Games at Birkenau

Tablet Fiction: ‘I am the custodian of the killing fields’

Agnieszka Kłos
July 16, 2018
© 2013 Ben Altman
Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum© 2013 Ben Altman
© 2013 Ben Altman
Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum© 2013 Ben Altman

The Birkenau landscape was covered in icicles, ice, and snow—in equal proportions. It did not look like it did during the liberation, because back then there were fewer cables and less security. Now the presidents of two feuding countries were about to appear, and everybody wanted to come off looking their best for them. The area was fenced off with a row of barricades, in more treacherous places wide planks had been put down to walk across, and in the snow every few meters there was a man with headphones and a loudspeaker, from which a voice solemnly read a list of all those murdered. Most of the names were Jewish. I walked from the side of the sauna. I felt pleased listening to the Jewish-sounding names of the—admittedly, murdered—former inhabitants of my country. It made me feel more calm and happier. As if before the war, Poland really had been a country where Jews lived. Every few steps here these now-foreign Jews and their children would appear and pass me. I recognized them by their head covering and somehow kept finding myself standing or walking next to them. The snow fell in fine flakes which picturesquely spiraled down beside the crematorium. Just next to it they had placed a small podium for priests and rabbis. And the ceremony began.

Everyone was busy with their own affairs, only the Jews were fervently, loudly and ever more insistently banging at heaven’s gates. Here, in this place. At the mouth of the former chimney. People stood and watched, but the looks on their faces were less of curiosity and more of mockery. The prisoners sat unceremoniously on wooden chairs that volunteers had lugged along the icy road that morning. I knew one of them. We slept in the same room: Hess’ office, where late in the evening I made some rich, nutritious chicken soup because we were both sick. Except that it turned out the young volunteer hated Jews and that ruined my appetite.

You could hear the time passing, which is rare. The presidential procession slowly approached from the rear of the crowd like a catafalque, flanked by vehicles and a cordon of men dressed in black suits as if it were summer, as if they were standing in a warm, glass-enclosed corridor. The expressions on their faces were not human, but rather stony and blasé. They fiddled with their plastic gadgets and kept repeating the same sentence like a prayer, like the Kaddish. “He’s arrived, I’ve got him, maintain observation, turning towards the point.” I eavesdropped, listening to how they spoke to the point, professionally, in a code only they could decipher.

Thus, behind the scenes, there was a battle underway in words and gestures—with slow movements, like those in a music video, and determined expressions, so they would look like real professionals, so that women would desire them. And they did desire them. I heard it for myself in the sauna room during the ceremony. Two women, teachers from the mountains, talked about those men, about how they were real studs, and what they wanted to do with them. I could not stand to listen to them. But I could hear them, first their words and then their laughter. It was cut short by the president’s entrance. He walked in like a priest. I even thought to stand.

Then, the rest of the Jews and their foreign children finally arrived at the sauna. I think their grandchildren came as well, but there weren’t enough ID badges for them. So they stood in the harsh cold next to the ruins of the crematorium and waited for their families.

The journey between the rows of men in suits lined up in battle formation was majestic. Their clothing was well-tailored and expensive. In addition to their suits, they were also wearing excellent ties and shoes. A person could really learn something. Two of them looked like brothers. I even got them confused, because when the teachers were giggling, one of them said she had a thing for the bald one. I pointed him out to her later by the crematorium, but she just shrugged her shoulders indifferently and said: “But that’s not him”.

I preferred the women. For example, the one who got into our car on the road to the crematorium before the ceremonies began, somewhat exhausted and embarrassed by her decision, which she immediately explained: The road to the crematorium is so long, and my crew is there. I’d rather ride the rest of the way with you. She was wearing a blue coat. She was lovely. Where is your camera? Sitting next to her, it was all I could come up with, and she responded without hesitation. I have two cameras. One by the Wall of Death, and another by the crematorium. You chose excellent spots, and we both began to laugh. Mostly with our eyes because the bus was filled with prisoners. Mostly to ourselves.

I lost sight of her in spite of my efforts. The bus was crowded with people, and while getting off, what counted most was to help the prisoners in some way. They immediately found themselves standing in front of a large table on which bags and coats were being screened. It got so crowded that I lost sight of her. I could not forgive myself for not getting her address. The woman had simply disappeared. She rent her way like a puma in a blue coat through the double cordon of men from the government and took up her position. She was from a Berlin television station.

I was captivated by what they did with us next. I have never been so engrossed, so ready. They placed us in two long rows. The prisoners immediately bristled, but they stood politely, women in one row, men in another. Later they even joked about it, but you could see that they felt foolish, that the order had come down from above. The men from security searched our bags, and then pointed a thick metal wand at the women and checked their pockets, patting them down between their legs, and looking under their caps. Amidst all this work, there was a lot of laughter, mainly from the prisoners. Straight away, they were confiding, observing and making comments. Straight away, they were sharing stories: The alarm went off because I have a bullet here. It’s beeping, shrapnel. I have something here in my hip. I’ve got some metal under the skin. I had a thermos. They immediately ordered me to open it, pour a little out on the snow, and drink the rest. The security guard did not want to try it. He laughed wryly. It was probably a bad joke to offer it to him.

There were only Jewish women in the sauna. Younger ones, older ones, I observed them all furtively. Though you could tell I was watching them. The teachers from the mountains saw this, and laughed at me. You’re charmed by them, they said. You’ll start to dream about them. You won’t be able to sleep because of them, like before the war. In the end, you’ll fly back to Israel with them.

I wanted to fly to Israel, to Berlin. I wanted to spend a week with each of them, and then return, and to the end of my days reminisce about it in this place, in a meadow at Birkenau.

Everything that day was sexy. The women, the security guards, the shadow of power, which moved majestically across the field of ashes. The atmosphere of a dodgy neighborhood, where everything can be seen, and where everyone sees their own desires as plain as day. The Jews sang, but only a few people listened to their singing. As soon as they sat themselves down in their chairs, the prisoners began to laugh, as if they were in the theater, or in the cinema, as if they had just finished primary school. They were bored. They gabbed and yawned, they scratched their yarmulkes and their thinning hair. Everyone was so enlivened. Girls rushed about serving tea. It all seemed so callous, right in the middle of a prayer for the dead. They covered the prisoners in checked blankets, and offered them something to eat. Those who were not yet singing, but standing and waiting for their turn to begin, looked on with horror. Silently, with sorrow, with beautiful hearts. Nobody saw them, nobody looked at them, nobody understood what they were singing, nobody heard the breaking of their hearts.

Everything that day was sexy. The women, the security guards, the shadow of power, which moved majestically across the field of ashes.

Finally, a veteran from Tarnów, an old man who had served in the Home Army, old man Andrzej, broke from our ranks. He forced his way angrily through the barricade of chairs on the ramp and ran up to them just as the Jewish man lowered his voice. This gave the old man an opening, and yelled at them with every ounce of breath he had: “Shut the hell up! When the Catholics begin singing, you Jews are going to quiet down.” And it worked. Although there were a few people who couldn’t hear him and started asking: What did he want? What did he say? That we are going to keep the Jews quiet. And it’s certain we will. Keep the Jews quiet.

The whole world was brilliant, despite the large government helicopter flying overhead, growling threateningly at potential enemies and assassins. There were none. There were only old prisoners and us, a handful of people to keep them company. Yet the helicopter did not cease circling over Birkenau’s frozen meadows, and just then I thought about how I’d like to stay there, to never again return to my or any other city. To wait here for spring to arrive, to smell the scent of the earth liberated from under the weight of winter and its most cruel incarnations: the fiercely howling wind, the coat of ice that closes up the earth like the hull of a tank, of snow that only seems decorative, light and irrelevant. I wanted to stay in the meadows, where sheep grazed after the war to keep the grass from growing waist high, and where the Roma came from surrounding villages in search of bunk beds for their new stone settlements, which they would soon curse and leave for America, anywhere, as long as it was far from Poland. To stand there and look at the heap of bricks, several square meters in size and piled high in a complex arrangement designed to simulate the look after an explosion, and on which the biggest sum in history seems to have been spent to preserve the ruins as ruins. And to keep waiting for the old, German, romantic beech trees, for the reawakening of the oaks and beeches. To put my ear to their trunks like doctors do to the lungs. To bend down over them, out of real concern, not an imitation of concern in anticipation of some future payment. To wrap myself around them, to speak to them like sleepy horses or asses that have slept through the winter, through the harshest of frosts, and are now awakening, but to awaken they must endure the pain of the transition from cold to heat and hear the crackling of their bark as it expands. And this hurts. To wait for the sun, which will arrive as usual, rising above the village, above the wide road that leads to this village and those nearby, where Poles sit in hiding. Shielded by curtains in bright multicolored windows. I thought about how I would like to own a chalet there and never leave it.

The ceremony was coming to an end. At the monument, the presidents of the two countries laid heavy wreaths, whose weight well exceeded their physical capabilities, and left. They walked stiffly, as if wearing tight shoes, but surely they will be able to take them off soon. In the helicopter, or the car or the airplane that would drive them to Davos for a late dinner.

This is what people seemed to be waiting for. Just for this. For their departure. Everything immediately broke down and collapsed. As soon as they left, the cordon of men in black disappeared. Those people vanished like devils. Like the men in black uniforms years ago. As soon as they disappeared behind the first partition of barricades, people immediately began forcing their way into the center, which was guarded by the police who remained, and literally ran to the monument, as if they were searching, trying to track something down. They could not find anything, there was nothing to discover, yet they continued to wander around far into the night. They had fire to help them. Thousands of small lamps that had been purchased and which neither the presidents themselves, nor their ministers, nor anyone else would ever again light. A whole carton of candles stood there, and now people were passing them from hand to hand, and they quickly illuminated progressively larger sections of the monument. There appeared an inscription in Hebrew, in Russian, and in Czech. There was an inscription in English. In Polish.

I had a beret in my bag. It was lovely, colorful and made of wool. I had stolen it from the sauna building right after the ceremony. It had been left there, trampled upon by people as they headed for the monument. The presidents left via another exit, like in the theater, but they appointed particular journalists among those they trusted and allowed these to leave with them, so that others could see it on the evening news. They walked a few steps behind the politicians, stopping as needed and waiting for the moment when they would start moving again. The Polish president guided the president of Germany through the sauna, and acting as if the other man knew nothing and understood nothing, he gave a long explanation at every exhibit, what it was, why such a building was needed. I thought it would be the opposite, that is, the president of Germany would share his knowledge with the Polish president, a man who was obviously taking his first steps on this concrete floor since a school excursion here in elementary school. He would lead the way along the river and the stream, to longed-for water, a drop of water after the long journey. He walked unsteadily and stared ahead, checking his path, which had been shown to him earlier by some trusted guides. The whole entourage of journalists crept along behind them, as if in a shadow theater. They tried to remain invisible, but I could not understand why. After all, they had been allowed to follow, so they had to exist. They let each other pass by, shielded one another, and moved out of each others’ shots. In general, it looked like an imitation of sniper combat. This whole Polish-German ballet moved along the concrete wall and reflected off the glass floor. And the presidents glided along it as if it were a real sheet of slippery water, watching their step as they walked.

The beret lay like a mongrel in the German media’s site. My beautiful journalist from the television station walked to the head of the group. I saw her blue jacket in windows, panes and multiple reflections. It flashed before me, flickered, appeared over there, and then vanished. This was accompanied by the rumbling of footsteps and the distant echo of words that carried along the old concrete.

It was the beret of a young Jewish girl from Germany. She arrived there late, sat down panting, and immediately started to type something on her laptop. And when we all went to leave, she stood up, closed her laptop, and her beret fell to the floor. She walked quickly between the rows and made her way into the crowd of trusted journalists, though she was not accredited to take this walk. In pursuit of her story, she lost the beret, which was lying right here when I got up. I had no intention of stealing it, but by some strange twist of fate it belonged to me. It belonged to me. As a memento. I put it back down on the chair, and then hung it up on the railing protecting the journalists and left the building. I walked ahead, but after a few steps, I began to regret leaving it and went back. I stood under the window, glued to the pane and observed the inside of the sauna. I saw my beret, the dwindling crowd, the last directions given by the secret-service officers, the final procession of police boots. I said to myself: Good God, let’s do this. I’ll count to three. If she does not come back, the beret is mine. We’ll call it a souvenir and wear it every year on the steps of Birkenau. And that is what I did.

The image moved rhythmically like the charting of a heartbeat, like the graph of a female orgasm. I was recording a film on my cellphone when the bus started to move. It began to shake and bounce around on the slippery curves of the camp. We drove slowly, carrying the prisoners. Through the windshield, dirty with autumn mud, I saw lean, elongated figures in dark coats. I did not know who they were. They had come from the city and were now returning to their offices and homes. They walked along the shoulder as if on a real road, even though it was only a camp road.

The women made jokes. They laughed. They were in a hurry to get to the toilet, to have a look in the mirror, to get something to eat. I knelt on the back seat and made a film. Against the dirty, decayed landscape, I could see big government cars passing us, how cars with multiple lights on their roofs were escorting them in slow motion, how above the fields of Birkenau, a steel bird floated and looked down on all of us. It was sexy. It was power. It was like looking at someone having raw sex. I realized then that they could not do without it. At every level of this performance, this game. That each of them had already satisfied his own needs, and that no one here really needed to sleep together. Ceremony sufficed, this game played on all our lofty senses, through the use of special controls and entry passes, like during intercourse. That this can take place just as easily in the middle of Birkenau. In a cemetery, or anywhere. That they would miss this, that this is all they would miss years from now, after their term in office—be it longer or shorter—ends. The gray pane of glass through which I was looking told me everything. Its blurriness, its filth, its vague stains provided the most beautiful frame for this uncommon story of power. I had touched the king. Although he was not there. The king shattered into thousands of pieces, fragments, and what was left of him was gathered up before my eyes. Others will see it on the nightly news, but they will never get the full picture. They will not feel the heat or the cold, nor the excitement, nor will they notice the return flight of the big black birds, will not know as I do in which of the automobiles the president of Poland is hiding, and in which one that of Germany. Somewhere among them was that whole picturesque staff which had all rolled into the sauna building. A colorful staff of people, like a procession of all the professions of the world, big names with government connections going back generations. Women, youths, the elderly and professional security guards. Everyone connected by great elation. Among them were young women, but it was not in them that all this sex appeal was concentrated. On the contrary, it was spread all over everything. Sprayed like a warm ejaculation on all the suits and gowns all around. And on old Bartoszewski.

The bus shook. We crossed the gates and the guardhouses of the former camp. Nobody stopped us. They let everybody through haphazardly. It was clear that the presidents could not be late for the plane to Davos because they had a summit meeting there. Whatever that meant. That evening, in those suits, surrounded by so many young women and men. This great elation cannot simply be put to sleep. You cannot drown it in alcohol, you cannot eat it away. And you cannot completely screw your way through it.

And that was probably the problem. For some of these people.

Ms. Jadzia said that we had just passed the French gate and that last year a prominent reporter sat down next to her, but I did not catch who. She had already parodied him, and I’m sure that if she only had a TV, I could have easily guessed because the prisoners were already laughing, already giving a round of applause. Jadzia said that it was cold, and that he got out of the car in his patent-leather shoes and shirt. He was not wearing a tie, and held his suit in a plastic bag. When he went out into the camp street he was shaking all over. “Oh hell,” he said, “which way now?” He began to look around and laugh foolishly. Jadzia yelled back to him; do you have any idea where you are? And she started to laugh like she was doing now.

The bus had long since lost sight of the people from the government and the media. We made our way around the tobacco factory and drove on. We passed small houses, crooked trees growing wild along the road, and the bus was filled with silence. The prisoners were napping, tired after their adventure with the anniversary and the year-long wait in freezing cold. The organizers folded their hands and gave thanks to God that nobody had died and that everything had gone right, at least so far. The driver wanted to bring them to the cafeteria and get the fuck back home as soon as possible. In this silence, punctuated by the swaying of the bus on the edge of the road, I once again thought:

I am the shepherd of Birkenau
I am the Great Hunter
I walk on the grass
Afterwards I cut it
My feet do not trample the grass
They cut it
I have a chalet in Birkenau
I am the custodian
Custodian of the killing fields
Which are overgrown with grass
This is a great sweet site
Fragrant with future honey
Ever green

A procession of big BMWs suddenly passed us. The procession of the death of presidents. They pulled ahead of us, driven by the fumes of gasoline exhaust. Continuously stuck to one side of them was the giant helicopter, which was the last to leave this place of memory. It was still flying around it, but Birkenau, with its customs and seasons, was already lost in the fog. Just like all the cars and the people of the president.


Translated from the Polish by Thomas Anessi for the International Short Story Festival, Wroclaw, Poland, 2011.

Agnieszka Kłos is a cofounder of the Faculty of Art Mediation as well as Postgraduate Studies of the Contemporary Art Mediation and a lecturer at the Faculty of Graphic Arts and Media Art at the Eugeniusz Geppert Academy of Art and Design in Wroclaw, Poland. She also teaches at the Department of Jewish Studies, the University of Wroclaw.