By Joaquín Sánchez Mariño
The heart of Chopin is in Poland. His body is buried in Paris, but his heart (this is literal) is kept in a church of Warsaw. Pursuant to his dying wish, his daughter took his heart -preserved in alcohol- searching for a priest who would accept to keep it in his church. But nobody wanted it: no matter how illustrious he was, he wasn´t at all a saint. Today his music emerges from below some stools of Warsaw. Chopin is the idolized genius of Poland. I thought he was Austrian or German.
Copernicus was also Polish. I find his first tribute seventy meters underground, in the Wieliczka salt mines. He is the scientific genius of Poland: he discovered that the Earth revolve around the Sun and not the other way round. He lived and studied in Krakow, travelled to Italy and kept on studying in Bologna. He was granted with a doctorate in Canon law and returned to his country, where he practiced medicine and politics. He died on May 24, 1543 in Frombork, Poland, where he is buried. I thought he was Italian or not even that, that he had no homeland.
Gombrowicz, whom I know quite well, is scarcely known by the young people of Poland. They know his name, remember his most important work (Ferdydurke), but few read him. Of course, they have no idea that he leaved in Argentina for more than twenty years and his Cosmos and his Newspapers are part of my predilections … They don´t either know that he died in France. I don’t think his heart rests anywhere.
And Kapuscinski, the most self-proclaimed Polish, was born in Belarus. He is extremely well-known and even he has been suspected of being a spy of the Soviet Union. I read his book The Empire, and feel, as every author does, that he was only concerned about the quality of his text. And what to say about John Paul II… he is Maradona, sanctified, died and buried.
Apart from that, between known and ignored people, what I knew most of Poland, before Poland, was Auschwitz, illustrious black of the old continent. Gastón says you cannot escape from death there. But I do not agree. A too sensitive soul is needed to find her. Or to cry for the sorrow of an anachronistic stranger, and understand his tragedy. What we are writing –after visiting the place- is scarcely a rational approach to nonsense.
That’s why I believe we should not write about this. But after reading Gaston’s text, the text that follows and exceeds me, I ask to myself if Auschwitz was the death or not, or if it is represented in some of its shapes. Because how many deaths exist? The one that is past, the one that has already been, that of others. And the one that is future, constant threat, the unfortunate cross around the corner. That of ours, especially ours. And which of those are in Auschwitz?
Having written enough about what I did not want to write, I believe that death is not there, not even its representation. Just to the contrary, Auschwitz is the sample of a horror that fits, exclusively, in the gardens of this life. Concentration camps are the highest expression of the omnipotence of some people and the total powerlessness of others. But I don’t want to write about this. I just want to remember that in Auschwitz we met Alejandro.
Alejandro is Argentine, with grey hair and innocent look. A real neighborhood guy. He was in Poland covering the Euro Cup and taking advantage of his free day he came to visit the camps. It looked moved. On our way out he told us that while he was covering the Korea-Japan World Cup in 2002, he interviewed a survivor of Hiroshima; and that in 2010 he met I don´t know what victim of I don´t know what tragedy in South Africa where he was also covering the World Cup.
Hoping to be lucky, and whilst in Ukraine for the final of the Euro Cup he expected to visit Chernobyl… Strange life; he spends most of time travelling to enjoyable events and takes the most of them to thwart each experience with the black history of the day; (i.e.) he knows the dark side of the world thanks to his more stupidly happily side. He did not mention even a place to which he went for mere interest; he always knows them for opportunism.
I don’t know if that means something. Even I, for example, went to Auschwitz because I was there, as I also watched the Euro Cup by pure context contagion. I say, life is a casual framework full of coincidences and proximities, from trains passing through or late arrivals. Like Chopin, who wanted to leave his heart in Poland but died in Paris, or as Gombrowicz, who – who knows- fell in love with the muddiest area of Retiro, in Buenos Aires…
Maybe Copernicus was confused and we are not the ones who turn around the Sun but the Sun, still, is the one that revolves around us. Or not, really this is the first and last metaphor of the text. What I say, while a video hurries the end of my adventure, is that we – unintentionally – are illustrious shadows that walk the world, like Chopin, like Alejandro, and that when saying sun we give sense to so much Copernican spiel.
By Hipólito Giménez Blanco
I prejudged: poor country of the European Union, John Paul II, common people – mainly plumbers – and Jews. Poland, to tell the truth, did not generate me any expectation. We started in Krakow. Why Krakow? “Because Auschwitz is there”, the boys said. I arrived to the hostel completely soaked. I was not wearing rain clothes. Gastón and Joaquín were laughing at me; they were wearing Gore Tex slippers, which have a technology that makes them waterproof. Gore Tex was new for me, same as Poland.
At the hostel, a 60 years old building (as almost everything in Poland today), Pawel, its owner welcomed us. The next day was still raining and Pawel suggested us to visit the Salt Mines, 200 meters underground. The little interest it generated for me, I was sure I was going to get bored. I went and verified my hypothesis: Mines really bored me. We went back to downtown, ate some kind of sauerkraut with sausages and looked around a castle on a hill. First time in Europe, I was fascinated to see what I had once read about existed in the real life.
The following day, paradoxically, sun came out and we went to Auschwitz. One feels the duty, the obligation that something has to touch you emotionally. Perhaps because I see it too distant or because it is in the unconscious, but I felt nothing. We walked around. Once it was a horror camp, but today it´s full of trees, flowers and lot, lot of green grass. Barricades are tidy, as newly painted. And while thousands of people looking around, you can see other barricades being repaired to enlarge the museum. Too tidy for tourism, almost like business. I write this and feel as a heartless, but that´s what happened to me.
Afterwards, Warsaw, with the intention to buy tickets for the Euro Cup. As they said to us, the city wasn´t worth much, but as another one of my prejudices is to suspect of the fundamentalists, we went the same.
I loved Warsaw. Nothing remains of the ghetto. As the rest of the country, the city has been almost completely rebuilt since the Second World War. Today, a mix of modernity and ancient cities prevails. When I left Warsaw I saw The Pianist. Audrey Brodin´s performance was excellent. I cannot say that I walked the same streets he walked, but yes that I´ve been in an invaded Warsaw, but now instead of Nazis, it’s full of fanatics of different countries due to the Euro Cup.
Those who know me are aware that I am not fond of football, nevertheless I was ready to pay up to 40 euros for a ticket … Useless, the cheapest tickets cost 200. We resigned ourselves to watch it along with 100 thousand Polish in Warsaw “Fan Zone”, a huge screen at the Palace of Culture given to them by Stalin sixty years ago. Polish are so used to lose that they do not even expect a miracle, they enjoy the most they can while the game lasts because they know that in the end, as always, they will stay out in the first round. On the other hand, Greeks firmly believe in miracles and, perhaps for their polytheistic past, when a god does not help them, they sing to another one. Their songs sound like the Argentinian ones, also they. Meet them in Poland made me feel at home.
We finished the tour in Gdansk, to the north of the country. I didn´t know that Poland has sea, but it has it, in Gdansk, a city full of ancient buildings – rebuilt–, where I ate a waffle with strawberries. Never stopped raining during the four days we spent there. Every day we postponed to see the Baltic, which as the sun, never appeared.
Poland and Berlin have something in common: they have been rebuilt. I don’t know if this darkens their charm, but everything that leads you to imagine the XVIII Century is a replica of only 50 years or less. They are the genius of rebuilding; the prejudice of trades had sense after all. Warsaw, Krakow and Gdansk: all rebuilt exactly as they were before the Second World War. Maybe, they could overcome what happened to them by rebuilding what was no longer there.
A sunny day in Auschwitz
By Gastón Bourdieu
It has been more than a week since we visited Auschwitz and I keep thinking what to write on this matter. Neither the alcohol, nor meals, nor the Polish girls managed to take this thinking from my head. All my life I had a certain obsession with the Second World War. Those who know me are aware that I do not believe in violence in any of its shapes, but I´m mad about history, and something– I don´t know if books, movies or video games – leaded to an unrestrained eagerness to learn about this conflict.
Maybe that´s why we argued so much with Tito and Joaquín. Both agreed – as almost always in the trip – that it had no sense to write about our visit to the biggest camp of extermination of the IIGM, since many people with more pretexts, more knowledge and so noble aspirations had already done it. But we do not always have to agree with reason. That´s why before deciding to write on Auschwitz, I was already writing.
I´m not Jewish, nor are my parents, and less my grandparents, but I don´t believe in the imperative dogma for which it is necessary to share a faith to understand pain. We arrived in Auschwitz a sunny midday; sometimes climate and memory do not match. In Oswiecim, to the west of Krakow, more than one million and a half people were murdered: Jewish, Gypsies, Polish, Slavs, Soviets and so many other innocent people.
I´ve never been afraid of death, not for being brave, but because fear emerges from the unknown and not from the ignored. I don´t care about my unknown date of death, but I suppose I would worry if someone puts me a date and an hour. Something like that, I think, happened in the times of the Nazi terror: almost nobody was in the camps for more than a year, and the average ranged between two and six months, as long as they “could” work.
My first work was at the age of 11: selling with my brother, every weekend, a catholic weekly newspaper at the door of a church in Barrio Norte, less than 100 meters from home. Sometimes we were cold, sometimes hungry (unless we spent, the few coins earned, in cookies). I don´t remember why we did that, we simply did it. Some years later someone taught me (or I learned, I don´t remember that either) that work dignifies. Now I walk across the entrance of Auschwitz and a sign reads something similar: “ARBEIT MACHT FREI”, which means “work makes one free”. But there cold wasn´t forget with a coat, hungry wasn´t cured with a few cookies, people did not feel freedom… death, for the first time, was scaring me.
The lines of my notebook are stacked and I still don´t know if I must write about Auschwitz and how to do it. My ignorance becomes friend with my false humility (any humble speaks about his humility, there is where the false lies). And they prohibit my conscience to allow me the insolence of writing on matters that exceed me and that can only be well-craft by Frankl, Spiegelman, Resnais or Perec.
But I open my eyes again and I am walking through Auschwitz´s buildings. In block 10 sterilization experiments were done in women to achieve the “final solution to the Jewish problem”. The execution wall was between blocks 11 and 12. And in block 11 the prison, inside the prison. Suddenly I leave a room where the first experiments with Zyklon B gas were done, the gas which was then used for mass killing of prisoners, and I go into the punishments cell, where four or five men could spent up to two weeks, every night, in a one square meter cubicle in which they had to enter kneeled down and with not enough space to sit down.
During the day they had to work, but they often died exhausted. Dying, of course, literally. And again death scares me. And now I don´t even know what suffering is, I don´t know it, it scares me.
Once, I was told that time is the fourth dimension. The rational explanation was that things, the material -strictly speaking, crossed by the other three dimensions, was modified over the years. I look at a picture where a sun of a bitch next to a train decides with a finger, at the arrival of prisoners, who will work as a slave and who will die in a gas chamber. Now I look around and the place is the same as the one of the picture, but the sun of a bitch is not there, or yes, I don´t know. But death again scares me.
Something like that happens in Auschwitz. Memory´s exercise is fictitious because it is not possible to travel across time, but in those timbers used as beds, in those frozen and stinking latrines, in the ton of hair pulled out from prisoners, in the little shoes of the most innocent kids, in the crematoriums, in everything, that past says present.
And there are no longer three or four or ten dimensions. It is the death walking around the trees of Birkenau, the ashes of what life used to be are floating in the air (and this is not a metaphor), and I am, insignificant, imagining a hundred phrases made and without any done, thinking about thousand common places but stopped in one, unlikely, own and alien at the same time. And now I think I have a reason to write about Auschwitz, because for one moment I was afraid of death, that doesn´t know about moments. Because I saw her, I smelt her, I touched her, I felt her. The death sitting at a table of horror to which it had not been invited, but forced to go. Death treated all, absolute owner of the scene. And it was already six in the afternoon and the sun was still shining at Auschwitz, because climate does not match with memory. As the day my grandfather was buried, it was also shining and everything was green.
In Auschwitz, everything comes to me as a single signifier: death. And even the sun represents me the death. And I do not think I am forbidden to write about the Holocaust, because life and the sun, and the death belong to everyone. I no longer need reasons nor understand suffering, nor share religion, because death, wise and logical appearance in everyone’s life, sharp as an ax blow, hated like summer rain, belongs to everyone and anyone. She does not require permission, just respect.
I get to the last line of this, my reflection on Auschwitz, and I assume that having been scared by death once, it´s enough to respect her forever. Death is no longer life.
Videos: Expreso a Oriente
Music: Going Mobile, The Who (Poland) / Final, Astor Piazzola (Auschwitz)