Krakau 1995, March of the Living

I’m on the bus to Auschwitz sitting by the window as an older man seats himself beside me. As inconspicuously as possible I observe him from the side. His face has been smoothly shaved, with the exception of some tufts of hair in the deep facial lines. White hairs lie as threads over the liver spotted skull and his dark beady eyes have already been covered by a hazy shade of grey. ‘This is my second time,’ he suddenly says in German while staring straight forward. ‘The first time was 52 years ago, not by bus but by cattle wagon. I was twenty.’ He nods a few times as if confirming his own history to himself.
I vainly stir in my viscous thoughts.
‘1943’, I finally say.
The man just nods before him. ‘But it seems like yesterday. That’s what old age does to you. I’m curious whether much has changed.’
I too stare at the back of the chair in front of me.
‘I’ve always been a carpeting merchant’, the man says. ‘I travelled the world. Tapistry is an international business.’
‘Of course’, I answer in English.
‘The whole world’, the man emphasises. ‘Even to Germany. But never to Poland.’
I nod approvingly. As if I understand. As if it would be at all possible to understand where a human being gains the strength to become a carpet salesman after he lost everything and everyone has ever loved while accidentally escaping the killing machine himself.
‘That’s why I have to do this, you see. I want to recapture my freedom. I want to feel the freedom of bringing rugs to Poland.’
Heedlessly a blue sign announces the village of Óswięcim within 10 km. We pass a post office, loose houses, apartment buildings, a supermarket. A grandpa walks his dog.
Suddenly the grandmother of my mother pops into mind, the very old lady who survived the war and, once in the safety of the Dutch nation, broke her neck over a Persian stair-carpet.
‘Why carpets?’, I ask myself out loud.
The old man turns towards me and looks surprised. His small eyes sparkle. ‘The same thing I asked my father, who, like his father and his fathers father, was in carpeting.’
‘And? What did he say?’
‘He said: “Itschak, nothing is as near to our people as is the carpet. Judaism itself is the enlacing of an infinite amount of weft threads with one never ending warp thread: our covenant with G’d – and thereby our mutual bond. The warp thread is resilient and can resist even the most destructive of powers. The weft threads are multi-coloured and define the pattern.’
‘My family thread is not of great account. It’s thin and it frays’, I sigh.
The old man smiles. ‘The meaning of each thread, yours as well, only becomes visible when turning around. Then a wonderful carpet spreads out in front of you, one with the most beautiful designs woven by the unique threads of our ancestors.’
The bus has stopped and we get off.
I feel disoriented. Some thirty feet from the entrance of camp Auschwitz there’s a carwash, and a building across the street harbours a hamburger stand.
I look around, but the carpetman is nowhere to be found. And even later on, when I have let myself blend in the humongous crowd walking from Auschwitz to Birkenau, I don’t see him anymore, nor do I when a rabbi on the stage yells out his Hebrew prayers over Birkenau. The indictment, the unmatched injustice, the suffering – they rage over the fields, reaching every corner of Auschwitz, penetrating the local bakery and the hard of hearing grandpa with the dog.
But I will never know if the carpet trader has heard them, as will I never know the answer to the question whether ‘much has changed in Auschwitz since 1943.’ At the end of the day on the way back, the bus seat next to me stays empty.
I have never seen him again.

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