Steve Danziger: Approaching Auschwitz

Danziger reflects on his place in history @ Open Letters Monthly.

Approaching Auschwitz, the first thing you see is the hot dog stand. It’s a squat, yellowish beige rectangle with brown shingles and black capital letters spelling out ‘Hot Dog’ above one of the service windows, and as you might imagine, its presence somewhat alters the mood.

Which in my case wasn’t entirely a bad thing. Before I made that sound upon seeing it, a sort of half gasp, half disbelieving chuckle, I was sitting on a bus, my breathing shallow with dread, a hand pressed flat over my clenching stomach. I had spent the previous couple of days in Krakow – actually, the months since buying the plane ticket – mentally preparing for what I thought would be the most moving, even epiphanic, event of my life. So, this wasn’t a complete surprise. I had anticipated being overwhelmed with sadness and disgust, and I was. Just not by the Nazis, as I’d presumed, but by a snack bar.

This was ten years ago, and at the time, travel was still a new, heady mystery for me. For years, I had been living a provincial life common in suburban New Jersey, working in my family’s business during the day and abusing alcohol at night, and like many of my contemporaries, I spent my twenties watching my fantasies for an exciting future disappear into drudgery and lassitude. One of those fantasies had been to travel the world, but as the years dragged by and my hopes were replaced with hangovers, I had practically given up on the possibility of ever leaving Monmouth County, let alone flying overseas.

So I had come to it late, visiting my first foreign country when I was thirty-five, and had no interest in exploring my family’s ancestral lands, or any other Jewish heritage tourism; my first trip out of the country was to Belize, and my second to Spain, where I hadn’t even considered the Inquisition or Sephardic history, instead spending my time gorging on jamon and melon, and fulfilling the modest dream of my youth, to one day visit Europe and dawdle away hours in a sidewalk café with a book, bread, cheese, and wine.

But having experienced Europe, I was stupefied by the possibilities of a belated education, and with my newfound adventurousness; my most ambitious endeavor up until then was to make it to Sayreville in time for happy hour at the Bourbon Street strip club. Thus inspired to plan another trip overseas, I learned fundamentals. I read guide books. I looked at a map of the world for the first time since I was in school and saw the proximity of countries and Eurorail options. And having decided to return to Europe anyway, I figured I might as well go check out some camps.

I really was that glib. Or was trying to be, anyway.

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