The medieval city of Cracow, when I was there last fall, still displayed blood-red bunting hanging from the buildings around the picturesque square of Rynek Glowny. There were crossed-out bombs and swastikas crudely painted on them, along with the slogan, “Namba Mordercom z Uswiecimia 1939 NIE!” recalling that infamous September 1 Nazi invasion and the atrocity-ridden occupation that followed.
“It is hard,” a middle-aged Pole said to me in a cafe (speaking in German incidentally), “not to hate the Germans if you have lived through those times. And the regime feeds on this understandable resentment and distrust and tries to keep it alive.”
My table companion became more friendly as the evening wore on and before parting extended an invitation to his home. When it turned out that he lived, of all places, in Auschwitz, just 40 train miles away, I promised definitely to come. A few days later I checked out of my hotel and headed for the notorious town.
Oswiecim, as it is known in Polish, looks much like any Polish town of 15,000, with its drab market place, filled twice a week with colorful stalls and big umbrellas, its muddy, potted roads, its town hall, non-descript shops and soot-covered Catholic church. In spite of the new train terminal (enlarged to accommodate the constant stream of visitors to the former extermination camp site), the overall impression is one of neglect and deterioration.
To be sure, there is the relatively new housing project on the outskirts of the town, complete with apartment blocks, a catch-all community, center, pseudo-modern shops and even a couple of miniature skyscrapers. But on closer inspection the entire complex turns out to be an ugly jerry-built affair, about as glamorous as a twenty-year-old Buick. The walls are discolored and cracked, the pastel balconies smeared and faded.
The single telephone book found (after nearly an hour's searching) had half its pages torn out, but I finally contacted my host, whom I shall call Kowalski, who welcomed me to his home. Proudly he showed me the town, as if it lived up to its pretensions, climaxing the tour at the community center. In the lobby an elaborate display of charts and diagrams boasted of the town's rising production and standard of living. That there is more wishful thinking than fact in these ambitious figures is evident on any Polish street, with its visible evidence of widespread poverty and inadequate employment, and, for that matter, on the Kowalski dinner table. Almost tearfully Mrs. Kowalski apologized for the absence of butter, milk and meat. “I tried at at least a dozen shops,” she said, “all for nothing.”
Mr. Kowalski, a chemist, works at one of the plants left behind by the great German I.G. Farben chemical trust. It had early in World War II “discovered” Auschwitz as a profitable site for the German wartime synthetic coal-off and rubber plant with the full benefit of the cheap slave labor provided by the extermination camp. Today the Kowalskis sometimes have to keep their windows closed even in summer when the wind blows in their direction, for the air is so polluted by these factories that it makes their eyes smart.
The Kowalskis have three children, Henryk, 10, Waclaw, 16, and Basia, 12. The next morning I learned that Waclaw slept on the kitchen floor so that I could use his bed. The notorious former extermination camp is not visible from any part of the town, but a five-minute bus ride from the main square will bring you there. On my second day in Oswiecim, Mrs. Kowalski accompanied me on a tour of the camp site.