Auschwitz #821

I met him in the fall of my first year in Łódź, before the collapse of the old East Bloc and long before the collapse of the Soviet Union, when 50-50 was considered generous odds on Tadeusz Mazowiecki’s Solidarność government lasting half a year, when private shops, open borders, and a two-day-old International Herald Tribune at the Łódź newsstand were pie-in-the-sky pipe dreams. He introduced himself after a talk I’d given one evening at the Institute as a Polish-American businessman eager for American contacts. His presence surprised me, as the lecture, although public, had hardly been well publicized (my audience was mainly area English teachers less interested in ethnic American writers of the 1980s than in contact with a native speaker). Well, Poles always have been good at finding things out.

“You are an American,” he said. “I am Polish, but I have American citizenship and I spent many years in America before retiring to my own country. This is common: many retired Americans live in Poland, especially in the South. I am pleased to make your acquaintance. I invite you for dinner.”

I shook his hand, begged off the dinner pleading previous commitments, and wrote down a name and a telephone number in my address book, mostly as a token show of sincerity. I found the idea of another American in Łódź unsettling: a Polish-American, no less, someone with my own feel for the States and an infinitely more intimate with Poland. Łódź seemed less exotic, and my own situation less remarkable. The wall was not so impenetrable. Łódź was no distant planet. Others had been here before me. Others were here with me… not only teachers and itinerant businessmen, but working Americans retired to Old World roots, where monthly Social Security checks made them wealthy beyond imagination. This man, possibly, knew more than I. Probably he told a better tale than I. What was he doing in my movie?

But Poles are also insistent. Three weeks after my talk, the phone in our flat rang with a direct personal invitation to dinner, at his home (not a flat, but a real private house) just outside Łódź, meet his second (younger, Polish) wife, meet his little daughter as well, whom he wanted to learn English. “I have some proposals I wish to discuss with you as well,” he added. “I will greet you and Michelle at your flat at 5:00. Then we will drive to my house in my gold Mercedes. Thank you very much.”

Doorway, Łódź, 1990

Dinner was Polish elegant, especially for the fall of 1989: borscht, roast pork, potatoes, green salad, red beets, coleslaw, home-baked cake for desert, wine, tea, vodka, even American whiskey. The daughter, shy but charming, took an immediate liking to Michelle, who is very good with kids. The wife, who spoke no English at all, was less shy, and charming in the manner of all Polish women: gracious to guests while being absolutely attentive to her husband. The house, in what would pass for suburban Łódź, was large and well furnished. It was built of cement block and painted stucco, located on a rutted dirt road, surrounded by fence, guarded by a pair of watch dogs. A speaker phone was embedded in the gatepost and an electronically-operated lock secured the gate. The picture windows and hardwood floor suggested America; the wainscoting and leather-upholstered furniture were European.

On the lower level he had built himself a spacious study, complete with a personal computer, on which to track his various business deals. In a large room beside the garage, he had set his wife up with a printing operation that involved, among other things, a plate-maker, a medium-sized offset press imported from West Germany, and a heavy duty saddle stapler. Word-processing software and a laser printer for the computer were in order. One item on the business agenda was word-processing programs; another was copyright law; a third was my sense of texts useful in Poland’s English language classrooms.

We discussed these topics and a dozen entrepreneurial schemes that evening, and in subsequent meetings: a Polish version of the Reader’s Digest “Improving Your Word Power,” to be written by me, typeset and printed on his wife’s machine, then distributed to English language classrooms throughout the country; a combination accrediting board and trade association for English language instructors; a similar bureau for independent Polish tourist bureaus; an escort-translator-liaison service for western businessmen exploring joint venture possibilities in Poland; several specific joint venture schemes, the outlines of which remained fuzzy to me, never getting much beyond “business arrangements and possibilities”; and liaison services for American Airlines, a new-comer to Poland, which would put American “miles ahead” of Pan-Am, British Air and Lot in the competition for Old World-New World travel. “Just the name—‘American Airlines’—every Pole will love it!” Caught up in the wide-open possibilities of an economy that reshaped itself weekly, I wrote, revised, edited, and mailed a dozen letters to various American corporate offices and officers. What became of them, I never learned. Gradually I wearied of vision, and by the end of 1990 I began to lose faith.

My fault entirely. Mea culpa.

These schemes were not entirely hare-brained. After the War, my friend had worked for a variety of large corporations before opening his own tourist agency, organizing excursions into Poland and the Soviet Union for all kinds of organizations, including the Chicago Association of Trash Collecting Agencies, who traveled through Poland to Mother Russia (five cities, three weeks) for the laudable and legitimately tax-deductible purpose of examining East Bloc modes of trash collection and disposal. “Chicago waste disposal is entirely in the hands of the Polish mafia: they were mostly old Slavs going home to visit. Two weeks we spent in the Soviet Union, and we never saw a single garbage dump. Not a single machine. Every day it was, ‘The workers are having a special meeting,’ or ‘Unfortunately the facilities are closed this holiday,’ or ‘We made arrangements for two brand new, state-of-the-arts People’s Republic garbage trucks to be driven right here to the hotel for your inspection, but what do you think? The men who were to drive them both took sick at the last minute, and they cannot be here. Tomorrow, American comrades in trash disposal, we will have a first-hand look at Leningrad dumps. And if, perchance, we miss the dumps of Leningrad, you will surely visit the dumps of Moscow. Meanwhile, we have arranged this special tour of the Winter Palace…”

Ultimately the Westerners got what they wanted—a cheap holiday in the East—and the Soviets got the hard currency they wanted, and the tour, having failed in its primary goal, was a resounding success. A good Polish-American businessman understands the way the world operates in the States, in Poland, in Russia. I don’t know how my friend’s life has worked out these past few years (he haunted every Warsaw Marriott joint venture conference, got himself quoted at least once by The Wall Street Journal), but he knows his stuff and would make an ideal partner in any business.

Even in explaining his years in America, my friend did not volunteer his status as a concentration camp survivor. I noticed the tattooed numbers on his arm and asked.

His answer was at first simple, direct, and brief: “I was in Auschwitz during the War.”

Only after several dinners and many vodkas did he offer any detail, and even then, whole rooms remained sealed. Always he underplayed the significance of what he told me. “You should write a book,” I told him once. “That is what should be printed on the machines downstairs.”

“What is to tell?” he wanted to know. “It is the familiar story: ‘Another town fell to the Germans.’ The Germans imprisoned millions. And the Russians. Some of us survived.”

Still, 821 is an incredibly low number. He must have been there even as the camps were constructed.

Yes, that is true. Arrested early during the German occupation (for the crime of listening to a radio), he remembers construction of camp buildings by prison gangs. He remembers the early times when Auschwitz was a detention camp, a work factory, more than an extermination facility. He remembers Auschwitz before it became part of “the final solution.”

“What saved me, apart from the facts that I was Polish and I was very young, was being assigned first to the tailor shop. I spent my first year there. That put a roof over my head. Nobody was healthy, nobody had enough to eat, but a roof over my head made the difference between life and death.

“My second year, I was reassigned to the kitchen. That gave me not only a roof, but some warmth. It also gave me access to food. Of course if I got caught stealing food, that would have been the end. Still, some things we could do, some things we did. The prisoners, who had been told they were being ‘relocated,’ arrived with baskets of food, sausages and meat, jars of preserved fruits and vegetables and meat. This was all taken from them as soon as they arrived, and sent to the kitchen. I remember most of all the jars preserved food brought by new prisoners, the jars of canned peas, each pea in the jar lined up carefully, so exquisite and precise, like a piece of embroidery.

“Most of it went to the Germans, but sometimes we could hide a jar of beans, a half a loaf of bread. I would bury something in the cabbage scraps. The garbage detail would bury it in a corner of the compost pile, or deposit it, when the Germans were not looking, in a hiding place on their way to the compost heap. At night it would be reclaimed. All of this was very secret.

“One of my jobs was going to the butcher for our meat allotment. I collected the ration coupons and off I went. On my way back, I would hide maybe a sausage in my pants, tied by a string. One day an SS officer caught me stealing meat. The penalty was immediate execution, but somebody saw this, and informed my superior. He came running. ‘What is the problem here?’

“‘This boy is stealing meat. He will be shot.’

“‘Look, I know. I am his boss. I have a package of cigarettes…’

“I was ransomed that day for a package of cigarettes. That was what a human life was worth: a package of cigarettes.

“I was stealing meat for my boss. This was late in the war, and things were not going well in Germany. He sent the meat home to his family… meat, chocolate, coffee, other supplies. He was good to his family. He could have been shot as well, although they never shot their own.

“Of course I was stealing food for myself too, and for others.”

Number 821. The whole history of Auschwitz in this man’s brain.

“After a while, we all knew what was going on. You could not conceal the smell, the disappearing people. All you could do was hope to survive.

“The Russians closed in on Auschwitz in January. They loaded those of us who could still work into box cars and moved us west, toward the German heartland. I’m not sure where we were sent—Dachau?—but there was some delay. For two days we sat in the boxcar, on a railroad siding somewhere. When we finally reached our destination, we were not permitted to enter the camp because of quarantine. We stayed in our box cars for several days more. Someone said it was typhoid, that everyone in that camp died. If we had arrived on schedule, we would have been inside that camp and died as well.

“Then the Russians approached, and we were moved again. This was late in the war, and everything was falling apart. Security was minimal, especially on the train, and a number of us decided we would try to escape. This was a calculated risk: if we stayed, we might be exchanged, liberated, rescued. If we tried to escape, we might be shot. The quarantine convinced me.”

How did you escape the box car?

“That was the easiest part of all. There were air vents, and I was very thin. Besides, the car itself was battered and rotting; everything was falling apart. What kept you from jumping out was the thought of being shot. So we waited until night, when the train slowed for an underpass or a tunnel, and then we climbed out and dropped into the brush. No shots were fired. I doubt the guards saw us. Maybe they had no guns. Maybe they had no bullets. Maybe there were no guards by then.

“As that train passed, we all ran in opposite directions. There were four of us. We never saw each other again. I just ran and ran. It was after midnight when we escaped, and I did not stop running until two or three hours. You can run when your legs are full of fear. I ran through fields and down dirt roads. This was farming territory. There were no police and not even many dogs. I just ran.

“Finally I was exhausted, and a long distance from the train tracks. It was cold. I came to a farm which was quiet, and there was a tool shed there, and I climbed into the tool shed and fell asleep. I had no idea what time it was, no idea what day it was. I was very tired.

Train yard, Łódź Fabryczna

“Well, it was Easter. It just happened to be Easter, and the farmer was doing no work that day. Any other day, he would probably have come to the tool shed, and there I would have been. But it was Easter. I will never, in all my life, forget the feeling of sunrise and freedom on Easter, 1945. I just slept and slept. The next morning, I moved out of my tool shed.

“I was caught the next week, but again I was lucky. Everyone knew it was only a matter of time, and the German official was afraid, I suppose, of one more death on his hands. I was sentenced to help the farmer, to live with him and do farm work. That lasted a few days. Then he told me, ‘You better get away from here. We don’t need you around here any more, we have problems of our own.’

“I didn’t really want to go anywhere. Where could I go? I surrendered to the first troops to come by, and they were the Russians. Then I was in prison camp again, not much better than Oświęcim [Auschwitz], very little food, and a very precarious position.

“The Russians also used prisoners for work detail, and they were no better than the Germans. Russians have no use for Poles, and they had even less food then than the Germans. But then I was offered a deal: they wanted to send me up north, where they needed help opening liberated harbor cities. I realized that if I got to the west side of the Rhine, I might be able to escape again, and be recaptured by the Americans or the British, which I thought was much better than being captured by Russians. Everybody preferred the British and the Americans, but I especially, being Polish, wanted to escape the Russians. So I took their offer, and was put on another train, and again I escaped from the train, and again I surrendered. I never fought in World War II, but I surrendered twice.”

The second surrender took him to Belgium, one of very few Poles among a United Nations of prisoners, and thence to the United Kingdom. It brought him one semester study at a Belgian university, which he prolonged into a second year with the help of a teacher-priest.

Finally it brought him to New York, where he took a job as custodian for an apartment complex, working his way through jobs and course work, to Pan Am, to the travel agency, and finally, the great circuit completed, to Poland again, and a wife, and a daughter, and a house, and a big yellow Mercedes diesel.

To me this story is remarkable, enormous, heroic. To him, nothing exceptional. “Another town fell to the Germans.” Life pushes ahead. Perhaps because of his American experience, perhaps because of his toughness as a survivor, my friend felt very little self-pity, very little victimization. He was not inclined to look back, even at his age. There was only his new business, “Renitex, a Foreign Company in Poland.” Only the future, limitless as the Easter Sunday sky.

In his vision, he is a perfect model for the New Poland and for me.

In retrospect, I realize the real source of my uneasiness around him: his vision shames my retro-gazing Romanticism. We met each other in crossing, he moving forward, I moving back.

I doubt he would even bother to read this book.

Detail, Gdańsk Shipyard Monument