Part II: Transport

During WWII, special papers were used to control peoples’ movements in Nazi-occupied Europe. These days you don’t even need a visa to visit Poland or many other newly independent states as we minor functionaries now call them officially. We’re even exporting capitalism and auditors to help them get it together and make ourselves some money. So, in September, 1993, I went to re-liberated Poland for a week to see what’s left of the camps near Cracow.

The run-up to the trip was nothing. I kept tabs on the Polish weather and hunted down some tour pamphlets. One of the guys I work with was in Warsaw and sent me some Polish national tourist bureau (ORBIS) literature, which gave me a good idea of local tour package costs and offerings, as well as air fares and in-country car rental rates.

You can’t imagine how strange it was to see an icon for Nazi concentration camps on a tourist map or color photos and text about Auschwitz as a tour feature. An AAA map locating and depicting Andersonville would not have phased me a bit! But, the ORBIS map was so surreal that I had to show it to N____, friends, and coworkers to convince myself it was so. Mind you, only a small fraction of the sites was noted. There was both disclosure and non-disclosure at work.

A couple of calls to ORBIS in New York, one to the Polish Embassy in D.C. and I was almost set. The embassy helped me decide how and where to go. Land travel was easy and safe, they said, and I could probably see and do more on my own than with a tour group. Having heard that, I decided to boogie on trains, planes, and automobiles. From the 800 phone book, I got the U.S. number of the European Railway Authorities and bought a ticket into Cracow from Berlin. N____ got me great air fare from D.C. to Berlin on KLM. I packed all I thought I might need and on September 5, 1993, I took off.

Flying to Amsterdam from D.C. was great! We took off on time at 11:15 pm and I was relaxed and comfortable in the hands of the KLM flight crew. KLM service and food and coffee are superb. U.S.carriers could learn a thing or two from them. But then, who could they not learn from, especially when it comes to food. At any rate, I was so comfortable that, after the movie, I stretched out across four empty center seats of the nearly empty plane and slept. In-flight naps are something I hadn’t managed since returning from Japan in 1957. I woke up just in time for breakfast on the approach to Amsterdam.

We arrived at Amsterdam in mid-morning and I had an hour’s wait for the connecting flight to East Berlin. About all I could do was hit the head and have a cigarette and buy some more in the duty-free shop at(believe it or not) cut-rate prices compared to home. It was the first bargain I’d ever seen in an airport shop. Dunhill reds were $1.80 a pack as opposed to$2.50 at the Georgetown Tobacco Shop in Tyson’s Corner Center or $2.75 at Dulles International Airport. But what impressed me most in the airport was that at 6’1″ I was one of the shorter people wandering through. Most others, including the women, were as tall or taller. Either that or things had gotten larger than life. At any rate, I was wide-eyed and bushy-tailed and on my way. Just 15minutes out of Amsterdam, however, both the past and the future started strumming’ my head.

They came in initial disguise in the form of an older, dumpy-but-well-dressed and English-speaking woman who lives in London and has a serious accent. She also has an intimate knowledge of German and Polish history and, since she was born in Poland near the frontier, more than a passing familiarity with the lands along their common border. I was seated in front of her and we struck up a conversation that lasted for most of the flight to Berlin.

Having heard me say I was en route to Cracow, she was curious as to why. Since I’m not totally insensitive and didn’t want to offend this stranger, who may have had relatives either in or in charge of a death camp, I just said I was going to visit some historical sites in and around the city, which was true.

I swear. Either that woman is a telepath or I don’t lie very well. She sensed my purpose even though I mentioned only places like Wawel Hill, the old city market, and the salt mines, all of which I knew from the ORBIS travel brochures I had gotten. I also knew that Copernicus and Pope John Paul II had studied there. But the effect of my deference (naivete?) was nil. I spent almost half an hour parrying polite and matter-of-fact questions about my understanding, my interest, my motives, and my race.

It seems to me we dodged and danced around the topics of remembrance, wholesale murder, and killing fields like a cobra and a mongoose. Despite her amity, indirection and grace, that old lady’s desire to expose and destroy this dirty American Jew-lover was palpable. I had never before seen such tearing resentment and I had not seen the hate stare since my hippie days in Texas. Even the racist double-speak of the George Wallace rallies in downtown Ft. Worth seems amateurish compared to what this old gal could do. But, I hadn’t seen nothin’ yet! More would come.

Despite the quiet conflict, I arrived in Berlin with my psyche in one piece and I could still appreciate the sights and sounds of new territory coming under my feet. At the airport, I checked on cab fares and opted for taking a bus to the metro station and then taking the metro to the Lichtenberg train station. A woman at the tourist information center gave me a metro and bus route map and told me which bus to take to which metro stop. I exchanged some dollars for deutschmarks and ran a few of those through a change-making machine. A one-way bus trip, I’d been told, was DM 1.80 and tickets had to be bought from a machine. Once at a metro station, another ticket had to be bought from another machine for DM 3.20.

All the machines and maps and schedules and drivers, etc., etc., etc.were in German. There were no subtitles. I only know enough German to say, “Ichbin auslander. Nicht verstehen.” And, as it turns out, I can’t even say that much and say it right. The language barrier worked against me, but I felt fairly comfortable about catching the bus since I knew the fare. Sure enough, the bus ticket machine pumped out a ticket after I fed it DM 1.80 and pressed the gimme button. I’d deal with the metro when I got there.

It took less than five minutes for the right bus to show up at the kiosk outside the airport and the driver seemed to understand where I needed to go. It was much later that I found he’d dropped me at the wrong metro stop. In fact, I didn’t know that until my return trip as a savvy negotiator of the system. The bus stopped, the driver motioned me off, and I clambered out to look for an escalator which didn’t exist. But that was OK. I could manage the staircases down to the platform. Hah! It was down and up and down and over and up and down again!! Like New York. Not like DC. I could have kicked myself for being so stupid about what weather I might need to dress for. My bagged precautions weighed a ton!

Buying a metro ticket was a trip! When I found the machine, I found a wide selection of options and levers on it. I must have stood there and stared at the labels for five minutes. Then, I put in a some DMs and chose the only menu item I even vaguely recognized. It said, in part, “Normaltarif”. I took it to mean the fare for the common man outside rush hour. A pull of a lever and out came a ticket and the right change.

Gear for all possible weather made my suitcase heavy and cumbersome. A second bag on a continually slipping shoulder strap made it more complicated for me and my spastic body. To make things worse, the Berlin metro and train stations are mazes of levels and platforms. There are no escalators and I could find no elevators. So, I horsed my stuff around while cursing my thoroughness and vowing next time to travel only with my camera and the clothes on my back. Oh yes, I also had to dodge the few, but headlong, commuters in the process.

Berliners were of no help. But the tourists were. When I realized that, in switching from one route to another, I’d gotten on a train headed the wrong direction, I got out to reconnoiter. The metro map was Greek to me and I went looking for help with images of the vanishing caboose of a just-missed train to Cracow running through my head.

I went right up to the first person I saw to ask directions. It turned out to be a Japanese-American woman from Frisco who not only spoke German, but knew her way around the city. And she clued me in. First, she said, find the terminals at the ends of the routes. Next, trace the routes to see which goes by the station you want. And finally, watch for a train headed to a terminal at the right end of that route. Just check the lead car banner. Simple! And I felt just that.

What I saw of Berlin (was it West or East ?) from the bus and along the elevated sections of the metro was surprising. While I didn’t expect to see a city of ravaged buildings like those seen half-hidden behind the berlin wall in vintage newsreels, I was also not expecting to see a city so in need of repair. There was little trash and virtually no graffiti, but lots of things needed patching and painting.

In real estate parlance, the city seemed a handyman’s special. For example, many of the automatic doors on the metro train cars have to be forced open or closed by riders when the train stops. But the buses are modern and immaculate and the streets are in good shape. In fact, I was impressed by the abundant and cheap public transit, especially after getting a $62.00 quote for a taxi from the airport to the train station. But there is a sadness about the city and I could feel it wrapping around me. Thanatos, Anyone?

That sadness came out in the run-down state of all there was to see and in the strange quiet. The overall silence of the place was unnerving. I can recall no other sound than the clatter of footsteps and the bump and grind of metro cars. There were no other city sounds. No low roar of traffic or aircraft overhead. No screeching tires, sirens or horns. Virtually no conversation. And that was what was most noticeable. I mean, you know how public transit means a chance to meet and greet a few natives. The Berliners I saw were not open to that. They were more than aloof. They were stone stiff. It startled me.

Everyone was outwardly in good shape although seemingly dressed inK-Mart seconds. But no-one spoke to anybody else save three or four be leathered and multi-colored new age kids sharing snotty remarks about me in German. Eye contact was not made, not possible. Even my bumbling efforts to make sure I was on the right metro route were waved off by slight movements of a woman’s hand not raised from the lap in which it rested.

No-one looked around the car. No-one looked out the window. Each stared at a blank spot straight ahead. They seemed to go out of their way not to see or be seen. I felt that my looking around, my presence, my obvious outward difference made everybody uncomfortable. They seemed to squirm just because I was there, now. But I got to the train station, which was no mean feat. In fact, it’s remarkable, since, as I said, I got on the metro at the wrong stop.

Once at the railway station, I had to sort out which platform I needed to get to. A woman at the ticket office said Togo to C, but left me on my own as far as which way to turn to get there. I just followed letters and arrows, seeking divine guidance all the way, and I found the platform. There, I had to anticipate which train. In that, I had a couple of hours leeway and there were handy tips printed on my European Railway Authority ticket. Find the diagram, it said, and match your train number. Then locate your car number. And give the ticket to the conductor at boarding time.

Diagram? What diagram? How about some paper train cut-outs glued to apiece of yellowed white poster board inside a wall-mounted, glass-doored, day school display case? Each black construction paper locomotive was numbered, as was each yellowed and curling a white paper car. The direction of each train was shown by the position of each locomotive. Locomotive on the right means going that way as you face the board. On the left? Going the other way. No hint of destination. No posted schedule. Just those pre-school cut-outs. My sixteen-month-old daughter would have caught onto the instructions immediately.

I, however, was looking for a “diagram” with “information.” The platform attendants in the large, 360-degree glassed kiosk which bore the bulletin board might have cleared it up for me with a word or two or some pidgin-sign. I know they saw me and that my bewilderment was plain. But they were too busy not noticing anybody and going about the drab business of making unintelligible announcements over the PA system.

It took an hour and a two-trains test of my hypothesis about the diagram to assure myself I’d get where I was going. Having done that, I bought can of Coke at the platform snack stand and began to wait and watch. It’s surprising how much there was to see in that nearly empty complex of platforms, track, and overhead power lines.

There were people all over the station, although they were few. As trains came and went, people moved in and out in the low-angled orange cast of sunset. There were all sizes and ages moving this way and that under the platform canopies. Most wore denims, sweaters, and light jackets. Some were more well-dressed than others. There were some benches on each platform, but few people other than me sat down to wait. I thought that was strange, since some had arrived before I had and would leave even later than I. They just kept shifting in place or moving a few steps away from chosen spots and then back.

The crowd on each platform grew and thinned in time with the pulse of arriving and departing trains. Backpacks and canvas totes seemed the most popular baggage, with a couple of plastic fortnighters and leather suitcases thrown in. Mine was the only bag with its own wheels and handle and people ogled it politely, then me briefly.

Singles, couples, and small groups paced to and fro a few yards as they waited and the trains came and went. Some trains were obviously locals. Others were long-haul. The most impressive I saw bore the red, green and gold of the Red Army and had the word “Moskva” all over it. That one had a style I envied after seeing what else rolled through. It was clean and well-kept and seemed to have a dining car.

As the trains came and went, there was no sound of laboring or idling engines because they were all electric. The drivers shut down the motors if they stopped for more than a couple of minutes, giving the impression they were parking for the night, which scared the shit out of me the first time it happened on my track! Had somebody exercised their right to make schedule changes without notice?

Seeing all those electric train sets was more than a little disappointing. I had hoped for a steam locomotive, since I knew them to still be in use in that part of the world. But the diagram cut-out engines were diesel-shaped and the wires above the track had already hinted at electric. The wires were right. The whole route was wired and I was becoming so.

It had been a full travel day and I was headed for the heart of the beast – the General Government of WWII days. I felt better when, just before sundown, the train for Cracow arrived. There were maybe ten of us waiting for the sleeper cars. Another fifteen or so were going coach. No more than a dozen got off at that station. I had booked a $127 compartment all to myself, but needn’t have bothered. The car was almost empty and I could have boarded with an $18 share-a-room ticket and still have gotten a private compartment. Cheap.

We boarded the train on our own. There were no porters and the conductor only checked our tickets and passports (and kept them, which worried me). He did not help with luggage, I noticed, so I followed the lead of those in line ahead of me. The floor of the car was above waist high to me, which meant I had to throw my wheeled suitcase up and in and scramble up two steep steps and through the narrow doorway after it. You had to be quick to keep from having your heel stepped on.

Once on board, I grabbed my bag and headed down the corridor along the left bulkhead of the car to find my compartment. There wasn’t room to walk with a bag at my side. It had to go in front or in back of me. And the corridor runner wasn’t tacked down. Thus was my high-tech suitcase confounded and I made to stumble around with it raised up in front of me.

Another man was in my berth when I reached it. But after a couple of minutes in flustered debate with himself,Image4 he moved his stuff a couple of doors down. After about fifteen minutes, everyone was aboard and the conductor made his check. As he came through, I gestured for him to raise the center bunk in my compartment and he did so. I could not have sat erect on the bottom bunk if he had not.

From Berlin to Cracow is a ten-hour overnight trip. I could have flown in and saved some time, but I wanted the train. That’s how the millions of deportees had gone, though not in such luxury. And my situation was definitely luxurious by comparison with a livestock car and even by what I now know to be Eastern Bloc standards.

Each compartment had three bunks, mattresses, blankets and a corner sink and vanity. At one end of the car was a declining, soiled, lockable, unisex restroom with sink, soap, flush toilet and newsprint roll. At the other end was the conductor’s combined berth, office, and concession stand, for which I was grateful. Two dollars worth of deutchmarks got me some bread, butter, cheese, cold bottled water (with gas), and a surprising number of Polish coins in change.

My compartment was small and well-lit. I doubt it measured 6 by 7 . On the right were the three bunks with blankets, sheets and pillows. Each bunk had a reading light. The top bunk was barely eighteen inches from the ceiling. Only a little more separated the center from the top and the bottom from the center. Leather netting hung loose for use, I presume, by the top bunk occupant or as a baggage restraint. On the left was a ten inch deep alcove with a clothes-hanging rod and sliding fabric curtain. Also on the left next to the window was the sink and the lighted vanity and mirror.

The window could be opened and was fitted with both a tattered, off-white, vinyl blackout screen which could be pulled down and a more opaque red curtain on a horizontal top track. A baseboard-type (steam?) heating unit with valve was below the window, but it gave off no heat. All the surfaces were early, brown and white woodgrain, institutional Formica. I could not stand with my shoulders squarely in the doorway.

The whole train had seen better days. All the cars and the engine needed painting. The compartment and corridor curtains were clean but stained. In the corridor, some of the windows could not be securely closed and some could not be opened. Wall-mounted ashtrays in the corridor were empty but caked with ash and tar and seemed never to have been cleaned. Weatherstripping on the windows was too worn to be effective.

Moisture condensed on the windows both inside and out making it impossible to watch the world go by through the streaked and dirty glass. Corners of Formica were chipped and surfaces scratched. The blankets and sheets were ample and spotless, though, which was comforting. But the overall drabness was impervious.

We had started boarding in the twilight and darkness fell before we were all settled in and on our way. There might have been a dozen people in my car, which would accommodate about thirty. All but the conductor seemed to speak English as well as German or Polish.

The couple in the next cabin forward turned out to be from the University of Maryland and was heading for an annual reunion and three-week stay with Polish fellow academics. We talked a little bit and I took advantage of their experience and got several touristy questions answered. They even had a year-old travel booklet on seasonal happenings in Cracow, which they gave to me and they suggested the conductor might have something more recent. They had gotten their booklet from the conductor the previous year.

If it hadn’t been for that couple, I wouldn’t have visited the conductor’s cabin. And if I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have known about his little snack stand. And I’d have gone hungry and thirsty for the next ten hours. But I did visit. And he had some cheap snacks, as well as amore current (and free) Cracow booklet. I got from him what I could and returned the Maryland couple’s tour booklet with sincere thanks.

Between the booklet and my neighbors, I got all my questions except two answered – How could I get to the town of Oswiecim (renamed Auschwitz by the Germans) and could I find a tourist hotel there? The couple next door said they didn’t know but were certain I could find out from the Polish friends who were to meet them in Cracow. I thanked them again for all and they soon retired.

Everybody retired but the conductor and me. He stayed up to catch up on his paperwork and I just stayed up. Smoking wasn’t allowed in the berth but was allowed in the corridor. I left my door open and went restlessly from sitting on the bunk to standing and smoking in the corridor while looking out an open window. There was little to see, but the air was nice.

Occasionally, one of the other passengers stepped out for a smoke. But I was soon enough alone again and tired. After fiddling with my papers and suitcase, loading my camera, and scarfing up my snacks and water, I went to the head and came back intent on sleeping. About ten minutes later, a knock on the door interrupted my getting ready for sleep. It was the conductor returning my passport and ticket book. Now, I might sleep peacefully.

Sleep didn’t come quickly. Just before it did, the train jerked to a stop and snapped me back. Border check! And a moment of panic. How would it go, I wondered. The cold war was not that long ago and I was traveling with unused Polish visa stamps along with a few Barbadan, Venezuelan and Brasilian entries and exits, not to mention a bit of paranoia. After all, this wasn’t just the third-world. This was an outpost of The Evil Empire!

Three or four well-armed, young and healthy soldiers stomped down the corridor and back. About two minutes later, they started knocking on doors. I stood in my compartment doorway and watched a while as they went about their business. When they got to me, I gave them my passport. Two of them looked it over together and then one left. The one who remained looked at the passport picture and then at me and then at the passport again as he held it up to a light in the corridor. He then pocketed the passport and left. After several minutes, a third soldier came to my door with my passport in hand. He, too, looked at me and then at my passport. I breathed a sigh of relief when he gave it back to me and, having cleared the border, I closed my door. Shortly, the train rolled on and I slept.

Dualities dogged me the whole time I was on the train. I was at once aware of my comfort and my freedom and reminded that others – deportees – had headed in on trains without amenities, watched over by far fewer benign officials. I knew they had traveled on this same railbed, if not these exact rails. I knew that some had seen in daylight what darkness and fogged windows now kept me from seeing and that others had seen the greater darkness of cattle cars and boxcars, not knowing where they were or what they were passing or where they were going. They had come in stifling heat and in deadly cold. I would see my family again. They had not.

The wraith of their hardship floated around me and I was awakened by its chill. It nudged me hard when I drew down more blankets from the upper bunk and sat huddled in them not wanting to move so that it couldn’t slip under them and possess me. What so many had suffered gnawed at me and I couldn’t sleep again. My discomfort was minor, since the temperature was only in the fifties. But, with no heater, I found myself hoping that every next stop would be Cracow. The effect of the contrasts I drew was profound.

I know you know the cliche. But, have you ever felt the icy fingers of death? I did on that night as I wandered through my store of images. Blanketed against the Fall chill in the middle of a clean and comfortable sleeping car, I felt myself in a dark and stinking place in Winter. My heart froze. Not my physical heart, but the heart of me, deep in my chest. Everything that is me – my center – was penetrated by a point of intense cold. And with that cold came loneliness and despair so deep I could scarcely acknowledge it. Had I tried to grasp it, I think I would never have recovered. Once just something about which I’d read, the miserable emptiness of transport became part of me. A door in my soul that leads to that desperate landscape is now forever ajar. I can push it open at will, but it will not close.

That awful cold and bleakness are now as real as anything else and all that I am or have been now goes into my understanding. I can touch that emptiness any time now, but I do so only for moments and not often. It can be difficult just to recall the moment on that train when I first felt that dreadful cold. The sorrow is wrenching and when I confront it I start to cry and could go on and on crying.

Now both a husband and a father, I have internalized the horrible confrontation and separation and revelation of the deportees in ways I could not when I was younger or on my own. In the morning cold of that Fall day, in my well-equipped railroad car, I began to truly know what I’d vowed never to forget. For the rest of the trip, I sat looking out the window through which I could see nothing and wondered what was to be seen.

Daylight came on a little before we reached Cracow. It was still in the fifties and overcast. I dragged my bYTEnet my bags off the train at about 5:30 in the morning of September 7. The friends who greeted the Maryland couple were of no help. In fact, they were distinctly unfriendly about Auschwitz (as my traveling companion called it) and equally unfriendly about whether there might be a hotel in Oswiecim (as I called it). So, I went looking for the tourist information center.

What a clod! A tourist center? If there was one, it was closed. So, I wandered around the station and bus kiosks and taxi stands trying to get my bearings. But I wasn’t up for dragging my suitcase all over Cracow. After trekking as far as the end of the cul-de-sac serving the station complex, I decided I’d go to the hotel whose name I knew the most about, the Holiday Inn. Thus resolved, I went back to a taxistand I’d passed and negotiated a ride. Five clicks later I was there.
End of Part II