Eliza Margarita Bates | Longreads | July 2019 | 26 minutes (6,506 words)
“How are you doing, emotionally?” the nurse asks. Her name is Yanna and she has given me her cell phone number so I can call her any time I need anything. Her voice is young and gentle. She knows everything about me — my illnesses, physical and psychiatric, my dosages of prednisone and Paxil, my weight. It’s all in my chart.
“I’m OK,” I say, not really knowing.
I’m in a drugged haze. I can’t stand up all the way, so I am leaning on Jacob, hunchbacked, as Yanna guides us to the elevator. I swipe my wristband to make the elevator come and we ride it down one floor. I follow the procedure outlined in a video that plays on loop for washing my hands, up to the elbow, slowly, slowly, before going through the double doors. When I walk into the room, I am confused. Glass boxes are scattered about, beeping, arranged seemingly without order or symmetry, but with enough space in between to allow for privacy. It takes me a moment to I realize that in each of the boxes, under wires and flashing monitors, is a baby. I start sobbing. Jacob holds my elbow to keep me upright. Yanna rushes over with a tissue, and then leads us to our own glass box.
At Auschwitz there is a snack bar, a vending machine, and sort of bookstore/gift shop where they sell postcards. It is a total mindfuck.
Here, you can see tourists taking photos of the former gas chambers; here, a mountain of eye glasses removed from the faces of children, mothers, grandparents, and the jerk who lived down the street before one and all were sent to die together in the gas chambers. And, here, a little way away, you can purchase a candy bar or a stale, shrink-wrapped pastry to munch on while you browse books on Nazi doctors performing experiments on disabled children.
Or you can buy a postcard. “Hey, Ma. Thought you might like this picture of a death camp. It made me think of you and, you know, being Jewish.”
Of course, I buy a postcard. How could I not? I buy three, actually. I don’t send them. I tuck them into the spine of a notebook and misplace them after my return. I buy the one with a photo of the arch that says, “Arbeit macht frei,” work will set you free. The other two, I don’t remember. I think one is of gas barrels, and another may be of starving survivors after the camp is liberated.
I hadn’t planned on going to Auschwitz. Too dark and depressing. And there so many other genocides and atrocities to learn about closer to home. But then the election happens just a couple weeks before we leave for the trip and, like buying the postcards, it seems like something I can’t not do while in Poland. I have to see where all of this could be headed.
My husband Jacob is performing at a jazz festival in a town called Bielsko-Biala. I join him there so we can take advantage of the free hotel and free ticket to Europe. I don’t see much of the town because our hotel is on the outskirts and the bone-chilling November air doesn’t inspire exploration. We are less than 45 minutes from Auschwitz.
The hotel has a casino on the second floor, a glass elevator, and a mirrored lobby. To the left of the elevator there is a restaurant and bar. In the restaurant, along with the rest of the band Jacob is touring with, we drink vodka and eat borsch on our first day in Poland. We can’t stop nervously making Nazi jokes. We all feel a little on edge being here, where the largest population of Ashkenazi Jews once lived, the site of Hitler’s most efficient genocide.
“Excuse me, waiter,” one of the Jewish band members says, after a couple rounds of vodka, raising his arm up in a mock Nazi solute, then pulling it down with his other hand. We titter and drink. The Polish waiter has his back to us and thankfully doesn’t see.
Jacob is in rehearsal all the next day. I am left alone with nothing to do. So I go to Auschwitz.