by Miriam Walker
When my husband and I signed up for a sixteen-day tour of Central Europe a few years ago, we looked forward to meeting forty other tourists from around the world who wanted to experience the magical ambiance of Warsaw, Krakow, Budapest, Vienna and Prague. We wanted to view ancient architecture, explore old cultures, sample exotic foods, learn a little history and have fun. We did not anticipate a strident stowaway passenger on our comfortable red and white bus.
As we began our tour, we were not yet concerned about Deutsche Marks, Zlotys, Forints, Schillings and Krone. We knew nothing of the various flushing mechanisms we would encounter in restrooms ranging from the gaudily painted design of the Austrian architect, Herr Hundredwasser, to the stark, rusting, uni-sex cubicles lined up for our use at border crossings. No one noticed when the forty-third passenger sneaked on board.
He was quiet as we viewed the fake castle at Kassel, and drove through the beer town of Braunschweig (Brunswick). It was when reached Checkpoint Alpha on the border between East and West Germany, that Passenger 43 made us aware of his presence. He proclaimed loudly, "I am here, and I will taint everything you see or hear from this point forward. I am 'The War'". Even those few members of our group who were not yet gray-haired knew he meant World War II. As we playfully straddled the red line which separated East and West Berlin, he reminded us how many people lost their lives trying to take that one small step. He stood beside us as we viewed the remains of the Berlin Wall, still crowned with a tiara of barbed wire and tattooed with graffiti. He was there as we walked unchallenged back and forth beneath the Brandenburg Gate.
All around Berlin, he made sure we understood which buildings were new ones, built where previous structures had been crushed to dust. He pointed out every damaged facade, pock-marked with bullet holes.
Passenger 43 stood with us in the rooms of the Cecilienhof Palace in Potsdam, where Truman, Atlee and Stalin divided post-war Germany. He made us wonder what might have been different if Roosevelt had lived and Churchill had been reelected as Prime Minister of England.
In Warsaw he again pointed out vast areas that had once been reduced to rubble. We marveled that the citizens returned to find their homes nothing more than debris and had the courage and strength to rebuild. Certain areas were restored to their original style, thanks to salvaged photos and paintings of prewar days.
Passenger 43's voice grew more strident when we stopped at Birkenau, once one of the largest concentration camps and one which was built specifically to be a death camp. After its liberation, what the Nazis had not burned down, the prisoners themselves tore down, leaving only the wall and entrance gate and the guardtower standing. The train tracks still run through that gate, and a few of the wooden barracks have been rebuilt to remind visitors of the horror that once existed there.
Our unwelcome passenger roared as we approached the brick buildings the Nazis used to house thousands of unwilling workers they brought to Auschwitz. At first only pregnant women, sick old people, and children too young to work, were sent to the gas chambers. Able-bodied prisoners were bused to nearby factories to make products which would be used to kill their friends and families. Women workers were housed in the brick buildings; men huddled together in wooden shacks no larger than open horse stalls that offered little protection against the winter cold.
Auschwitz I remains intact, a mute reminder of unspeakable acts. Passenger 43 kept up a running commentary as we viewed the spot where the trains arrived and their passengers were directed to work sites or to death, the wall where uncooperative prisoners were shot by firing squads, the gallows where prisoners who tried to escape were hung during roll call as a deterrent to others who dared think of leaving. We wept at the memorial to all who died there--a glass container filled with human ashes and mounted on a marble base.
Passenger 43 showed us the building where prisoners were kept for days, deprived of food, water, clothing and bathroom facilities, some in hideous standing cells, floor-to-ceiling cubicles entered by crawling through a humiliatingly low door. Four men could stand in one of these cells, but none could sit down. We saw the infamous hospital which was never used for healing but for gruesome experiments on living men, women and children. When these human guinea pigs were of no further use, they were left outside, naked, no matter what the weather, to await the lorry which would take them to the gas chamber.
A museum on the premises contains rooms full of suitcases brought from the ghettos of Europe by victims who thought they were going to be resettled to begin a new life. There were thousands of pots and pans, bins of shoes, shaving equipment, tooth brushes, hair brushes, and more artificial limbs of wood, metal and plastic than we had ever known existed. A small display of children's items, a tiny dress, one blue mitten, brought tears to our eyes.
Passenger 43 screamed his loudest as we entered the gas chamber where 700 human beings at a time thought they were going for showers. It was not water, but Cyclon B, which rained down on them through holes in the ceiling. In fifteen minutes all were dead. The trolleys that carried their bodies into the crematorium are in plain view, as are the devices used to push four bodies at a time into the ovens. In forty-five minutes the bodies were reduced to ashes to be unceremoniously dumped into a nearby river.
Forty-two passengers quietly made their way back to the bus in disbelief that a flower could grow by the wall or the sun could shine so brightly on this dark place. We had had enough of Passenger 43. From then on we paid only half-hearted attention as he reeled off prewar and postwar population figures, ethnic makeup of various places, and how many of their citizens died, when he spoke of Communism and which countries voluntarily accepted German protection and which citizens actually liked Communism because it meant job security and governmental benefits.
We were glad when Passenger 43 slept. We enjoyed castles and cathedrals, wine and weinerschnitzel, Chopin and Mozart, and Polish, Hungarian and Czech folk dancers. We bought amber in Poland, embroidered tablecloths in Hungary, crystal in Austria, and garnets in The Czech Republic. We felt a tug from home when we heard a group of musicians playing "Just a Bowl of Butter Beans" and Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" in a square in Prague, when we did the Funky Chicken with Polish girls in native costume, and when we sang "As the Saints Go Marching In" with waiters at the heuriger party in Gringzing, outside Vienna. We ate more variations of chicken and cabbage than we ever thought possible. We shared colds and stomach problems, and we had fun.
We may some day forget our efficient tour guide Brane, and our quietly competent driver Roberto, who posted a picture of his hero, Luciano Pavarotti, on his windshield. We may forget Sam from Boston, Monica from Australia and Randy from Texas, but none of us who rode that big blue and white bus will ever forget the 43d Passenger, The War.