Lunch with an Auschwitz Tour Guide: A Personal Essay
By Arielle Silver
“I used to be a tour guide at Auschwitz,” Timo said, and then rested his fork on the edge of his Panang curry. Timo’s a Dutch composer who has lived in Los Angeles for almost longer than I’ve been alive. He writes for the music production library where I work, and invited me out for lunch one day last Fall. In a lull between trailer music and soundtrack banter, the conversation somehow slipped down this dark side alley.
“There’s a ski resort nearby,” he continued. “Toward the end of their holiday tourists sometimes wanted to get serious for an afternoon, so I’d bring them to the Camp. They always sang songs on the bus ride there.” He shuffled his cup across the water mark on the table, and then added, “Afterwards, on the ride back to the hotel you could hear a pin drop.”
I took in his words as the sunlight quivered through the restaurant’s windows. My gaze shifted to the paint-chipped storefronts across the street, and then back to his pale blue eyes. I’d never noticed the color before. I pursed my lips to swallow, and then opened them for a slow inhale.
People often ask where I’m from in a thinly veiled attempt to find out if I am Italian or Jewish. I always answer “Florida”, but they press on, taking in my dark hair and Semitic eyes. “No, I mean your family…,” they nudge.
A few minutes before the Auschwitz thing, after exhausting music and company politics, Timo had asked where I was originally from.
“Florida,” I said. Even with the side step, this answer was always slightly dissatisfying. My early memories of Tallahassee are joyful, but when I was six my dad landed a lucrative new job in a company based on the 90-somethingth floor of the World Trade Center in New York. We moved to Queens, and then to New Jersey a year later where we stayed for nine years until he was transferred to back down to Florida. At sixteen, back in rural Florida, I felt plunged into culture shock, and after all the moves I never knew exactly where I was “from”.
I told Timo about twelfth grade. That was the year my Florida high school band directors, both white, had dressed as Deep South plantation owners for Halloween. The chorus teacher, who was black, dressed up as a slave, complete with shackles around his wrists.
“Why was that okay?” I asked rhetorically. “It’s like me dressing as an Auschwitz prisoner with my German friends as Nazis.”
I tried to block Ella Fitzgerald’s scat through the overhead speakers. In Jersey, being Jewish was no big deal, but Florida had lent me caution. Down South people always smiled, even as their sweet accent drawled, “Is it true your people drank the blood of Christ?” Listening to Timo talk about concentration camps, I suddenly felt myself turning into a “less than 1% of the population” demographic statistic. I studied his inflections – I wasn’t sure where he stood on the “Jewish issue”.
In terms of my life today Jewish is not an identity I have any problem with, although my parents and grandparents have made it clear that they would prefer if I considered it more pertinent to my life. I’ve been told that Hitler would have.
Like most Jewish kids, I was raised immersed in stories of the Holocaust. In Hebrew school we read “choose your own adventure books” and got to pick crossing the Black Sea to Norway or hiding in an attic in Amsterdam. In my mind, we were always the victims. Perhaps that’s why, as an adult, I’ve distanced myself a bit.
I asked Timo about his hometown.
“Amsterdam’s a Jewish city. I was born in ’57, so a lot people remembered the war. There aren’t so many Jews there now, but it’s still part of our culture. We have our own dialect, and there are Jewish words. Not Hebrew….” His Dutch accent trailed off.
“Yiddish?” I asked.
“Yes, that’s right, Yiddish.”
“We had family in Amsterdam. My father’s side, I think,” I said. My eyes closed for a breath while I searched for the memory.
In sixth grade,Jersey, we’d pinned yellow stars to our clothes and said we wouldn’t forget. In twelfth grade,Florida, I sat silent as my classmates bickered about money. “Don’t be a Jew,” and then, “It’s just two bucks.”
“Tell me something,” I said, thinking of black and white prison stripes and that shock of yellow. Jude. Caution. Beware.
“Well, I saw all the usual things.” He watched me carefully, trying to judge how much to say. My finger made mindless circles in my sweater under the table.
“Like the shoes…” I nudged with no affect to my voice.
The light in the room looked different now. Everything beyond our table and conversation had dimmed.
“The shoes. The hair. All the horrible things.” There’s a way he said it with that Dutch accent, no drama, just fact. It was the way I needed to hear it, without the victimhood, without the passion that always seemed like it was trying too hard to convince. The way he said it was just plain truth. He’d been there. He’d seen the archive firsthand of humanity at its worst. All the horrible things.
“It was winter and it could get very cold. I’d be wearing my jacket, snow boots, and be freezing.” He crossed he arms over his chest and hunched up his shoulders the way you do in the cold.
I thought of winter in north Jersey, standing at the bus stop in my Snoopy moon boots and itchy cable knit tights. Polish winters were colder, I remembered. I thought of college in Boston, every year buying a heavier coat. I was always surprised by February.
“You know, part of Auschwitz is the shoes and the hair, but part is just museum. At the base of the chimneys there are now flowers growing. It’s… pretty.” He flicked his eyes from mine, and then back. He was still testing, trying to know if he should go on. I nodded. By college I’d fiercely resisted the victim identity, didn’t want to hear any more stories. Now, I needed this man who wasn’t Jewish, a man who I barely knew, to tell me something that would crack me a little, not as a Jew, but as a human being.
“I’d be frozen in my boots, wanting to get back to the bus. I’m sure you’ve seen those photos with the people in black and white striped pajamas?”
I pictured him standing there, shivering, stamping his feet to move the blood. He’d said “people”. Not Jews and the list of the almost-afterthought queers, gypsies, and the rest.
“This is the thing about those pictures,” he said. “Those people. They were always barefoot.”
“Those people,” he’d said.
“Yes,” I thought.
Just people. Not black, or white, or Jewish, and not not those things either. Could have been him. Or me. Human beings freezing in the coldest of cold, in a winter of the world collapsing around them.
Arielle Silver is a musician, writer, and yoga teacher. She lives in Los Angeles with her partner and two stepdaughters.