Disturbing history

During World War II, more than 1 million died at Auschwitz, the Nazi camp in Poland. The sign at the camp gates translates as "Work makes you free." (Fumiyo Asahi / For The Times)

There used to be a small hotel right on the grounds of Auschwitz, the former Nazi camp in Poland. I spent a night there in the old communist days of the '70s. My room — more like a cell — overlooked the camp gates and the infamous "Arbeit Macht Frei" ("Work makes you free") sign, guaranteeing troubled sleep.

I walked through the camp for hours the next day. The exhibits were chilling, the fall weather ugly. I was lonely and hungry and starting to wonder what I was doing on a solitary pilgrimage there.

Starting the long drive back to what was then West Germany with the weight of millions on my shoulders, it seemed that life was as bleak as could be, that things just couldn't get any worse.

They did.

I drove on autopilot, consumed by thoughts of what I had just seen. The Polish roads were narrow and crowded with slow-moving trucks, but I was determined to make good time. Approaching yet another truck, I checked the road ahead, downshifted and pulled out to pass.

As I drew abreast I saw why the truck driver was moving so slowly: He was following a little moped.

In a flash the world changed.

The moped rider, without looking, veered left to turn off the highway — right into my path.

I've had years to reconstruct what happened, but back then cognition and reaction couldn't have consumed more than a fraction of a second. I could have slammed on the brakes or hit the accelerator. Either way, a crash seemed inevitable. I can still remember how the moped driver was dressed: in a dark, frayed jacket and a hat, maybe a beret. A local farmer? I was going to smash into him at 50 mph, and he wouldn't know what hit him.

I floored it and swerved to the left, hitting the rough shoulder of the road. In my mirror I could see a shadow flying across my rear, missing me by inches. I jammed on my brakes and stopped just short of a ditch.

Dazed for a few moments, I just sat, unable to see whether the moped rider was OK.

A couple of other cars had stopped at the spot. They must have seen something.

The moped had intended to turn onto a dirt path. It dawned on me that he might have — must have — crashed there after the near miss.

Putting my car into neutral and setting the parking brake — for some reason the key wouldn't turn the car off — I got out and, on wobbly legs, hiked up the path with dread, expecting to see the rider's broken body on the other side of bushes lining the highway.

Nothing.

I looked on the path and in the bushes, searching a hundred feet from the highway, but there was no moped, no body, no evidence of a crash.

The other cars were still there. One was a Mercedes, and the driver just stared at me, saying nothing. I looked at him, glanced back at the path, threw my hands in the air and asked, "Did you see anything? There's nothing there." No response.

There didn't seem to be anything else left to do. I went back to my car, turned around and drove away.

Imagination takes over