In the spring of 1977, I was in my last year of Humanity studies at the “Collège St. Vincent”, in the small town of Soignies, in the French part of Belgium. I was invited to accompany my good friend André Gréga, for a summer visit to his family in Poland. Astonishingly smart and talented, André was by a long shot the brightest student of our school, a brilliant writer, and still today the most dazzling mind I have ever met. He was born in Belgium of Polish immigrants, but sill had his grandparents, uncle and aunt and some cousins behind the Iron Curtain. He had visited the country of his ancestors a couple of times, but this was my first trip to the East.
His family was originally from a small farming village called Krzatka, near Sandomierz, in the south-eastern part of Poland, not far from the border with Ukraine and Czechoslovakia.
Life was exceedingly hard in Poland at the time. Food and lodging restrictions were imposed upon most of the population. Freedom of movement and freedom of speech were all but impossible dreams. Poland was still under the grip of USSR and visitors from “the West” were rarely approved and clearly unwelcomed. It would be several years before Lech Walesa would start the Solidarnosc Trade Union movement that eventually led to the independence of Poland after the fall of parts of the Iron Curtain in the winter of 1989, and the dismantlement of the Berlin Wall a year later.
We took the night train from Brussels to Warsaw, crossing the German border, somewhere after Hannover, then the Deutsche Demokratische Republik, Berlin and the wall. The locomotive was making its way slowly though the suburbs of Berlin. It was night time and dark all around. I remember the train being rocked backward and forward, the wagons being disconnected, noises, screams, orders and German officers patrolling each passenger car with a kind of scrutiny I had never witnessed: “Reisepässe bitte!“
I eventually came to call this train, Europe’s very own time machine. We left Brussels and its relative modernity and sophistication and arrived twenty-four hours later in a place that looked a lot like a collection of old black and white pictures pulled from one of my grandfather’s photo albums. All frozen in time. A time that had stood still, engulfed by the bureaucratic inertia of Communism. Horses still pulled carriages, slowly and majestically, and country houses had no indoor toilets, running water or electricity. I would see cars that looked primitively odd and minimalistic. Trabant, Lada, old Russian and German cars, not that dissimilar from the classic “yank tanks” from the fifties still used today on the streets of Havana, although these Polish cars certainly did not exult the past opulence of post-war America.
My friend André spoke almost perfect Polish, letting us blend with the local population and travel discreetly throughout the country without being hassled. André and I both looked much younger than our age – blond, blue-eyed and baby-faced, we looked like Polish kids sent by their moms to pick up bread and milk at the corner store down the street. No one ever gave us a second glance or cared much about questioning two childlike teenagers traveling the countryside.
Today, I must admit that I had no clear understanding of the terrible Cold War regulations and restrictions imposed on residents and visitors of countries of the Eastern Block. I was, at the time, a rather naïve young boy with little grasp of the terrible events that had engulfed the region and the dramatic consequences still forced on Poland and the Polish people.
From the age of 12, I had been raised in a Catholic boarding school, secluded and protected from the world. I had an immature and overly optimistic understanding of humanity’s goodness. I thought of humanistic philanthropy as a given. I thought I knew all about love and kindness. I could feel it bubbling inside. I thought I knew about the world’s goodness, but very little understanding of its dark evil side.
In a way, this childish innocence served me well. I never felt the least bit nervous or anxious, even when undercover dealers, some slightly aggressive, most fearful and anxious, would address me on the street of Warsaw, pulling me aside, trying to change Zlotys for Deutschmarks, or insisting on purchasing, right there, the brand new Levis I was wearing, as if they were laced with strands of gold and diamonds. More than once, André would grab me by the arm and whisper forcefully: “Don’t talk to them. Don’t talk to anyone. Don’t even stop. If the police sees you talking to a ‘Deutschmark dealer’, you could end up in jail.” André appeared genuinely scared and concerned. I, of course, followed his instructions, looked away and walked faster when men would try to address us, but, in a way, secretly felt his reactions to be rather exaggerated and almost amusing. I felt perfectly safe and never once concerned about our security. Poland, probably because of the omnipresence of the state “policja”, was ironically a very safe country to travel, if you were complying with its endless list of strict regulations.
We had agreed to spend most of our summer in Poland. Back in Belgium, André had told me stories of the magical Tatra Mountains along the Czechoslovakian border. We had decided to spend a week or two hiking in the south. On the way, we would pay a visit to the Black Virgin of Czestochowa and stop in the towns of Katowice and Kracow on our way to Zakopane.
We passed the little town of Oswiecim, half way to Krakow. A little town with a name that sounded like infinite sorrow. André said: “Let’s ask if we can see the camps.”
I was not prepared. I knew little about the Jews. I knew that during the war, people had been sent to the camps. One of my uncles had been taken by the Germans at the age of 14 and sent as a farm boy to a labour camp in Southern Germany. My grandfather lived on Rue de la Déportation in our little town of Tubize. I knew Jews had been deported from Belgium and all over Europe. I knew many had been killed. I had read Anne Frank’s diary. I remembered my parents talking about deprivations, bombardments, underground shelters, V2 flying overhead on their way to London. I had been told often that the Germans, “les Boches” or “les Chleuhs”, as our parents called them, had done terrible things, but I could not comprehend to what extent. The horrors of the war where very much abstract. Stories from another time and another place. When you have just turned 18, it is hard to contemplate such distant horizons. The war had ended 30 years earlier, yesterday really, but for me, at the time, it might as well have been centuries ago.
We arrived at the main entrance of the camp. All was quiet. At first it looked like no one was around. My friend André noted a military guard holding post and said something in Polish. He nodded and made a vague gesture towards a group of barracks. We entered the camp. I was about to have my heart ripped apart, and I didn’t know it.
“Arbeit macht frei”. I did not speak German, but I knew some minimalistic Flemish. The last two words resonated in the mystic “taal van Guido Gezelle.” “Maakt vrij”, I pondered. “Make free” … yes, “Make free” … what peculiar incongruous words. I stood bewildered.
It is one thing to murder a man, a child or a woman. It is another entirely to do it meticulously, systematically, and deliberately under the cover of such unspeakable words. Premeditated slaughter. Repulsive discourse. Sick irony. Depraved sarcasm. Evil cynicism. These words forever shall symbolize the ultimate repugnance of acts, sinful, nauseating in their very immoral nature, further magnified by the corrupt mind of their sardonic author.
We walked in silence, all alone, along deserted alleyways, between long empty barracks of creaking and weeping wood.
We walked along mountains of clothes, mountains of suitcases, mountains of hair, mountains of shoes, mountains of glasses, mountains of last kisses, mountains of fading embraces, mountains of cries, mountains of tears. Mountain after mountain after mountain, every one stretching all the way up to the ceiling, and all the way up to heaven.
We walked along the corridors with photographs on the walls. Photographs that will haunt me forever. Photographs that will haunt mankind to the end of time. Profile, faces, dark eyes. Photographs of men, photographs of women, looking inhumanity deeply and straight in the eye.
At night, I can forget the shoes, I can forget the clothes, I can forget the hair, but I can never forget the eyes. I can never forget the eyes looking straight at me. Looking straight at us. The executioners believed they had passed final judgment. All were guilty of being, and condemned to vanish forever. Yet, here they are. Here they are looking the executioner straight in the eye without blinking. With dignity. Here they are, standing in judgment of mankind for the rest of time. Here they are, ad vitam in memoriam. Here are their children, and the children of their children, walking, with the same dignity, the same dark alleys they once walked.
At night, I can’t forget their eyes. Under the blinding sun, I try to remember them. The children of their children will never forget either. They will keep coming, year after year, generation after generation, to the little town of Oswiecim. They will also walk along the deserted paths, along the empty barracks of creaking and weeping wood and the mountains that stretch all the way to heaven.
As a “photographe dans l’âme”, I carried all around Poland the beloved Voigtländer camera I had received from my father on my 16th birthday. Yet, I could not bring myself to take a single photograph that day. I wanted to testify, I wanted to engrave “argentique” memories along these dark passages, but could not bring myself to search for aesthetical imagery in the ruins of no mercy.
Sadly, there is an aesthetic of death that photographers must often compel themselves to bring upon the world for all to see. Dying children on the streets of Hanoi, on the beaches of Thailand, in the sands of Biafra. Why is there insidious graphical beauty in the midst of such tragedies?
There is always a deep ethical questioning of the very act of creation in the heart of misery and mortality. There is, however, often a sense of obligation, a sense of duty, the need to bear witness that photojournalists believe to be at the core of their mission. That day, for me, was not the day. I just did not have the courage. I just did not have the impudence. I kept my beloved Voigtländer hidden, too ashamed to even think of taking a single photograph.
We left Auschwitz in the late summer evening, and made our way back to the small tent we had pitched earlier on the banks of the Wisla. A cool night was falling upon us. Fog was steaming slowly from the warm stream of water. “Nuit et brouillard.” Three small birch trees were growing new life and hope. I took a single photograph that day, in memory of those who had already crossed the river Styx.
I went to bed, closed my eyes and never stopped seeing theirs.