Let's Get Together and Feel All Right. Three years ago, at about this time of year, I boarded a bus in the Jewish ghetto of Krakow. St. Mary's Church was marking the hour with the hejna mariacki--a hauntingly sweet trumpet rather than the tolling of a bell, commemorating a warning blown by a trumpeter to alert his town of imminent invasion, cut off in mid-song by an arrow to the throat. That's Krakow in a nutshell: sweet and sad and tinged by the presence of sudden death.
It was the last week of a year and a half in Europe--shortly, I would need to be in Amsterdam for my return flight back to the States. I'd traveled from the trip of Ireland to the center of Turkey, climbed Mt. Vesuvius, walked the former Sniper Alley in Sarajevo, been swept up in riots in Paris and Dublin, been stinking drunk with people from every continent but Antarctica, and been in more castles, cathedrals, cemeteries, and pubs that seems possible. I'd avoided arrest and theft and danger much more than I deserved. I'd lived more in that time than ever before or since.
And finally, as the days ticked down, I boarded a bus out of Krakow, bound for the small Polish town of Oshwiecim, a mostly unremarkable factory town a couple hours away. Oshwiecim is known better by it's German name, popularized 60 short years ago.
I was going to Auschwitz.
It was autumn in Poland. I'd been snowed on the previous day in Krakow, but winter hadn't arrived for good yet. The trees were still turning red and gold, bright splotches of color springing fully formed out of the mist as we made our way through the rough countryside. It was beautiful in that quotidian way you forget when it's not autumn. It was easy to overlook the fact I was going to perhaps the most abominable place on Earth, the remains of a place where hundreds of thousands of people were worked until a reason could be invented to kill them.
I was a catastrophe tourist, heading to take pictures of an abattoir. Maybe I'd pick up a couple of postcards: "Having a horrible time, so glad you're not here. Happy Hanukkah."
I did my best to hide this fact from myself. I read some Bill Bryson. I wrote in my travel journal about how I'd newly discovered my terror of the dark in the catacombs beneath Budapest Castle. And I listened to a Bob Marley CD picked up from a bootlegger on the streets of Istanbul who skillfully folded up his table and disappeared when a cop turned the corner to his alleyway.
Auschwitz was a horror. There's no way around that, no way to blunt it. The original camp drains color out of the air, giving you the feeling you're walking in a world that's black and white. It hits you with its iron "Arbeit Macht Frei" and cavernous rooms filled with eyeglasses, shoes, even hair. But that hardly compares to the secondary camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau, a barbed wire enclosure of bunkhouses, watchtowers, and crematoriums the size of a moderately sized Midwestern town.
I spent the entire day trying desperately not to cry, seething with intense anger and sorrow. And I desperately tried to get the Bob Marley songs to stop running through my head. "No Woman No Cry" repeated idiotically as I elbowed my way past blonde German teenagers, walking from the gallows, to the wall that was the popular spot to line people up for the firing squad's convenience. By the time I was standing at the ruins of two of the crematoriums, where over half the people were loaded into immediately upon their arrive in the camp, "One Love" was on a loop, repeating itself like a koan intended to block out or at least mitigate what I was seeing.
"One love! One heart! Let's get together and feel all right."
I've never been able to listen to Bob Marley since, independent of those memories.