Monday, October 19, 2009

...To Those Who Raise an Eyebrow at the Poets

The Camp at Mauthausen sat grave, grey, authentically numbing. The wind washed over the barren hills of the nearby countryside, bringing with it a barrage of snow and freezing rain which snuck under the collar of my peacoat and through the thin cotton of my gloves until the sub-freezing temperature had burrowed inside of me, chilling me from the stomach outwards. I wandered through the barracks and fields with my oversized audioguide (forced to keep one hand out of my wool pocket, clasping its awkward bulk to my ear, horrible punishment in its own quiet way), my coat pulled tight against the snow and cutting wind. The numbers and testimonials that swept into my ear in a measured English accent were unreal, horrifying—thousands of deaths, overcrowded tent camps, starvation walks, ashes from the ovens dumped indiscriminately into piles along the road, people being hosed down naked and forced to run outside in the snow (imagine! I pull my woolen coat tighter against my ribs), prostitutes shipped in from Treblinka as part of the so-called “camp incentive system”, medicinal tests on was seemingly endless, one long pavilion of human suffering and sleet slipping down my neck.

Eventually, I began distancing myself—I had to distance myself, disconnect me and my own humanity from the people who lived and starved and burned here on the white-washed strips of cement. But when I did allow the tiniest connection, two wires of application brushed together to snap into a spark of personal impact (—these testimonials of dying men suddenly becoming my dad’s, my brothers’—can I imagine them here? Those skinny knees, those swollen eyes as theirs?—) I was overwhelmed with grief, amazement, disbelief, and that unswallowable question: how?

A quote from one man saved me. I found his story recorded in a solitary booth inside the stone-gray museum, his interview from 2003. His name was Leon Ceglarz, and he was Polish—and after 15 minutes of watching him explain the plummeting sequence of his life: capture, grueling labor, starvation, even being beaten almost to death with a soup ladle (a soup ladle! What a debasing way to be tortured!), he ended, and his dignified old-man eyes wrinkled with tears; explaining that to survive, we needed to connect ourselves with humanity, to not forget the ties we hold to one another. For him, he clung to his ties of family (a wife and new baby, only four months old when he left); to Poland, the reason his imprisonment in Mauthasen in the first place; for the young people he had taught before the war; these were the things that kept him human.

And, finally—and when he said this next part, the tears moved from the creases of his eyes to his cheeks, and I, watching a screen with headphones strapped to my ears, I began to cry too, struck with the importance (essentiality?) of language and words and expression—he said that: “I stood outside doors left ajar and listened to beautiful poetry—and that is what strengthened me.”

Humanity, family, hope, nation, and poetry.

What beautiful, crucial things to live for.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Apricots and Recollections

I am eating a bag of dried apricots at 9.50 AM, and I realize that I haven’t written on my blog for over a month. I freeze, the leathery button of fruit half-eaten between my thumb and forefinger.

What to write about?

Maybe I need to write about the swimming in the Danube last Thursday, its frigid, brown water closing over my head as I dive in, ahhhhhh!!!! gasping and spitting out flecks of ancient water, feeling deliciously patronized by this old, unimpressed river. The Donau has seen its fair share of foreign idiots jumping in and out on warm autumn days, so my white legs and streaming eyes were nothing new to her; but she was new to me, and I laughed and skipped rocks, feeling impudent in the newness of my first European swim.

Or about the smell this morning when I stumbled across the living room and into the bathroom (watch out for sleeping cats, they’re like furry landmines; especially Chou Chou, the one who speaks German and won’t let me pet her)—it reminded me of autumn mornings at the Fryeburg Fair, and electric blue skies and orange leaves and Dad making apple crisp late at night. I stood in the kitchen with cold bare feet on the wooden floor and breathed in deeply: cinnamon and apples and autumn. Apfelstrudel. Frau Panzenböck is a genius, an easy-smiling Martha Stewart, and I dance down the outdoor hallway, electric in anticipation.

Or maybe talking with Franz, my host brother, as we walked home after a brief two hour stint at the rock gym that left us both weak and somewhat discouraged. Walking next to him, I’m surprised about how tall he actually is—maybe six and a half feet? (And how many centimeters is that? My European conversions are still greatly lacking.) He is wearing his enormous army coat and his dreds are in a ponytail, still reaching past his shoulders. And he’s talking about the government. “I hate all politicians,” he says, “all they do is talk talk talk talk talk. And does anything actually happen? No!” I suggest that maybe politicians do more than we can do in areas that we can’t affect—schools, hospitals, etc. He laughs. “Sure, sure, that’s what they say. But people can take care of each other much better than one person can take care of all of us. We don’t need politics.” Ten minutes later, I almost give up. “Franz, do you even vote?”
He grins. “Of course. Last time, I voted for the communist party. A whole .02 percent of the country was on my side.”

So yes, Austria is a place for me now, with cold rivers, apfel strudels, and communist brothers. Could I ask for anything else?

On second thought, maybe more apricots, I’m almost out. :)
Happy Tuesday, all.