I am weightless, and the darkness roars and rushes past me like walls closing in. The image of a picture I once saw flashes across the backs of my eyelids. A metal room stares at me, daring me to enter. My legs cramp and ache, pulling me down. The pain slams me back into my body and out of my fitful dream, and I sigh in relief. I am not ready to face my fear yet. I peer out the plane window, watching as the dark clouds pass above me, swirling away. Suddenly, my head slams back against the seat and we slow to a stillness on the inky tarmac. Thunder rumbles in the distance. The trip from the deserted airport passes in a haze of nausea and exhaustion, and I collapse onto the narrow hostel bed the moment I step foot in my room.
I awake in darkness, the chill of stormy Polish air seeping in through the ancient windows, and the restlessness of jet lag making the thought of more sleep laughable. I sit up, pulling my knees up to my chest, huddling on the foot of my bed, waiting for light to come. At some point, a nervous rocking takes over my body that I can’t seem to stop. Finally, rays of weak morning sunshine break through the clouds, slowing my rocking and unlocking my tired limbs. I stand and prepare for the day as calmly as I can, but my hands are shaking. It is time.
An uneventful taxi ride later, I stand in front of the gates, and I cannot find the strength to step through them. The words stamped across the iron seem to whisper and laugh at me. Arbeit macht frei. Work will set you free. It did not set them free. I stand, breathing in the morning mist. I gulp for air as if my life depends on it. As if these were my last breaths. For many of them, it was. I inhale, and step forward, the fear surrounding me.
A courtyard comes up in front of me, filled with other early morning travelers, some here for the same reason I am. To honor their deaths, and to understand. Two gravel paths split off from the one I stand on. This was where my family was separated. The relatives who I’ve met at uncomfortable family reunions and boring bar mitzvahs were all sent to the right. Right meant life. I move to walk right, to follow the stories I’ve heard so many times, but something holds me back. I cannot continue on their path. I turn, and follow the family I’ve never met, and never will, to the left.
I walk past low, stone buildings and broken train tracks. Shoots of grass poke up through the gravel. Somehow, there is still life here. The toxic gas must have missed these small hints of hope and resistance. I turn down an alley, brick walls surrounding me on either sides. At the end of the alley, I glance back. My eyes find a flash of metal. It’s an open door. A stab of panic seizes me. The frigid air, and my fear, makes me shiver. As if in a dream, the doorway calls me forward, and I see myself stumble toward it. When I finally reach it, the earth beneath my feet reaches up and seizes my ankles, holding me in place like quicksand. I cannot move forward.
I reach my hand out, but it is not my hand. I see a child’s hand instead, trembling with fear the same way mine is. It’s just a shower, she tells herself. I watch, paralyzed as she steps up into the room, her naked frame slight in the shadow of those around her. The door clangs shut, but I can still see her perfectly. See her turn in confusion as the chamber releases gas instead of water. See her choke and gasp for air as I did at those gates. See her silently collapse as the life drains out of her, breath by breath. I know, somehow, that she is family, that my blood is her blood. Perhaps it is this that drains the life out of me like the toxic gas did to her. Makes me fight for breath. The shadows rise up and wrench me down, and I welcome them.
I am weightless, and for a moment I expect to meet the same fate she did. But the earth on my feet release me and my knees hit the stone step painfully and I fall. I lay in the alley, gasping and shuddering. My face is wet, I realize, and I have deep cuts on my palms from where my nails dug into them. The pain brings me back to myself, and I sit up huddling in the same position that gave me comfort before today’s dawn.
At some point, the clouds break, and the sun shines on my tired, aching body. I examine the ground around me, and my eye catches on a few blades of grass peering out at me from between pebbles. They are like me. New life from this place of death. Carrying out a namesake that cannot be ignored. I do not smile, and I do not think I can. Not today. But the thought of life, and new beginnings brings the hint of one to my face, if only in a fractional softening of my furrowed brow. And perhaps someday, I will look back on this thought, the thought of hope, and smile.
Photo by qyphonTags: holocaust