Sunday, January 30, 2005

Trip Diary: Krakow, Auschwitz, Birkenau 25-28 January 2005

TRAVEL DIARY: POLAND 26-28 January 2005
[Some of the following was written during the trip, as these things were happening, and some afterwards. I have left the tenses as they were when written.]

Traveling to Washington, DC
At the Atlanta airport I was “selected” by the TSA folks for a patdown. There was something in my luggage that looked suspicious on the x-ray screen so they went through my suitcase piece by piece. [We never figured out what it was.] On the packed flight I was assigned a middle seat in a back row right next to the lavatory. I had not had lunch so I asked for a second packet of pretzels. The flight attendant gave them to me, but not happily. I was delighted to get off the plane in Washington National.

En Route to Andrews, AFB
As I emerged from the secure area there was a man standing there with a sign with my name. He introduced himself as a driver sent by the State Department. He took my luggage, put me in the backseat of a very comfortable town car, and we headed to Andrews Air Force Base. Paraphrasing the Wizard of Oz: This wasn’t Delta.

At the guard gate the Air Force officer, upon being told, “I have Professor Lipstadt,” nodded as if I had been expected. A gentleman in civilian clothes approached the car, identified himself as being from the State Department, and instructed the driver to take me to the Distinguished Visitors Lounge adjacent to the tarmac. As we pulled up at the building two young men came racing out. “Welcome Professor Lipstadt.” One was Christian Vanderbrook, a protocol officer from the State Department, who had been my contact for the past week as we dealt with the various details for the trip. He was accompanied by a young man named Tuttle, an intern from his office. They grabbed my luggage. When I reached for my briefcase, one of them took it from me. I was escorted to the lounge, which looks like a very nice hotel lobby. There were fresh baked cookies and coffee waiting for us.

Over the next 15 minutes the other members of the delegation arrived. Felix Bruks, National President of the Polish Association of Former Political Prisoners of Nazi and Soviet Concentration Camps, was a tall 86 year old man. Felix, arrested as a member of the Polish underground, had been in Gross Rosen, Ebensee, and Mauthausen.

Next arrival was Fred Schwartz (New Yorkers know him as Freddy the Furrier) is the person who spearheaded the rebuilding of the synagogue in Auschwitz. I told him that when I first heard about his project, I doubted its wisdom. [Who, I thought, needs a synagogue in Auschwitz?] Since then I have met some of the students who have interned in the Auschwitz Jewish center and visitors who have visited the site. Consequently, I have begun to think otherwise. I have heard wonderful things about its activities and its educational programs. I immediately liked his down to earth manner and friendly demeanor.

Representative Tom Lantos and his wife Annette arrived and greeted everyone most graciously. Lantos and his wife, both Hungarian survivors, (his mother died in Auschwitz), have a certain European courtliness. Lantos, whom I had never met, won me over easily by telling me that I was his heroine for “fighting those bastards.”

Finally Jeff Eubank, the Deputy Chief of Protocol of the United States of America [watch for him at the State of the Union address, he leads in the Diplomatic Corps] arrived. He and Christian Venderbrook would be accompanying us on the trip. Jeff thanked each of us for coming and stressed that President Bush had personally selected us. He’s a most affable young man [mid 40s] who worked for President Bush in Texas. He began to immediately ask me for details about the Holocaust and suggestions of reading lists.

While we were chatting, the young men from the State Department were placing luggage tags, bearing the seal of the United States and the designation, “Presidential Delegation,” on our bags.

The Flight to Krakow:
About 7:30 we were told it’s time. We went outside where a van, painted in the same d├ęcor as Air Force One [light blue bottom, white top, with the words United States of America on the side], was waiting. Further out on the tarmac we saw Air Force 2, the Vice President’s plane. [VP Cheney was leaving a few hours after us.]

About 500 yards away was “our” jet, a C-5, which was painted on the outside in the same fashion as Air Force 1 or 2 and also bore the designation The United States of America. The five members of the delegation were driven out to the jet. The jet was one of those used at regional airports, usually configured to seat about 40 people. This one, which we learned cost 54 million dollars, had been configured to seat ten passengers and six crew members. [All crew members were Air Force officers but were dressed in civilian clothing. The men were all in shirts and ties. For take off and landing they put on their suit jackets.]

In the front was a suite area with two seats and a long upholstered couch. One had to walk through it to get to the “back” of the plane where they were 8 additional seats. On each seat were a laminated card with our name and a black briefing book with the Presidential seal on it. The Lantos were given the suite area. I sat facing Jeff and, across the isle, Fred sat facing Felix. The briefing book had the schedule, our bios, the State Department report on anti-Semitism, and some history on Auschwitz/Birkenau.

No sooner had we sat down than a young woman in civilian clothes introduced herself as “Stephanie,” and asked if she could get us anything. Soon drinks and snacks appeared.

Stephanie, who it turned out is an Air Force officer and when she is not working on one of the fleet of Presidential planes (she periodically cooks on Air Force 1) is a flight instructor, then cooked a delicious gourmet meal. My fellow passengers had steaks. She had been told I didn’t want meat and prepared for me a stuffed Portobello mushroom with freshly steamed vegetables. Dessert was a fresh berry yogurt parfait. [Very Weight Watchers. The yogurt was non-fat.]

Over dinner Fred spoke about his work in Poland. It is truly impressive. In the course of conversation he mentioned Jan Gross, author of Neighbors, the story of the Polish massacre of Jews in the town of Jedvabne. The massacre occurred before the German arrival. Felix immediately interjected. “Gross was wrong. My organization found witnesses to prove he’s wrong.” [Though at first the town had protested the book, now there is general acknowledgment that Gross is quite accurate.] A few minutes later Fred mentioned how admirable President Kwasniewski of Poland had been on this matter and in general on Holocaust remembrance. Felix said: “He’s Jewish.” When both Fred and I looked skeptical, Felix repeated: “Oh yes, he’s mother was Jewish.”

I glanced at Fred but said nothing. I hoped this would not mar the trip. A bit later Felix said to me: “In essence I am the only survivor of the Holocaust on the trip.” I pointed to where the Lanto’s were sitting and Felix said: “Oh, no he was not in a camp.”

I said nothing about all this but was deeply troubled. Felix is a courtly genial man. But his view of the Holocaust is quite different. I recalled that ten years ago, at the fiftieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the Polish President Lech Walesa objected to the recitation of the Kaddish, the Jewish memorial prayer for the dead. Walesa did not want the commemoration to have a specifically Jewish tone. His stance was a reflection of an on going difference of perception between Poles and Jews about Auschwitz/Birkenau. Jews see it as a place of Jewish destruction because the vast majority of the people who were murdered there were Jews. While there were also Polish non-Jewish victims, they were far fewer in number.

Poles feel that their suffering has been overlooked. They are right to a certain extent. Jews tend to do this since we see Auschwitz/Birkenau as a place of tremendous Jewish deaths. However, one cannot describe what happened to the Poles as a Holocaust, since the Nazis were not intent on wiping them out.

This is not a matter of the useless venture of comparative pain, i.e. my people lost more than yours. The Germans murdered many Polish non-Jews, particularly intellectuals, political figures, and resistance fighters. However, they did not plan to wipe out the entire Polish people. They saw them as untermenschen, lesser people, who would become a source of very cheap – essentially slave -- labor for Germany. If scores would die as a result, the Germans did not care.

Jews, on the other hand, were destined for one thing and one thing only: death. It did not matter if they were leaders. It did not matter if they were male or female, old or young, from a particular place, or even had talents the Germans needed. The only thing that mattered to the Germans was to kill as many as possible wherever they could find them.

I decided that I would not get into a debate with Felix. There was nothing to be gained and, given that he was 86, had recently lost his wife, gone through serious operations, had survived 3 different camps, and that we going to be wedded at the hip for the next 2.5 days, it did not seem an efficacious thing to do.

I kept quiet when he talked about the 11 million victims [6 million Jews and 5 million non-Jews]. This is a ludicrous figure created, apparently by Simon Wiesenthal who pulled it out of thin air in order to get non-Jews to care about the Holocaust. He stopped using it, I have been told by the great Holocaust historian Yisrael Guttman, when people like Guttman called him to account. The figure is absurd. Who are these 5 million? There were not 5 million non-Jewish victims in the camps. There were not 5 million non-Jews shot by the Einsatzgruppen and their helpers. If you want to talk about civilian victims of the Nazis, the number is far higher than 5 million.

It is ironic that this should happen to me because whenever I hear Jews say: “The Poles were worse than the Germans,” I point out that that is a pretty a-historical [dumb] statement given that the Germans planned and executed the worst murder of Jews in history. German architects, engineers, doctors, organizers, and all sorts of other people made this happen. Unlike Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Estonians, all of whom formed units of the German auxiliary, Poles were oppressed by the Germans. Recently someone said to me, “But Poles administered the camps.” There were certainly Poles who, as prisoners, assisted the Germans [see QBVII by Leon Uris or, for a non-fictional account of the same story, Auschwitz in the Courtroom] but they were not responsible for the Holocaust. There were Poles who turned Jews in to Nazis. And there were Poles who hid Jews. In fact, at Yad Vashem there are more Polish righteous gentiles honored than any other nation. [Of course, this, in part, is because there were more Jews being persecuted in Poland than in any place else.]

Many Jews get quite annoyed at me for saying this. I tend to think their response is a reflection of the fact that the death camps are in, what is currently now, Poland. [Auschwitz was in the Greater Reich. From the German perspective it was in Germany. Mauthausen was also in the Reich.] They were put there, not as many Jews have been taught, because the Poles would not mind the Jews being killed but because most of the intended victims were in the vicinity of the camps. And of course, many Jews remember the attitudes of Poles in Lanzmann’s Shoah in which a number of Poles, after expressing horror at what was done to the Jews, slip into blaming the Jews for their own fate but contending that they were rich, killers of Jesus, and Jewish women were beautiful.

So here I was, a person who is seen by many Jews as “overly” sympathetic to the Poles, facing the contrary point of view. I decided to say nothing and instead to go send some emails.

I went up to the communications center [a closet like affair with one seat in front of a bank of communication devices, telephones, and computers. See picture] The communication officer hooked me up to the Internet and I was able to send some email and make a short post to this blog site.]

Arrival in Krakow
Then a few hours of sleep and a hot breakfast, we landed in a driving snow storm at Krakow. As we landed a long row of cars, vans, limos, and security cars pulled towards the plane. As we disembarked the American Ambassador to Poland was waiting for us together with his wife. Also waiting were some Consular officials, security people, and State Department staff who would be with us for the duration of our stay.

One was young man named Aaron, who, after spending two years in the Peace Corps in Poland (the program was ultimately cancelled because Poland’s situation had improved so much), had joined the Foreign Service. I heard him tell Christian, our State Department Protocol officer, that security at our hotel, the Radisson, had been taken over by the Shin Bet because President Katsav was staying there.

At the hotel the General Manager, a woman of about 40 years, was waiting to greet us. The lobby was crawling with police and security. Rep Lantos said to the woman: “Is President Katsav here? He is a good friend and I would like to say hello.” The woman hemmed and hawed and said: “I am sorry I am not allowed to say.” Lantos smiled, handed her his card and said: “Well if he is staying here can you give him my card?” She said: “Of course. I would be happy to do so.” So much for security.

We were taken up to what was described as the Control Room on the 3rd floor. Apparently the entire floor was reserved for our delegation [we were called the PreDel (Presidential Delegation) as opposed to a group of Congressmen who were the CoDel (Congressional Delegation)]. We were handed our keys, identification tags, embossed invitations to receptions, the forum on Thursday a.m., and the commemoration.

I used the computer, then quickly changed and we were off to a long lunch [the delegation, Jeff Eubank, Christian, Aaron, and a security man] at an excellent restaurant. [The security man did not join us at the table but sat at the entrance to the room in which were dining.] From there we returned to the hotel, changed quickly [into business clothes, i.e. black suits] and went off to the Castle [if you have been to Krakow you can’t miss it. It’s high on a hill on the bank of the river. My grandmother -- my mother would tell us – who grew up in Krakow used to do folk dancing on the banks of the river in the shadow of the Castle.]

Meeting with the Cheney’s
On the way we were held up while the VP’s motorcade passed by. It looked like it had about 15 cars in it, all of them flown from the USA. One was small truck which, I was told, was a decontamination unit.

Cheney went off to meet with the President of Poland. We went to a different building to wait for the Cheney’s. Jeff Eubank, the Deputy Chief of Protocol, was not pleased with the room that had been set up for our meeting. Four long tables had been set in a square with about 12 seats. Since our delegation was only 5 [the Wiesels had not yet arrived] the table was far too large. A gaggle of Embassy, Consular, and VP staff tried to reconfigure it. It was impossible to do so we went to Plan B and were told that when the VP came in we would have a meet and greet standing up.

After about 10 minutes they arrived. Mrs. Cheney, upon being introduced to me, told me that she greatly appreciated my writings on Holocaust denial and what I had done to stem their advance. As soon as the VP approached I gave them a copy of my new book. We took some pictures, chatted some more [Cheney told us he had been to Auschwitz once with Gerald Ford] and then it was time to move to the next venue, a reception Cheney was giving for Americans who had come to the Commemoration ceremonies.

Vice Presidential Reception
It was held in the Jewish quarter in a lovely gallery of photos of Jewish life in Poland. The Cheney’s arrived as we did. As soon as we entered our coats and hats were taken from us by the ubiquitous staff people and we were told that in the next room the guests and press were waiting. We were to walk in as a delegation, stand behind the podium, and then the Cheney’s would enter. He spoke briefly – about the significance of this day – and then there was time to mingle. People could approach him or her and talk. I made my way to their granddaughter, Katie, and her mom. I told Katie I taught about the Holocaust and asked her if she had read about it. She said yes and told me she had read Number the Stars, a book many children read. I asked her if she liked to read. Her face lit up and she said: YES. I told her that she might soon be ready for Anne Frank’s Diary.

Later Scooter Libby, the VP’s Chief of Staff, approached and asked what he should know about Auschwitz. [See posting on blog for my conversation with him.] A few minutes later, when chatting with Lynn Cheney, I told her what I said to Scooter Libby.

A minute later and aide approached her to say the Wiesels had arrived [they were coming from Davos]. The Cheney’s went out to greet them. They chatted for a while and then it was time to leave. We returned to the hotel. Everyone agreed that we did not want to go out to dinner and called it a night.

I appropriated one of the computers in the control room and while there eavesdropped on the conversation Jeff, Christian, Aaron, and the security folks talking about how best to get us to Auschwitz. [See earlier blog posting]. Saw that my article on the commemoration would be in Thursday’s International Herald Tribune.


Forum: Let My People Live

Early rise the next morning. Off to an Italian style theater for the Forum that preceded the afternoon commemoration. We were seated in a box right next to the entrance. I was able to get pictures of the various leaders entering and leaving. The Forum had its moving moments, e.g. participation of Russian soldiers, some readings etc. But, as is the case with these things, really too long. Most people spoke too long. I was pleased that VP Cheney spoke short and well. Putin arrived late [see photo], went immediately to the podium to speak. He greeted Cheney, Katsav, the Polish president, and the other leaders there. He did not go over to greet Yeushenko, the Ukrainian.

Traveling to Auschwitz/Birkenau
Back to the hotel to change clothes for Auschwitz. I put on about 6 layers of clothing [I looked like the Michelin Lady.] By now it was really snowing. There was a lot of slush. Marian Wiesel and I were walking over to the van and were about to get on when Jeff stopped us. He had the driver move the van up onto the sidewalk so we would not have to wade through the slush. I juxtaposed Jeff’s graciousness and concern for our welfare with the fact that we were headed to Auschwitz/Birkenau.

When everyone was on the bus we raced over to the Sheraton Hotel [when Cheney was staying] to join his motorcade. [That way we would not be caught in the traffic jam outside of the camp.] We were placed on a small bus with other members of the Vice Presidential staff. Standing [there were not enough seats for everyone] above me was Dexter, a Navy man who works for the Cheney’s as a chef in their residence in Washington. [See photo of Dexter. African-American, photographed from below, great smile. Navy wool cap.]

Dexter had all sorts of black bags with him. I asked him what all the paraphernalia was. He told me it was snacks and things for the Cheney’s. He even had some lattes with him. Given that the VP has a history of heart problems, I asked Dexter if they were decafe and non-fat. He said yes. I told that was perfect for me and if he had an extra I was a willing customer. He laughed [and made no move to give me one of them!]. I asked him if the snacks he had for the Cheney’s were designed for a heart patient. “Precisely,” he responded, “carrots, celery, bell pepper.” I may not share Dick Cheney’s political views but I do share his diet!!

He talked about working for the Cheney’s and stressed what good bosses they were. I had the feeling he was not just saying this because it was the political thing to do. When they were in Jackson Hole over New Year’s he and his crew finished serving around 9 p.m. The Cheney’s insisted that Dexter and his colleagues go out and party. “Could you go?” I asked. “Of course, my bosses told me to.”

When we arrived at Birkenau the snow was coming down heavily. We found seats on the platform. There were many people already there and the speeches were going on. I sat for a while and then wandered around taking pictures. I was struck by the fact that our folks had brought a large thermos of hot coffee for us. [see picture of Jeff serving coffee, with Christian in wool stocking cap watching] In addition to the coffee, Aaron had umbrellas and blankets for each of us. Then Polish soldiers appeared with trays of coffee and tea as well. I marveled at the care. Rarely, I imagined had a Jew been accorded such care in Birkenau. [We were about 100 yards from the ruins of the gas chambers.]

Most of you have seen the reports on the ceremony so I will not go into great detail about things you saw on TV.

At one point when the speeches were getting longer and longer and the weather was getting colder and colder, I walked over to Liz Cheney who was sitting at the end of our row. She told me her mother had repeated my comment to her about the architects and engineers. I asked about Katie and she said that they thought today would be too much for her but she would join us tomorrow. Liz asked for suggestions of some books on the topic and I promised to send them on.

I asked Elie Wiesel about the 1995 commemoration when Walesa would not allow the Kaddish to be said. Wiesel told me that he threatened, in no uncertain terms, that if Walesa did not allow the prayer to be said, instead of giving his own speech, Wiesel would walk to the podium and recite the Kaddish. Walesa, probably afraid of creating an international scandal, relented and the prayer was said.

Wiesel and I reflected on how much these ceremonies, in contrast to the one ten years ago, emphasized the Jewish nature of the suffering, while not ignoring that of the Poles, Roma (Gypsies), and others.

Thursday p.m. [after the commemoration]
On the bus back from Auschwitz I was sitting right behind a nice young woman. Turns out she is the VP’s personal assistant, which means she does all sorts of things. While we were chatting, Tom Lantos leaned across the isle and told me that he had begun reading my book and it was gripping. I began to explain to Cheney’s assistant what he was talking about. She said: “Oh, I know. I had the copy you gave the Cheney’s in my briefcase last night and when he went up to his room the VP asked me for it.”

Upon my return I stopped in the control room to check my email. Saw that an oped piece I had written was in the Jerusalem Post weekend edition. I also found a request from the Atlanta Journal Constitution for an oped piece for Sunday’s paper. I decided to try to write it in the next twelve hours. I would try to contrast the tremendous outpouring of commemoration we had witnessed with the upsurge in anti-Semitism in Europe. It’s hard to say nobody cares when 41 nations are represented here….. It would be the beginning of my effort to figure it all out.

But first we head off for dinner. At the restaurant we found 3 secret service people having dinner. Jeff introduced us. I asked the woman who was with them what her job was and she said. “I am assigned to Liz; I was standing behind you while you were talking to her today.” During dinner I checked my pictures from the day and sure enough there she was right behind us.

Everyone is very relaxed. Fred buys a couple of bottles for the table [he insists on paying because, as he puts it, “the American taxpayers should not be buying us good wine.] During dinner Felix mentions the 11 million figure again. Feeling I could now say something since Felix and I had developed a friendly relationship, I said, “Felix, that’s not really a real number.” He got quite adamant, insisted it was, [“You have your point of view. I have mine.”] so I decided to leave it. Had he been a bit younger I would have explored the issue with him, but given his history and age I decided to leave it. [There are those who believe I can never walk away from a debate….. This time I did.]

Nonetheless, it further convinced me how careful one must be about history.

11 p.m. home from dinner and began working on the oped piece. By 2 a.m. I had a draft and decided to go to bed

6 a.m. up to pack and then back at the computer finishing the draft.


Friday a.m.

En route to Auschwitz
7 a.m. Our group headed to Auschwitz I to meet up with VP Cheney and his daughter, Liz, early this morning. We [our security folks and Jeff Eubank, the Deputy Chief of Protocol of the United States] decided that it would simpler if we went on our own and did not try to go in the VP’s motorcade. [I have learned over the past two days that that entails a lot of “hurry up and wait,” and all sorts of bureaucratic hassles.]

The plan was for out group to meet the VP at the camp. However, we had to get a real head start because about 15 minutes before he passes the Polish police close down the road and any traffic on the main road is diverted.

Well we were doing fine until we were about 15 minutes from the camp. Then suddenly we hit a roadblock and the Polish police waved us off the main road down a subsidiary road which was a dead end. Our consular liaison, Aaron, began to yell in Polish [it did not sound complimentary at all] at the driver not to turn off and to tell the Police that we were part of the VP’s party. The driver ignored him [I guess he decided that a Polish policeman in a uniform outranked a young American]. By this point we were at the end of the road which was the entrance to a Polish military base. Behind us were about 5 tour busses and trucks and cars which had been shifted to the subsidiary road [it was a one lane road so essentially we were stuck].

Aaron got off and said: “You have to get us out of here. We are supposed to be in Auschwitz with the VP.” Not only did the various soldiers ignore him but they gave him a withering look of contempt and shrugged their shoulders. The more he protested the more they made it clear that they could care less. He started to berate the driver. When Jeff, who had stayed on the bus saw that, he said to Christian: “Go tell Aaron to forget about the driver. Tell him to focus on getting us out of here.” Christian and Aaron both go on their phones to various folks including the VP’s staff.

Aaron tried to point out to the various Polish officials that if they let the long [and getting longer all the time] row of trucks and cars which were blocking our way out pull further down the road we could then exit. That, however, would have meant letting them drive onto Polish military property. So they simply said: “No.” They may have said some other things in Polish but I did not understand. From their eyes I could tell they were not thinking happy or nice thoughts.

Meanwhile the soldiers guarding the entrance to the base were really nervous about having us so close to it. I got off to take some pictures and one practically jumped me. I told him to back off, got back on our van, and began to shoot the whole thing from our window.

It looked like we were going to be there for a couple of hours.

Suddenly one of the Polish soldiers got a phone call and attitudes began to change. Turned out it was the Chief of Protocol of Poland telling him to get us out of there and to get us to Auschwitz.

Suddenly they could not move fast enough. The long line of trucks and cars were pulled forward and off the road. [Tom Lantos joked that there would be a new village started here because there was such chaos that the cars, busses, and trucks looked like they would never get out of there.] We began to move back out to the main road. The driver was moving so fast that our stuff was flying all over the van.

Then we again ground to a halt. A train was crossing. We sat there pretty dejected pretty sure we would never get to Auschwitz I for the tour with Cheney. Suddenly a police car with lights flashing approached us. He indicated we were to follow him. Traffic was stopped in both directions so we could get around the long line of cars that had backed waiting for the train to cross. Then the police car began to move between the two lanes of traffic, effectively creating a third lane on a two lane country road, racing towards Auschwitz. They essentially split the traffic like Moses splitting the sea.

At Auschwitz I:
We got there and were told to go to one of the barracks [the exhibits are in different barracks] where the VP, his daughter, and granddaughter would meet up with us.

When they joined us I had a chance to chat with them about the camp and my work. Felix talked about a friend of his who has the number 300 on his arm. He was one of the early Polish prisoners.

There is no doubt that they were deeply moved. At one point Liz Cheney had tears running down her face. Her little daughter Kate, who is about 9, asked to go back to the car mid-way through the tour. She probably was too young for the visit but Liz had wanted her to see the place.

After touring the various exhibits in the barracks, we went to the execution wall where prisoners were shot on a regular basis. Up until that point there was no press with us. The VP’s “people” explained that when we walked into the courtyard toward the execution wall the press would be waiting. The VP and his daughter would lay some flowers and then each of us would approach to place a lit candle in front of the wall. Over the years, I have become a bit used to being photographed by a bunch of reporters. It doesn’t happen often but it does happen. This time however it was completely surrealistic. I wasn’t walking into or out of a courtroom. I wasn’t addressing a press conference about the Holocaust. I was in Auschwitz…. The experience epitomized the sentiments I have about this trip in general. It has been a whirlwind of emotions.

After that we visited the gas chamber [no press but a number of White House photographers]. Our guide, a first rate historian Theresa Swiebodka who is, for all intents and purposes, in charge of the archives and museum , pointed out that one can see the name of the company, Topf and Sons, which built the ovens on the side of the ovens. I told Liz Cheney and Scooter Libby, Cheney Chief of Staff, that in 1942 Topf filed a patent in the Berlin patent office for the new crematoria they had built for Birkenau [the ovens were fuel “efficient” by using fat from the bodies to fire up the ovens]. Libby said, “As you said: this place would have been impossible but for the engineers, doctors, lawyers, etc.”

I was impressed by how Theresa did not in any way diminish the terrible suffering of the Polish prisoners at Auschwitz but carefully differentiated that from the Holocaust. She is an impeccable historian. We had been given flowers and told that the VP and his daughter would lay them on the gurneys that were used to push the bodies into the crematoria. We could lay them if we wished. I was conflicted since leaving flowers are not a Jewish tradition and wasn’t sure what I would do.

When we standing in the gas chamber Theresa turned to the VP and Liz and said: “You can place the flowers here or on the gurney. Here would probably be a more appropriate place since people died here.” I was standing directly behind Cheney. When he placed his flower and Liz had placed hers, the Protocol person turned to me and motioned for me to go forward. I did – I feared that if I did not it would be misunderstood -- but felt a bit strange about doing so.

We then went outside where Cheney wrote a long message in the official guest book. We then signed it. Then it was over. Cheney bid us goodbye and thanked us for accompanying him on the trip. His motorcade pulled away towards the airport.

We could not leave in our smaller [but quite comfortable jet - see pictures] until 30 minutes after Air force 2 because we were the backup plane, i.e. if something went wrong with Cheney’s plane, he would have used ours and we would have been bumped.

Since we still had a bit of time, we stopped at the Auschwitz Jewish center, a project spearheaded – in so many different ways – by Fred Schwartz, a member of delegation. About 10 years ago Fred took upon himself the refurbishing of the Auschwitz synagogue [there were Jews in Auschwitz in 1270 when the town filed as a town]. I had never been there. It is an impressive place. [www.ajcf.org]. It is a place which commemorates what Jews did and not what was done to them. Though all sorts of groups visit there, for Jewish groups it has become a point of affirmation of life after visiting Auschwitz/ Birkenau.

From there we headed to the jet which was waiting for us. On the van I finished the oped piece, which I hope to post to the paper from the jet.

At the airport we pulled out onto the tarmac and the foot of the plane. We took a delegation picture in front of the plane, bid goodbye to the security and embassy folks who had accompanying us since we set foot in Poland, [I gave Aaron who was headed to a posting in Kahaganistan, a special hug] boarded the jet, the door closed behind us, and now we are winging our way to the states.

I will try to post this from the plane.

En Route from Krakow to Washington
No internet connection on plane, something amiss in the 54 million dollar jet. Could not blog but still had to get my oped piece to the AJConsitution. The communications officer printed out my piece and faxed it from the plane to my office. I called the office to make sure it got there.

Dinner was halibut with a peanut sauce Stephanie made from scratch on the plane. There was also cous cous and steamed veggies. I slept through dessert.

We all switched book. I read a book Fred’s wife [she had joined us on Wednesday p.m. in Krakow] was reading on the Japanese internment. Fred read my book Why the Allies Won? And Fred’s wife read a copy of my book. I felt silly but I kept looking up to watch her reading it. I tried to read her facial reaction: Was she enjoying it? Was it holding her interest? Was she dozing off because she was jet lagged or bored? I had never seen someone read it before. After a while I decided it would be more productive to go back to my reading.

Arrival in Washington
As we landed two military officers ran to the foot of the plane and saluted. Not sure what that was all about. Christian took our passports, gave them to the Customs officials, and within 90 seconds he was back on the plane and we could disembark. As we did a line of town cars pulled up for us. The State Department officials quickly got all our stuff into the trunks. Members of the delegation bid each other good bye and we all thanked the State Department officials who had been so caring and gracious to us. We climbed into our cars and we were about to head off to our different airports, when our driver said: “The airport has been shut down. Nothing moves.” I had noticed a moment earlier that Jeff, Christian, the plane crew, and all the other guys in suits who had met us go back on the plane. I assumed they were having a debriefing meeting or double checking the plane to make sure all was in order.

Turns out that Air Force 2 had just landed. [Though it left ahead of us, it had to stop and refuel. Our jet did not.] That meant that the airport – or at the least the entire tarmac – went into a shut down, which means that nothing and no one moves. All those folks had been told by the military who met our plane to go on board because no one was to be on the tarmac. After a few minutes I asked the driver if he was sure all my luggage had been put in the trunk. He said I could check and popped the trunk. I got out of the car, saw that it was there, and was about to climb back in when a soldier approached me and said: “Maam, do not get out of the car. We do not want to have a problem.” His tone made it quite clear that this was not a suggestion.

Felix and I were in a car together since both of us were headed to Dulles. While we waited he called his son who had been very worried about him. He reassured his son that he was ok and talked about how moving the trip had been and how wonderfully the delegation got along. I called my mother and assured her I was ok.

After about 10 minutes we saw a helicopter take off from near the plane and the shutdown was lifted. We were then led off the air force base by a police car with lights flashing. The escort left us as soon as we hit the edge of the base.

As soon as I got to Dulles and passed through their security control with everyone else I began to long for the royal – oops, Presidential -- service we had received the past few days….. No one to shlep my bags, make the arrangements, etc. But I was too exhausted to focus on it…. Well sort of.

After checking in at Delta, I walked to the other end of the terminal to USAir to look for Felix. I wanted to make sure he was ok. Despite our different ways of looking at things, I like him and was worried about him traveling alone and negotiating his way through Dulles. I thought about my mother returning from a trip such as this and no one looking after her. I did not see him. I looked around and, not seeing him, decided to go through security. After getting the complete check over [since my hips always set off the metal detector and that means I am pulled out of line], I was putting back my boots when I looked up and saw Felix. He had been rerouted to United. I waited for him to put his shoes back on. I took his carry on bag and insisted on holding it. Felix, a very Old World man [women always went first, he always called me Professor, etc.] must have really been exhausted since he let me do so. I got him to the shuttle to his terminal and then headed off to my terminal.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Dvora - what a story! Thank you for taking the time to write it.

R Lea Singer
The Rivka Network

David H Lippman said...

That's a fascinating story, and I thank you for sharing it. For my own edification...what would be an appropriate gesture in lieu of flowers at an Auschwitz crematorium?

Michal Kruczek said...

Poland was the only country in Europe occupied by Germany where any kind of help to Jews (even a glass of water or a piece of bread given to a Jew) was punished by deaf. If Germans found out that Poles hid Jews they killed directly the whole Polish families including children and send Jews to Gettos or concentration camps.