22 December, 1 pm
On the bus, leaving Chelmno. My first visit to the Germans’ first extermination camp is complete. This is an awful place, but let me start at the start. A 3-hour drive takes us to a clearing. In it are three or four dirty huts, bars on the windows and an old compact car, its once-red paint too exhausted to shine. In one dirty hut is a single dirty room, and in that dirty room a series of old dirty things: teeth, broken glass, mugs and jars, jewelry and toys. This was the first camp for the Jews of Lodz, their final destination on leaving their ghetto. Here they were robbed of it all, stripped naked and loaded onto waiting trucks.
Fifty or seventy at once, they were driven a short distance down the road. As they went, these trucks filled with carbon monoxide, each vehicle’s circulatory system horribly distorted, spewing its filth into its own guts. In those guts, these people ceased. They gasped, vomited, voided, suffocated, collapsed. And they died. Meanwhile, the truck turned into a clearing too large to call large, an open expanse of brown grass and nothingness, a void in the Earth. The now-pink bodies dump into mass graves, and the truck returns for its next deadly sprint. If there is God, I do not think he lives here.
This place is huge, brown and open, flanked by trees and flat white sky. No sun, no definition to the clouds, no wind, no sound, no movement above, no movement below. This place, like its residents, is dead. On a nearby road, a truck rumbles by. I am transported back in time, and I see it as it was. The brown dead earth lies open and ended, the truck’s tires run ceaselessly back and forth, stopping only to pack the wound in the earth with pink human gauze, then returning, empty, to retrieve more “supplies.” This place was the first. Had it failed, there may have been no more. But it worked, this damned place of dead sky and dead grass, and they learned. And, they killed.
The dirty rooms with their dirty things are tended by one man, who comes to meet us as we arrive. Gray beard, gray hair, skin so shadowed by the lines and stories of life that I cannot tell if he is pale or tan. This man keeps this place, and he fascinates me. With his permission, I snap photo after photo. His piercing blue eyes do not smile, but permit; I want hours of time, a common language, a better camera, and black and white film. This man keeps this place, these things, these teeth and toys and bits of glass, so that once in a while someone might stop by to see them, to see him. Lodek is his name, the Cryptkeeper of Chelmno. I want to touch his face, brush his hair, hear his tales. Instead, I stand mid room, close my eyes, breath deep. I know he sees me, yearn again for common language.
There is communication between us, somehow. His clear blue eyes show a soul as strong, as fierce, as sharp as I’ve seen. I wonder what he sees in the brown of my own, and hope it is something that brings him joy, or strength, or whatever he seeks in humanity. This man is humanity. As we leave the dirty huts and car and man, I turn for a last look. He is watching me, too. He waves, hand moving side-to-side. I wave back, palm opening and closing, saying goodbye. I hope to see him again, but even should I not, I know I will remember him – every day, forever.
This place is hateful and dead. This man is old, and very much alive. As I walk back to the bus, I wrap my arms tightly around my body. My grandmother knit the scarf round my neck; I feel it there, and then my arms are hers, and I want to collapse, and to cry. Instead, I keep walking. I want nothing more than to leave this place, and nothing more than to stay for always.
This one was Real. Chelmno was Real.