I have a very vivid recollection of my first visit to the Auschwitz Museum, sometime in the late eighties, witha group of Yad Vashem researchers.
I had good mentors along the way – Wanda Hutny, whom I met when she helped me borrow a white and red flag from the Museum for a group of Polish Jews who took part in the first March of the Living; Mr. Stanisław Mączka, who even in those years always remembered that Jews died in the camp, and who was particularly fascinated with numbers – the number of strands of barbed wire, poles, distances and dimensions – there was something almost Kabbalistic about it.
And then I remember a conversation with a young historian – medievalist and author of the work on Bruno of Querfurt, surprised to be offered the position of the Director of the largest commemoration of the Holocaust. I encouraged him to accept the job offer. Today, seeing how much the Museum has changed and is still changing, I’m glad even if it migh be somewhat megalomaniac of me to think that I had my part in it. Mr. Mączka would probably have thought that this choice was obvious – this year, Piotr’s birthday fall on Yom haShoah – the Holocaust Rememberence Day.
Our friendship made me even more involved in the affairs of the Museum. Thanks to him, I met Dagmar and Agnieszka, who introduced me to the world of sub-camps – remnants of barracks in Monowitz, Jawiszowice, Budy – everything that their foundation is doing.
I thought I saw it all.
I was mistaken.
Of course I had known about Harmęże. That it was one of the first sub-camps, fabout fish ponds, Tadeusz Borowski. What I had not known was that it was also the entrance to the maze created by prisoner number 432.
I spent far too short a time at Marian Kołodziej’s exhibition – a little more than an hour. In order for the mind and sight to embrace the world he drew, one would probably need to stay there for hours. And I will most likely return there. I visited this maze just before the Day of Remembrance of the Holocaust.
I am not going to describe the exhibition, simply because it would be virtually impossible to do that. There are pictures, subsequent editions of albums, but absolutely nothing can be as effective as descending into the icy Franciscan church basements.
The world of the Holocaust. Heaps of corpses and hal-dead people. The land where neat appearance and a corpulent figure are the signs of evil and corruption. Where the only elegant things are uniforms with skull-and-crossbones badge. The world drawn by prisoner number 432.
I am a Jew.
I lost virtually my entire family on my mother’s side in the Holocaust. When in a few days, as every year, I’ll be standing in front of the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, I’ll be thinking about them and remember them – and it is not just a figure of speech. I will wonder who I would be, where I would live, what family I would have if not that which we, Jews, will never forget.
Even without a day such as this.