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.”
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.
As we walked slowly toward the train terminal, the air warmed and humidity followed us across the trampled grounds. My mother’s breathing was labored and rough as if she had been running away from a nightmare. When we arrived, the building was empty save for the distant echo of the boots worn by the SS as they moved up and down the stairs. We climbed toward the top of the guard tower that sits above the track, the whole of Birkenau spread at our feet. I hung back as we climbed, watching through a window as a police car pulled up in advance of the arrival of the queen of Denmark. I turned to see that my mother had moved ahead, as if poised to take flight.
Instinct took over and I pushed the shutter. The camera was my companion, an alter ego at the ready, seeking truth. The instances when that truth would reveal itself were impossible to predict, but I needed to be there, ready, as those random moments appeared. Maybe here in the tower was such an infinitesimal slice of clarity, rooted in my mother’s unwavering search for meaning. When I look at the picture of her in the guard tower I see her climbing to heaven. I see someone who is both alive and already dead, moving toward the light.