Travel

An eerie journey to Poland that continues to haunt

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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 overThe car had sustained damage. Besides the key that no longer worked in the ignition switch, the lights and windshield wipers were broken. But it drove.

Twenty or so miles from the scene, an ambulance — lights and siren activated — sped past me heading in the opposite direction. My fevered imagination took control: I had killed a Polish farmer and left the scene. I could envision a crowd gathered around the body, somehow hidden from view during my search. The guy in the Mercedes was giving my description and license plate to the police.

Perhaps there were other choices that day, but it seemed at the time that my only real option was to go on. I had stopped, had done all I could do at the scene. Contacting the Polish authorities seemed pointless and risky. What would I, an American in a communist dictatorship, tell them? How would I even communicate? My two-day visa would expire soon, and my routine dealings with the Polish bureaucracy had been less than reassuring.

I'm a law-abiding guy. When the supermarket clerk gives me too much change, I point it out. But that day, there was no way I was turning around.

My response back then was tinged with rationalization, fueled by fear and exacerbated by my attenuated frame of mind. It had been a close call, but I hadn't done anything wrong. Turning back wasn't required. Even if returning had seemed the right thing to do in some moral universe, and even if I might have done it at home, I wasn't going to turn back there.

The border crossing was about 100 miles away. With each passing mile my confidence grew, but still I wondered whether the Polish authorities were in pursuit or waiting with a description of my car at the border. I felt like a character in some Cold War spy drama, just one step ahead of his pursuers.

Then an armed man in military uniform stepped out and waved me to the side of the road.

He walked slowly over to my car. Waving off my passport, he said something unintelligible in Polish. I couldn't tell if he wanted me out of the car, but somehow he indicated that he wanted to see my driver's license. He retreated with it to his car.

He walked back a few minutes later and handed me a small form, written in Polish. I gestured that I didn't understand. He ordered me out of my car and led me back to his own. He reached inside, directing my attention to a metal box.

It was the readout of a radar gun. He was giving me a speeding ticket.

No doubt that cop had never seen a speeder so happy to get a ticket. I had to pay the fine on the spot, which I gladly did, and he let me leave. I drove on toward the border.

A disquieting comfortBorders in communist countries were nothing to take lightly in those days. If the guards were annoyed or officious or just bored, the passage could be difficult. I was crossing the Polish-Czech border at a small outpost where Americans were rare.

There was something unsettling about 18-year-olds with loaded Kalashnikovs rummaging through my car, looking for contraband or defectors, as had happened at a border crossing earlier in the trip. This time I pulled up to the station, papers in hand and fingers crossed.

The border official wasn't impressed by my big, friendly American smile. He took my papers, studied them for a few minutes and then asked a question in Polish. After a little sign language and the occasional German word, he made it clear he was asking if I had Polish money.

It was illegal to import or export Polish currency. I toyed with the idea of lying, but I chickened out. I said yes.

It took an hour to find the nearest bank, a small office on the second floor over a store. Naturally it was closed. It was scheduled to reopen later in the afternoon, so after waiting two hours I obtained the paperwork showing I had turned in (not exchanged) my zlotys.

After another search of my trunk and engine compartment for defectors, and after being satisfied that I was smuggling no zlotys, the border guards allowed me to cross into what was then Czechoslovakia.

I wasn't home free. It was getting dark and starting to rain — obstacles difficult to surmount without lights or wipers. I had to find a place to stay.

As the last of the twilight played out, I pulled up to a dreary tavern in a dreary town called Náchod. The place was dirty and smoky. The bartender didn't know English, but when I asked if he had a room, a couple of patrons tried to help out. I figured out that he had a single room for a few bucks.

When I said "yes," he knew he had a live one. After much discussion with the barflies, he said all he had was a double room for twice as much. I said yes again. Then he said all he had was a room for four people. Finally, after I said I would gladly pay $20 for the eight-person dorm, he gave me a key and sent me upstairs. I would have bought the building had it come to that.

The next day I crossed back into the free world with no more than a wave from a border guard. The sun shone reassuringly in West Germany. The houses were tidy, the gardens well tended. Even the dirt seemed cleaner. That night I had a veal cutlet for dinner and lay in a hotel bathtub for an hour to decompress.

The irony that I recently had slept at Auschwitz did not escape me as I thought about the comfort, physical and emotional, of my German surroundings. I was happy nevertheless just to be there for the moment, happy not to be at Auschwitz, happy not to be in a Polish jail.

As the years have passed, I have satisfied myself that the moped man made it home OK. Whether the incident held any real lessons for me I cannot say, but it certainly highlighted how easily my own distress trumped concern about anyone else. I quickly descended from high-minded empathy for Holocaust victims to panicked self-interest.

I still have my Polish speeding ticket, the only one I've ever gotten. I've been back to Poland. The Kalashnikovs and paperwork are gone at the border. The Auschwitz museum is still the chilling place I remember, but it has been turned into something of a tourist attraction. There's even a cafe.

I've been back to the Auschwitz in my mind thousands of times. Nothing of its essence will ever change. And no one there will ever escape to a free world.


James Dannenberg is a judge in Hawaii and a frequent Travel contributor.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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