Walking in Auschwitz, Amid the Weeds and Memories

In honor of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, here is one more reflection:

In the summer of 1995 I was ending a long, difficult live-in relationship with my boss and was on a two-month assignment in Russia and Eastern Europe writing a guidebook. Feeling vulnerable, I found myself dreaming of Cecile, a woman I had worked with on her memoir, and who had been a survivor of Auschwitz.

On this trip, fifteen years later, and fifty years after she had been liberated, I had the opportunity to follow in her footsteps.

I visited Budapest, where Cecile had pretended to be Catholic, living with her girlfriends. This grand city I searched through probably looked much the same as when she survived there in the early 1940s; it was still emerging from years of Soviet domination. I was not aware of exactly where Cecile had lived, but I wandered by the rail station and thought of the Hungarian Jews rounded into transports going east to Poland. And when I visited the grand synagogue I realized she would not have entered there.

My ultimate destination was near the little town of Oswiecim, Poland, less than an hour away from the beauty of the well-preserved city of Krakow.

Auschwitz (Auschwitz I) was considered a labor camp, but over 70,000 were cremated near the neat brick administrative buildings that now house piles of hair, shoes, suitcases and other gruesome remains. In this surreal scene, some tourists now pose under the famous gate as if they were at a theme park, but most are reverent.

A few minutes away by car is the solemn vastness of the death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau (Auschwitz II), the terminal, in a literal sense, for the 1.5 million people transported here in box cars.

The camp remains much the same as it was when liberated by the Soviet army in January 1945. Overgrown paths wind between row after row of crumbling barracks stretching into the distance.

The friend I was traveling with was frightened by it all and didn't want to go into the camp. She would wait for me near the infamous railway watchtower entrance where the tracks ended, near where Cecile and the others had waited for selection.

It was so quiet. The tourist buses had long gone. By myself, with Cecile's descriptions in my mind, I walked through the gatehouse along the tracks and entered Auschwitz-Birkenau, among wildflowers and butterflies, in the stillness of a warm late afternoon.

After walking maybe 20 minutes I found the Hungarian block, the barracks Cecile had described.

Alone, I entered one barracks which looked like a parody of a house, the kind with two rectangles I used to doodle in class. The door looked like a door to a cottage. It was all so banal-looking.

The barracks was now clean inside, but stacks of triple bunks were still lined up, and I remembered Cecile's accounting of how many people were crammed together in a space for one. She described the bugs and filthy straw, and how when one exhausted person moved, all had to, so there was little sleep. I didn't remember if Cecile and her sister were on the bottom bunk, right on the ground, which would have been frozen in winter.

In the sterile quiet I tried to imagine the fear and the stench of death that must have permeated this now-empty room. I wondered if this barracks might be the very one Cecile had slept in, with dozens of other women stacked above and below her.

I walked to the huge open wash house/latrine that served the section. Dozens of holes lined up along the center in a long double row, and I remembered that in the midst of horror, Cecile lamented about the lack of privacy. She had used the same bowl for washing herself and holding the watery soup she ate twice a day.

I walked in silence for maybe an hour to the back of the camp, to the crematoria now exploded into piles of bricks. I walked down broken stairs on which maybe a million naked men, women and children had trod, including Cecile's mother and nephew, their last steps into "showers," only minutes after arriving by boxcars.

As the last light faded I heard a rustle, and a deer bounded through the tall weeds. In the far distance I could make out the outlines of a factory in a nearby town, the tall chimneys reminding me of the smoke that had poured forth day and night in this hell on earth.

Other visitors had long gone, except for one couple, speaking German and shaking their heads. And I realized how long I had lingered, and that it was darkening rapidly.

I walked as quickly as possible toward the front of the camp. It took much longer than I had imagined. I was aware that I was treading on the ashes of the victims.

Auschwitz-Birkenau is a burial ground.

My waiting friend was beside herself with worry, and when I finally saw her again, I could hardly speak.


People have asked what became of Cecile Klein. Did she find a way to finally bear witness?

In 1989 she published a slim book that you can find on Amazon, Sentenced to Live.

And if you visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, you'll see one wall covered by the enlarged photo of Cecile's mother holding her grandson Nathan on their way to the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Cecile was chosen to go in the line to work until death rather than be put to death immediately, as her mother and nephew were.

And as you walk through the museum, the haunting, slightly accented voice narrating some of the exhibits is Cecile's.

Most amazing of all, in a short film at the end of the museum experience, Cecile is one of six survivors representing six million who were murdered. The six stories vary, each filled with indescribable horror, each told with dignity. In her segment Cecile reflects quietly on the evils she experienced, and on her mother, who went to her death holding her grandson in her arms.

And I could feel the essence of those evils on the day I walked through the death camp, amid the weeds and the butterflies.