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  • ¡Nunca Más!
  • Barry Lopez (bio)


The plane to Kraków is held forty minutes at the gate in Paris, but the delay does not distress me. No one is waiting for me in Kraków. My plan is to work alone and anonymously there, having spent the last five days in Paris with colleagues.

I have not discussed what I've planned in Poland with anyone, because I do not know what I am doing. For the hundredth time I am going somewhere with the simplest of ideas, trusting to an intuition driven by desires that have compelled my life as a writer and which, sooner or later, I act on. This time it is just to look at Auschwitz.

I have been visiting slaughter grounds in my own country over the past year, places where Native Americans were killed without warning by racists and the many and various acolytes of Progress, acts of genocide in which my government was either directly involved or complicitous. Auschwitz, it is my hope, will clarify something for me, even if it is only the barest glimmer of comprehension about how such murderous enforcements of policy can occur. What happened at Auschwitz, of course, is widely known and publicly condemned; the genocidal history of the United States remains, regrettably, a region of political oblivion.

The first place I visit in Kraków is the Czartoryski Museum; but it is not to see, as I have been urged, the famous da Vinci, Lady with an Ermine. It is to see a Rembrandt, Landscape with Good Samaritan. I have recently reread the story in Luke 10:30–36, the parable Christ offered in response to the question Who is my neighbor? In Rembrandt's painting, it is not just the priest and the Levite who have ignored a man stripped, beaten and left for dead on the roadside by robbers, but a gentleman fowler and his servant, standing nearby. Two children look on in fright as the Samaritan tends to the man. Everyone else, the artist seems to be saying, has more pressing business in the beautiful, sunlit landscape beyond, which dominates the painting.

I go to sleep reading the last few pages of Imre Kertész's Fatelessness, a novel in which the narrator struggles to understand why he has been [End Page vii]   [End Page viii] condemned to Auschwitz, the infamous Konzentrationslager on the So a River south of Oświeçim, Poland.


At several stops on the standard three-and-a-half hour tour of Auschwitz, I must leave the group. I have come here deliberately to try to open myself. Despite a conscious effort to be otherwise, I am afraid I have become inured to contemporary human plight—in Darfur, Lebanon, Iraq. The depravity memorialized on the grounds of Auschwitz is beyond human comprehension, beyond Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel, Kertész, or Tadeusz Borowski. Walking past some of the exhibits within the barracks buildings I feel the onset of panic, as if I were suddenly trying to swim in gasoline. The State Museum here recommends that no children younger than fourteen enter the compound, but there are children everywhere. The Museum also requests you make the guided tour in silence, that no cell phones be used, no flash photographs, no fast food consumption, no immodest dress. All of it is ignored. I reflect, though, that if it were not for this indifference to those who were murdered, the exhibit might be emotionally unmanageable for many. The denial of history is a form of self-protection.

I tell the guide I need the remainder of the day to myself and drop out of the tour. I'll get other transportation back to Kraków. I spend these hours studying the Topf ovens in Crematorium No. 1, trying a second time to look directly at the exhibits in the cellar of Barrack 11, the "Death Block," and walking a shaded grid of dirt lanes among the barracks. In these precincts, Pol Pot, Pinochet, Savimbi, and the architects of apartheid insist on being remembered. Images of the visitations of horror come back to me, and with them their seductive theme: solution. We...


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