The story I’m about to relate might at first seem a tad inappropriate, in view of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. But it’s a true story. And if you can’t be honest in the light of everything that the word ‘liberation’ stands for, then what’s the point in having been liberated in the first place?
Okay, so here goes.
Twenty years ago, one dark and misty autumnal night, in an equally dark and smoky tavern in the heart of medieval Krakow, I was approached by an older but very handsome, charismatic man.
I was sitting alone at the bar, swilling my wine round and round in its chipped glass while waiting for my exasperating Irish philosopher-lover to return. He hadn’t gone far – just to some booze-cluttered table in a far corner of the low-ceilinged room, having spotted a rowdy bunch of English teachers from a rival language school.
So there I was: an attractive (though I say so myself), thirty-something, unattached woman, sitting alone in a bar, pretending not to be fuming about the fact that my impossible lover had yet again abandoned me on what was supposed to be a romantic night out. And while awaiting his return – which could take anything between five minutes and a couple of hours, depending on how carried away he got with whatever unsuspecting victims he happened to trap into an argument about linguistics or politics – I found myself distractedly glancing around my murky surroundings. You know, for want of something better to do while waiting for absent lovers.
And then I caught the eye of this distinguished-looking man, perched on a high stool just a few feet away from my own. Our glances intersected; he smiled at me, and I somewhat awkwardly returned his smile.
Next thing I knew, he raised his beer glass to me, slipped off his stool, and sauntered over in my direction.
His opening phrase was so corny, I tried not to roll my eyes. “What’s a beautiful young lady like you doing all on your own in a bar at this time of night?”
“I’m not that young,” I corrected, deciding to let the other accolade go. “And I’m not on my own.”
He raised a greying eyebrow. But a distinguished eyebrow, nonetheless. “No?”
“No. My friend is somewhere around. He’ll be back in a minute.”
And then he laughed. A totally sexy, throaty, confident laugh. Strong, even teeth. Virile, masculine lines on either side of his mouth. Narrowed eyes that danced in mirth. Forgive the cliché, but the dancing phrase just seemed so fitting. (That’s what clichés are all about, isn’t it? So fitting, everyone ends up using them.)
“Don’t worry,” he said, “I’m not about to abduct you – just admiring, that’s all. Which I think is allowed.”
I laughed back, apologetically. “Right.”
“Perhaps we could at least introduce ourselves?”
So we exchanged names, and then took a sip from our respective drinks. He continued to survey me from above the rim of his beer glass.
“What are you doing in Krakow, then?” I asked, trying not to be distracted by the intensity of his narrowed gaze. You’re American, aren’t you?”
“Polish,” he proudly put me right. “I’ve lived in America for many years. But whenever I come back to my beloved native town of Kraków, I always like to be of service.”
“What kind of service?”
“I take visitors on guided tours of Auschwitz-Birkenau.”
I glanced at him uncertainly, not sure if he was jesting or not. “Really?”
“Wow. Well, that’s … erm … different. What made you decide to -”
“Because I was an inmate there. A long time ago.”
I widened my eyes at him, which was a tricky thing to do, given the thick smoky air. “Oh, God – I’m so sorry,” I mumbled, still not sure if he was just bullshitting. If so, it was not funny.
His own smile wavered, then vanished altogether. Suddenly he looked … how can I put it? Wearier? More lined? Haggard rather than sexy?
“I was fifteen when the Russians liberated the camp.”
He wasn’t bullshitting. “That’s so young,” I said. I didn’t know what else to say. What else could be said?
“But old enough to remember things. Things you never forget,” he went on. “That’s why I like to show people around the camp. Make sure they will also remember what I show them, what I tell them. And never forget.”
He sounded genuine, and yet it all seemed so … I don’t know. Surreal, I guess. In a macabre sort of way. You know, being chatted up by an Auschwitz survivor in a Kraków cellar bar. Maybe he was bullshitting? Maybe this was his peculiar line of seduction? In which case, it was unforgivable.
Evidently sensing my doubt, he then did something I shall never forget. (No, it wasn’t a kiss.)
Lowering his eyes, he rolled up his shirt sleeve and held out his left forearm for me to see in all its authentic … what can we call it? Glory? Horror? The unmistakable Auschwitz trademark. The tattoo.
He wasn’t bullshitting. He had a tattoo on his arm. A number. He really had been there. At the death camp, in 1945. He was an Auschwitz survivor.
And then, lo and behold, my Irish lover re-emerged from the narcotic mists, and glowered at the guy sitting next to me, close to me, too close, I guess … I mean, yes, there was undeniably some kind of fascination-attraction at play there …
And as though the spell had been broken, my Auschwitz survivor rolled his sleeve back down and defaulted to a normal man. So now, in my lover’s eyes, this was just some annoying dude, a bit on the old side but still attractive, trying his luck with a younger woman. His identity was now male rival, not Auschwitz survivor. Not just a tattooed number.
To this day I can’t remember the man’s name. The shocking sight of his tattoo somehow blotted out the personalisation of a name. I only remember the tattoo. At that moment, his individualism vanished for me. At that moment he just became an Auschwitz survivor, not a good-looking guy who happened to be chatting me up.
At that moment, he just became a number. Isn’t that what the Nazis had wanted to do all along? Dehumanise their prisoners? Name them by number?
I wonder if he’s still alive today, twenty years on. If he is, according to my calculations he’d be eighty-six. So probably no longer showing visitors round his former place of incarceration.
86. That’s also just a number. But at least a harmless one.