep blue clouds lingered over the camp and the wind blew as cold as September. That morning, it had been so hot that Peter hadn’t worn anything heavier than a T-shirt. Now, he found himself shivering and wishing for a coat. Surely the weather couldn’t have changed so much in such a short time, Peter thought. He began to wonder exactly how long he had been separated from his tour group. Fresh panic overtook him, and he ran through the gap between two of the huts.
HALT! STOJ! Those were the words printed in bold on the wooden sign that hung from the electric fence. Translation; Stop! Stand! Above them, a skull with two crossbones. The universal sign for the danger of death. The fence had long ago ceased to be operable, Peter knew logically, but he froze anyhow, keeping his distance, as if the fence still held the ghost of the electricity that so many Jews had thrown themselves onto to avoid an even more agonizing death. Through barbed wire he could see the railroad tracks that cut across an open pasture and eventually back to Oswiecim. Crap, Peter thought, panting. The last he could recall; his tour group had been heading back towards the train tracks in the center of Auschwitz. He wondered how in the world he could have ended up at the complete opposite end of the camp. I must have gotten myself more lost than I thought, he told himself.
Abruptly, a voice from behind him spoke, and he startled violently, not knowing why. The voice was German, but in a strange dialect that Peter had never before heard. “Hey, you!” it said.
Peter turned around. What he saw filled him with bewilderment and terror. Approaching him was a man dressed in a period WW2 uniform. Peter noted that the uniform held the rank of an SS officer. His cap bore the Totenkopf emblem (the Death’s Head symbol). He wore boots, black and polished to a shine, up to his knees. A red band wrapped around his left arm, just above the elbow, with the swastika insignia sewn into it. In his hands he held a rifle.
Peter smiled, feeling foolish at his momentary fright. The man simply worked for the museum, that’s all. A wave of relief washed over him. It quickly passed and was replaced with a deep sense of disgust and distaste. A history aficionado all his life, Peter had been to museums and famous landmarks before that featured reenactments. Notably, in Gettysburg, where actors would dress up in Union and Confederate uniforms and reenact Lee’s defeat and surrender. But he felt that this crossed the line of good taste, or of taste in general, for that matter. What next, a giftshop? Peter thought sardonically.
The man stopped, holding the rifle fervently in his hands. Peter remarked on its craftsmanship. It looked damned-near authentic, he thought. The uniform that the man wore also impressed Peter with its contingent to historical accuracy.
The man spoke again, still in that German that sounded stilted and strange to Peter. “Why aren’t you with the others?”
“I’m sorry,” Peter said gratefully, in his Americanized German dialect. “I got separated from my group. I was worried that I missed the train. It didn’t leave yet, did it? The train, I mean?”
The man in the SS uniform relaxed. He pressed the barrel of his rifle into the ground and leaned against the butt. “The train is just now pulling in.”
Peter’s relief resurfaced. He no longer felt any desire to wander the picturesque Poland vistas on foot. No desire to spend another waking moment in this death camp.
The museum worker frowned. “Say, why aren’t you in uniform?”
Peter chuckled, then ran a hand through his thick blonde hair. It was the first time that he had chuckled since boarding the train in Oswiecim and it felt good and reassuring. “No, I don’t work here,” he explained. “I just need to get back to my group. See, I was with the last tour. I was looking at one of the exhibits and I guess that I must have lost track of time and got myself lost.”
The man observed him thoughtfully. He then broke out laughing. It was a rich, bawdy laugh. Peter wondered if these brick walls and wooden barracks had ever heard such a laugh. It didn’t suit this place. Despite not feeling the urge to, Peter laughed as well. He felt as though he should. The man slugged Peter on the shoulder hard enough to leave a bruise.
“If you were sleeping with one of those Poland girls, you don’t need to explain yourself to me, comrade” the man said, holding one hand out in a circle and poking his other index finger through it in a crude motion.
Peter felt greatly offended, both as a married man and at such a crude joke being made in such a place as Auschwitz but said nothing. He merely wanted to rejoin the others and board the train as soon as possible.
“Can you tell me were the others are?” Peter asked measuredly.
The man spat on the ground. “The others are all at the train, of course. If I were you, I’d get your ass there on the double. It doesn’t look good shirking behind. Not on opening night, eh? Not with all the higher-ups in attendance.”
Peter could hardly comprehend the words that came out of the man’s mouth. Opening night? Higher-ups? He didn’t try to comprehend them. For a reason that Peter couldn’t even begin to conjecture on, this man was obviously having a sick laugh at his expense. Wanting to leave, Peter thanked the man flatly and took off towards the entrance of the camp.
As he did, he could hear the man call out, “And be sure to show up in uniform!” Then start to laugh.
Peter heard the sharp sound of a train’s whistle. Then, brakes grinding against metal, a sound like a violin shrieking. He ran with greater enthusiasm past the brown-bricked huts. Just in time, he told himself. In a matter of minutes, you’ll be out of this terrible place. He imagined how he’d think back and laugh about this whole ordeal when on the train. It didn’t seem possible now, but he supposed that’s what would make it so funny later.
However, he became suddenly aware of a strange, distinctly horrible, odor floating above the camp. He glanced up and saw a billow of smoke rising into the sky. From where it came, he couldn’t tell. His view was still obscured by one of the brick huts. The train, he thought. Exhaust from the train’s smokestack, that’s all. He could hear the engine revving down. But the exhibits and pictures that he had witnessed of the camp’s notorious chimneys and furnaces sprang to mind like an inescapable itch. One that, no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t scratch away.
When he saw the train, he became aware of the tumult all around him. It was a slow, sleepy realization, like a waking nightmare. So sudden and so wild was the sight that his brain could hardly register what he saw as reality. He had seen the man dressed in the Nazi uniform at the fence and had been prepared for a reenactment of sorts. However, standing before him wasn’t simply one Nazi soldier, nor was it a dozen, nor a dozen dozen, but hundreds. Hundreds of men wearing authentic Nazi uniforms, all with rifles in their hands or slung across their shoulders. There was a train on the tracks, but it didn’t hold any resemblance at all to the one that had dropped Peter off at noon that day. The train coming to a lazy stop resembled an old Kriegslokomotiven, the kind used in the 1940’s. Trailing behind were a row of cattle cars. From within each individual car, Peter could hear the clamor of many voices; scared, frightened voices. A man dressed like an officer stepped up onto the platform and pulled open one of the large slab doors. Inside, men, women, children, were packed so tight that they weren’t even afforded the luxury of sitting. Peter gaped, open-mouthed, horror-struck, as men dressed like officers drove the inmates from the cattle cars with their clubs and fists. There was much screaming. An older woman pointed and shrieked something in Yiddish that Peter couldn’t understand, her face deformed with terror. He followed her horrified gaze and saw that the smoke that he had noticed just moments ago didn’t come from the train. No, it came from the chimney of a large brick building.
“Give me a hand over here,” an officer called out to Peter. He was trying to wrestle a defiant son out of the clutching grasp of his mother.
I’m dreaming, Peter thought absently. I sat down somewhere to take a rest and I’m dreaming, that’s all. I was exhausted, dehydrated, it was hot, none of this is real. He pinched himself, he bit his lip, he slapped his face, but he didn’t wake.
A newspaper lay on the ground. One of the German officers had been reading it prior to the train pulling in. Peter stumbled over on weightless feet and grabbed it. He held it up to his eyes. It felt as though it were miles away. Still, he could read the text as clearly as he could hear the screams and sobs swelling all around him. As clearly as he could smell the aroma of smoke descending over the camp like a fog. 1940, that was the year at the top of the paper. 1940. Peter could now remember the last exhibit that he had been looking at before everything went black. It had been a photographic series. 1940. Opening night. The evening that Auschwitz began its occupation. Peter let the newspaper sag to the ground. His own legs sagged. He fell to his hands and knees. He could now remember the last picture that he had seen in that exhibit. That last terrible, familiar photograph that broke his sanity into fragments.
The German officers had achieved dominance over the inmates, who were now settling into single file; women to the right, men to the left. Their belongings were stripped from them. Sure, Peter had seen that exhibit on the tour as well. The tower of suitcases and clothes, forlorn and forgotten. A pile of reading glasses. A mountain of human hair. They were stripped of their clothes. A German man in a white coat observed the inmates and pointed them in one of two directions. One; to the barracks. Two; to the furnace. Peter recognized him at once. Dr. Mengele. Dr. Joseph Mengele. To his right stood a German Leutnant. Peter gazed into the man’s face with paralyzing horror. It was also a face that he knew well.
A young Jewish boy was summoned to the right. His father was commanded to step to the left. The boy wouldn’t let go of his father. Peter covered his eyes. He wanted to gouge them out. He had seen the photograph. History could not be rewritten. The Leutnant stepped forward, pistol drawn. He pressed it into the back of the old Jew’s head. A flash. A photograph was taken by a German photographer. It would end up in the museum at Auschwitz under the title, Young Boy Witnesses the Death of His Father. The next flash came from the muzzle of the pistol. The sound of the gun going off was agonizingly clear, despite the chaos surrounding it. The old man fell forward, his lifeless body sliding out of his son’s hands.
Peter gazed up into the darkening sky and began to scream madly as the smoke continued to swirl above him.
The last tour that day was held at 5PM. It was them who found thirty-three-year-old Peter Schuster sobbing and clawing crazily at his own eyes on the floor before one of the exhibits. He had torn whole strips of skin from his face. Apparently in a delirium, Mr. Schuster was unresponsive. All he could do was sob and claw at his eyes. Psychological help proved ineffective. Three days later, he was placed in a mental hospital. He beat his head against a padded wall until August 21st, when Peter Schuster committed suicide by biting through his own wrists and bleeding out.
A mental breakdown was the consensus of medial professionals. A mental breakdown brought on by the shock of the final exhibit that Mr. Schuster had laid his eyes upon that day. A photograph taken on the opening night of Auschwitz. In the photograph, a young Jewish boy clings desperately to his father. A German Leutnant has his pistol drawn and is pointing it at the back of the old man’s head.
Peter had no knowledge of his family’s participation in the death camps until looking at the photograph on exhibit and seeing the face of his own grandfather staring back at him from underneath the Leutnant’s hat.