When I left Auschwitz on Thursday, I was desperate to be clean. At the camp, a sporadic wind whipped the dust so hard that it stung against my legs and my face and caught in my hair. The ashes of countless human beings, remember, were dumped on those grounds decades ago. This is not normal dust.
Something on the air near the crematoria disturbed too. As our group approached, some breeze, from somewhere, suddenly carried the scent of something burning, sickening-smoky-salty-sweet — I don’t know what — like a barbecue without charcoals, just flesh. It lingered while we stood there, repulsive for its timing. I covered my nose. It filled my throat.
The barracks stank too, unventilated, thick with dust and old wood. Despite so many tourists, the air doesn’t circulate. I literally had to turn around and leave within seconds of walking into one. It was suffocating. I can’t even imagine how the barracks must’ve smelled when also filled with the odors of excrement, blood, sweat, wet wool, wet straw, chemicals and mold, fear and death, and the grease of unwashed skin and hair. It isn’t hard to understand why so many survivors recalled feeling ashamed of these smells — just one among many indignities — they weren’t allowed to escape.
When I left, the first thing I wanted to do was wash the camp out of my hair and change into clean clothes. (Somehow, I’d picked up only the smells of the dust; the infernal barbecue, thank God, did not stick.)
The second thing I wanted to do was eat.
I recognize the jarring disparities. That I have hair to wash. That I can shower whenever I’d like. That the shower is real. That I have the luxury of extra sets of clean clothes to change into. That I could walk safely through the streets of a free Kraków and eat whatever and as much as I pleased. And, at the end of the night, that I could climb up into a safely constructed bunk (and am healthy enough to do such a thing.), with clean blankets, that I don’t have to share with anybody else.
(Has anyone ever told you how weird it is to lie down to sleep in a bunk bed after a day at a concentration camp? You don’t feel like you lie down to sleep alone.)
Truth be told, though, perhaps strangely, I’ve had a tendency for much of my life to wonder in gratitude occasionally at freedoms and luxuries, miracles, like spare clothes, hair to wash, an able body, clean water, safe streets, easy access to food, a bed of your own.
It’s good to think about these things sometimes. Try it.
There’s a less depressing, more transcendental follow-up to this post, I assure you. But for now. . . just take a moment to be thankful for your blessings. Meditate on the miracles of your everyday life.