BY ANN WEISS
were the photos
that no one was supposed to see,
that showed Jews as normal people living normal lives, not the subhumans
that Hitler deemed life unworthy of life. I found them by accident,
and that accident has changed the course of the rest of my life.
It was autumn 1986, and
I was traveling in Czechoslovakia and Poland with a group of prominent
Jewish leaders from Philadelphia. We were being shown culturally
and historically significant sites, feted at elegant soirees, and
briefed by government representatives about the official state of
affairs in these then-Communist countries. Throughout these travels,
I visited cities and towns where Jewish life had formerly flourished.
But now I saw only the evidence of what once had been, since neither
the culture nor the people yet remained.
In this era of Cold War
and KGB, we were surveilled everywhere we went. Agents monitored
our conversations and followed our every action. Our group had been
briefed, in advance, about the kinds of discussions not to have
(anything critical of the government) and about the kinds of issues
not to discuss (anything political).
In Poland, among other
places, we were taken to see the Warsaw ghetto and Kazimierz,
the Jewish section of Cracow. And we visited Auschwitz, site
of the largest Nazi death camp, now a museum.
v I have always been
fascinated by the stories of peoples liveswhat they think, what
they believe, what they cherish. The discovery I made in a locked
room at Auschwitz would change my passion for stories from a serious
avocation to an all-consuming pursuit.
The stories I was accustomed
to hearing were the happy stories my own family would tell, gently
and lovingly, when I was a child. They were my mothers stories
about relatives I never knew, streets I never walked, adventures
I never had. Through her stories, I came to know the people she
loved and the times she cherished. And I was able to meet my family,
murdered years before I was born.
Both my parents
are survivors of Nazi concentration camps, and both knew, firsthand,
the barbarity of what one individual is capable of doing to another.
But these arent the stories I heard, not for a very long timenot
until I was older, and not until I asked.
Instead, I heard stories
of life and of love, of family holidays and family vacations, of
innocent carefree times, and then later, much, much later, of the
devastating times that both defy words and defeat understanding.
With these stories as my foundation, the firmament of my adulthood,
I walked into Auschwitz for the first time.
I did not know what I
would see, nor could I anticipate its impact upon me. I knew only
that I was ready to face this cursed place that had taken on mythic
proportions in my consciousness. Auschwitz-Birkenau. The
largest of Hitlers death camps. Auschwitz-Birkenau. Its
very name had become an archetype for death.
When my group was led
through the camp, now a museum, the tour guide began reciting her
rote presentation, ticking off factsdates, transport lists, numbers
killed from different townsas if they were items on a grocery list.
Suddenly, in this place of death, I felt a strong need to breathe
life, to be alone, and away from the droning voice of the tour guide.
I needed both silence and space, to breathe, to think, to feel.
As the group proceeded to the next gallery, I remained behind.
It was as simple as that.
The group walked ahead, and I stayed behind.
For a long time, I remained
in a room filled, floor to ceiling, with shoes, thousands of pairs
of shoes left from the last few days of killing. The shoes were
broken and bent, with holes in their soles, abandoned witnesses
to what no words could express. I stayed with the shoes, and thought
about the lives of their owners. Time ceased to exist for me, only
the shoes. Eventually I returned to the present and found myself
completely alone in Auschwitz.
v Panicked, I began to
run, from gallery to gallery, and from building to building, searching
for someone from my group, searching for anyone alive. Eventually,
in the distance, I heard a sound and made my way toward it. I ran
into an employee, a woman, who pulled me aside in the deserted hallway
and, quite remarkably, asked me, Do you want to see whats in this
room? Though I was nervous, I immediately answered, Yes. A locked
door was unlocked, and it was then that I saw the amazing photos
that were to change my life.
Nov/Dec Contents | Gazette
Copyright 2001 The Pennsylvania
Gazette Last modified 11/1/01