Otto Dov Kulka’s remarkable memoir Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death explores the permanent and indelible marks left by the Holocaust and a childhood spent in Auschwitz. Excerpted below is the first chapter from the book: ‘A Prologue That Could Also Be An Epilogue’.
The start of this journey – I don’t know where it will lead me – is utterly prosaic, strictly routine: an international scientific conference in Poland, in 1978, at which I was one of several Israeli participants. It was held under the auspices of the International Committee of Historical Sciences, specifically the section on comparative history of religion. Our group consisted of one medievalist, one early modern history specialist, and, from the modern era, me, together with another historian to whom the Poles refused entry because he was a former Polish citizen and by immigrating to Israel had ‘betrayed the homeland’. The conference went pretty much as conferences go. True, my lecture was quite innovative and generated considerable interest, but that passed. Afterwards the conference hosts organized trips to the far corners of the country – to Kraków, to Lublin and to the beautiful places that are intended for tourists. I told my colleagues that I would not be going with them but would follow a route of my own and go to visit Auschwitz. Well, a Jew going to visit Auschwitz – there’s nothing unusual in that, though at the time it wasn’t the fashion it is today.
One of my colleagues, the medievalist, whom I had known for quite a few years from the field of our academic work, told me, ‘You know, when you go to Auschwitz, don’t stay in the main camp, which is a kind of museum. If you’re going already, go to Birkenau – that is the real Auschwitz.’ He didn’t ask if I had any connection with that place. If he had asked, I would have replied. I would not have denied it. But he didn’t ask, I didn’t reply and I went.
On the Road up along the River of Time
I wanted to take a train but there were no tickets available. So I took a plane to Kraków. In Kraków I got a taxi, a faded antique, and asked the driver to take me to Auschwitz. It wasn’t his first trip to that place; he had already taken foreign tourists there. I spoke Polish, and not even such a broken Polish, made up in part from what I knew from then and in part what I had learned at the university, and my foundation in Czech helped, too. We drove along, the chatterbox of a driver chattering about his car having been stolen and returned to him, driving along the River Vistula (Wisła) while he told me about ‘Wisła zła’, meaning the ‘wicked Vistula’, which overflows and floods the countryside, sweeping away people and cattle. We travelled along roads that were more or less tarmacked, over potholes, and gradually I stopped replying. I stopped taking in what he was saying. I took in that road. I suddenly had the feeling of having already been in these places. I knew the signs, these houses. True, it was a different landscape, a wintry night landscape – especially that first night, though also a landscape of days – and I understood something I hadn’t planned for: that I was travelling in the opposite direction on the road that led me, on 18 January 1945, and on the days that followed, out of that complex about which I was certain, about which we were all certain, that it was a complex no one ever came out of.
The Night Journey of 18 January 1945
That journey has many faces, but it has one face, perhaps one colour, one night colour, which was preserved with an intensity that exceeds all the others, one that is identified – that intensity or that night colour – with that journey, which was afterwards called the ‘death march’. It was a journey to freedom; it was a journey through those gates out of which no one ever thought we would pass.
What I remember from that journey – in fact, I remember everything, but what is dominant – is, as I said, a certain colour: a night colour of snow all around, of a very long convoy, black, moving slowly, and suddenly – black stains along the sides of the road: a large black stain and then another large black stain, and another stain . . .
At first I was intoxicated by the whiteness, by the freedom, by having left behind the barbed-wire fences, by that wide-open night landscape, by the villages
we passed. Then I looked more closely at one of the dark stains, and another – and I saw what they were: human bodies. The stains multiplied, the population of corpses
I was exposed to this phenomenon because as the journey dragged on my strength increasingly waned, and I found myself ever closer to the last rows, and in those last rows anyone who faltered, anyone who lagged behind, was shot and became a black stain by the roadside.
The shots grew more frequent and the stains proliferated until, miraculously, totally unexpectedly – at least for us – the convoy stopped on the first morning. I am not going to describe this death march now, or the escape and all the rest. I have described here only one association that arose from the chatter of the driver from Kraków, from the River Vistula which overflowed, which wound its way along all those roads that drew closer and closer to places I recognized. I recognized them in some sort of dream way. Maybe I didn’t recognize them and only imagined that I did, but that is of no significance. I fell silent and finally asked him to be silent, too.
We arrived there and I asked him if he knew the way, not to the museums – not to Auschwitz I – but to Birkenau.
The Red Brick Gate of the Metropolis. The Landscapes of Silence and Desolation from Horizon to Horizon. The Burial of Auschwitz
We arrived at that gate, the red-brick gate with the tower, beneath which the trains passed. I knew it so well. I asked him to wait by the side outside the gate. I didn’t want him to go in there. It was a rainy summer day, not pouring, but an annoying drizzle that hovered relentlessly and saturated the air with a mix of fog and a damp, silent visibility – as much as an annoying drizzle like that can be silent.
After he parked the car I walked along the track, between the tracks, where grass now grew, through that gate, for the second time – but that day on foot, under my own steam. I went to a place where I was sure of my way. It was one of the camps that should have been there, but in place of the camp, stretching from horizon to horizon,were rows – forests – of brick chimneys that were left from the barracks that had been dismantled and had disappeared, and tottering concrete pillars, each leaning in a different direction, and rusting shreds of barbed wire on this side and on that side – some lay still, others crept in the damp grass – the damp wet grass – from horizon to horizon.
And the silence. An overwhelming silence. Not even the sound of a bird was heard there. There was muteness there, and emptiness there. There was astonishment that these landscapes – which had been so densely crowded with people, like ants, with armies of slaves, with rows of people making their way along the paths – were silent. Were deserted. But everything was there: there was that forest of concrete pillars – one could almost see them proud and erect, with those taut steel wires, as on the day we entered, at night – as in that night illuminated with a pageant of lights passing over our faces at the slow entry of the train to that ‘corridor of lights, to the Metropolis of Death’.
But it was no longer the Metropolis of Death that it had been. It was a very melancholy landscape. A landscape fraught with desolation. But everything was there, though at a kind of distance. At a distance of desolation, but very searing. As searing as on that day – no, it wasn’t so innocent. It was no longer a childhood landscape, it was a landscape of – I don’t want to say this word – but it was a graveyard landscape, the burial of Auschwitz. Auschwitz had been buried. Buried but nonetheless expansive, like a kind of vast grave from horizon to horizon. But everything was there, and I, at least, was able to recognize it.
On the Ruins of the ‘Youth and Children’s Block’ and the ‘Hospital Block’
The first place I went to across that grass was the foundations of the youth and children’s block, the cultural centre of that unique camp, about which I will speak elsewhere. I picked up one mouldy brick – a fragment of a brick – and took it with me.
I went according to the numbering there. I identified the place according to the rows of barracks whose foundations stood in a row, and I knew that this was block thirty-one. From there I went to the compound of another place, where the hospital block had stood, the block in which the notorious Doctor Mengele carried out his experiments, in which I had been a patient for a certain period, ill with diphtheria, and, paradoxically, that very illness which then seemed fatal saved my life. There, too, I first absorbed a considerable portion of European cultural heritage, transmitted by a dying inmate. To the boy that he believed would . . . might come out of there. And he really did come out of there, and took that with him. (But about that, too, I will talk in another chapter.)
So much for the trip to two places in which I had really been, two buildings that I entered back then, in which I lived back then, in which I absorbed what I absorbed, which has remained with me.
The Way to the Place of the Third Destruction – ‘Prometheus in Hades’
From here, the way to the third place was unavoidable, the place where I seemingly lived and remained always, from that day to this, and I am held captive there as a life prisoner, bound and fettered with chains that cannot be undone. Were it not so grating, I would say, ‘like Prometheus bound’. But I am after all a child, who was bound with those chains as a child and remained bound by them throughout every stage of growing up.
I say that I was bound and remained bound, or fettered by chains, but that is because I was never there, because my foot never stepped into those courtyards, inside those buildings. I circled them as a moth circles a flame, knowing that falling into it was inevitable, yet I kept on circling outside, willingly or unwillingly – it was not up to me – all my friends, the butterflies, not all of them, but almost all of them, were there and did not come out of there.
The Circles of Return to (and from) the Metropolis of Death
The place I went to was of course the place of the crematoria. The first one I arrived at was No. II, I think. It was blown up by the Nazis, as was No. I, opposite, and both have been partly preserved. There were bushes and trees there, growing wild on those ruins. From there I took a fragment of a second brick, black and sooty. Then I went across the way to Crematorium No. I, the underground gas chamber of which was not destroyed when it was blown up. The stairs that led to it still exist, and the concrete roof that collapsed, like a tiger’s back or an ocean wave, lay upon it.
I made my way across the path, which I never crossed before, and I descended, as in those recurrent dreams in which I descend these stairs together with all my friends and all those who are close to me. It’s the dream that always takes me back there, when I know that there is no way to avoid that place, that everyone is bound to arrive at that place because it is an inalterable law of the place, one from which there is no escape, and there is no chance for the fantasy we conjure up about liberation and an end, like playful childish fantasies, for an iron law leads everyone there and no one will escape
I also knew, because everyone died one night and I remained, I knew that at the last moment I would be saved. Not for any merit of mine, but because of some sort of inexorable fate. That night dream always brings me back to the same immutable law by which I end up back inside the crematorium and, by some roundabout way, through canals of dark water, through trenches and hidden openings, I dig beneath the barbed wire and reach freedom and board a train, and at one desolate station at night a loudspeaker calls my name, and I am returned to the place I am bound to reach: the crematorium. And however much I know that I must be caught, I always know, too, that I must be spared. It’s a kind of circle, a cycle of Tantalus or Sisyphus, or of whatever myth we choose to invoke that is germane here, which returns in an endless vicious circle to the same place.
I decided to descend those stairs. I knew I first had to ascend that broken wave of the roof. I climbed onto it and crossed its entire length, waited there for however long I waited, and finally descended the stairs that led down. I descended stair by stair, in the place where all those whose names and images I remembered had descended, and all those – myriads upon myriads – whom I had seen being swallowed up in endless rows into the crematoria and afterwards I imagined how they rose in fire and flames into the illuminated night sky above the chimneys. Finally I reached the bottom. It was impossible to enter the gas chamber itself, because the roof had collapsed into it and blocked the entrance. So I turned around, finally, and slowly ascended the same stairs.
The Way Back
I emerged from the ruins and made my way to the exit from Birkenau, through the same brick gate by which I had entered. I reached the driver and without a word handed him my old Leica camera, which had accompanied me on my sojourn through these landscapes. He took a picture of the gate with its iron mesh doors, and in front of it, me sliced in two.
Afterwards, without saying a word we left that place.
In the plane, which tossed back and forth – it was a small plane – I wrote some mad things in my diary that I always carry with me. I also wrote them in a letter; I don’t know if the letter still exists.
Thus I began to cope with my return, not in a dream but consciously, to the Metropolis of Death.