Bryan Ferry

We drove from Zawiercie to Cracow, and without a radio in the car I spent time listening to my mother as she tried to recall a world that now seemed so alien to her. The rolling countryside was dotted with small farms and meager trailers parked just off the road where travelers could stop for a pierogi and a glass of vodka. Historically the artistic and cultural center of Poland, during the war Cracow remained all but untouched, and the elegant city I saw from my hotel window reflected a view unchanged for hundreds of years. Though my mother had grown up less than an hour away, her family had never visited, another reminder of the isolation of life in small-town Poland.
I was feeling frustrated and fidgety as we walked through the city, knowing we needed time to decompress before continuing our quest but also too aware of the brevity of our stay in Poland. When the walking tour ended, it was late in the afternoon and we had exhausted our break. We returned to the faded grandeur of our hotel, and I spent time in my room trying to relax and shoot some pictures from the bed. Bryan Ferry was playing on MTV while the wind shuffled in through the double window. The clock barely moved, and the air grew still. I tried to sleep but could not dislodge a gnawing sense of foreboding.

Children Of A Survivor

Before leaving Warsaw we visited a woman who had survived the camps, and she and my mother, who had never met, hugged and cried and talked like old friends. She lived quietly in a shabby building watched over by a large statue of the Virgin Mary in the courtyard. Graffiti on the exterior walls proclaimed that Poland is for the Poles, a vivid reminder of anti-Semitism. Beside her bed were an old radio and a pair of reading glasses and above them a shelf with framed photographs. She pointed to the pictures of her children who were killed during the war and I was startled to find myself thinking, “they too are children of a survivor.”

Birkenau Barracks

In the barracks at Birkenau my mother showed me the platform where she had slept, crammed together with a half-dozen others. The place was suddenly full of ghosts rushing in. Alone in there with my mother, we stood between the shadows and something much darker. In that decrepit barn, designed to hold fifty-two horses but instead housing eight hundred humans, I touched the wood of the twisted bunks lining the walls and caught my breath. I couldn’t focus the camera, couldn’t adjust to the fist in my stomach or the smell of the memory of urine and death. Yet I continued to photograph this simple person, this still-beautiful shadow of the child of three who had almost stopped looking toward the future.