An excerpt from Goran Rosenberg’s memoir, A Brief Stop on the Road from Auschwitz
For a long time I imagined him coming over the Bridge, since the Bridge is the gateway to the Place, and the key to it as well, but of course he can’t have come over the Bridge because he must have arrived from the south. You come over the Bridge only when you arrive with the train from the north. Only then does the vertiginous precipice over the Canal open up, and only then do you cross the perilous boundary between home and away. Perhaps the peril is not so much the Canal as the Bridge. The Canal’s only water, after all, whereas the Bridge is a truly ominous passage, a cold skeleton of riveted steel girders, welded and screwed together in angular arcs that form a pair of bony shoulders rising from four massive stone columns on either side of the drawbridge across the waterway.
Anyone coming by train sees none of this, of course, and may not even be aware that the entire construction is vibrating and shaking beneath the engine and the coaches, or hear the screech of the rails and the echo of the steel girders answering the wheels’ metallic hammering and scraping, or catch the burnt smell of sparking contacts and cables. Nor can anyone crossing the Bridge by train ever share the horror of crossing it on foot. To cross the Bridge on foot, you first have to make your way through a little copse between the Place and the Canal, then negotiate a narrow, winding set of steps up to a height of twenty-six meters, and after that step out onto a narrow catwalk for pedestrians that runs on one side of the double railroad track, all the way across the water. You can stare straight down into the abyss through the gaps in the catwalk’s wooden planks, and you can all too easily swing yourself over its all too low metal railing. In the Place, horror stories are constantly circulating about people who did just that, about how their broken and bloated bodies were fished out afterwards, and about what God has to say on the subject. I always keep a tight hold on the inner railing, the one nearest the tracks, to counteract the black, vertiginous pull. Except when a train comes thundering along the track nearest the catwalk; then the metallic wind tugs at your clothes and the shuddering wooden planks jolt your feet and you’re left balancing between one hell and another. In my nightmares, I’m incessantly falling from the Bridge. In my nightmares, I also reach the other side. For on the other side of the Bridge, down an equally narrow and winding set of steps, beyond an equally dark copse, death is waiting, or at least the nameless local gangs against which the gangs on my side of the Bridge fight an endless and lawless war. Making it over the bridge is no guarantee of survival. The nightmare of getting ambushed and beaten up in enemy territory isn’t wholly divorced from reality. The Bridge marks the Place’s natural boundary, and there’s rarely any reason to cross it on your own.
If you come by train from the south, you traverse no such border, just a nondescript panorama of forests and fields that makes it harder to know where the Place begins. Also harder to understand why it is where it is, and why the station where the express trains make their brief stops on their way to and from the world was built just here and not in the town of the same name. All this is best explained by the Bridge, since the station is located here because of the Bridge, and the Place sprang up because of the station, and maybe that’s why I like to imagine him coming over the Bridge before he gets off the train at seven in the evening on August 2, 1947, seeking to start his life over again in this particular place, below this particular station.
Is it chance that makes him get off precisely here? No, not more of a chance than anything else on his journey. And presumably less, since the most chanceful aspect of his life is the fact that he’s alive. Naturally it’s only by chance that any of us are alive, but along his road death has been more of a strictly scheduled and predictable stop than it is for most of us, making the fact that he’s still alive a bit more unexpected. Besides, he knows very well why he’s getting off precisely here and not somewhere else. He’s got the name of the station carefully written down on the piece of paper he’s shown the conductor, who has promised to alert him when they’re getting close. And besides all that, A. and S. are waiting for him on the platform as agreed, and in fact a third person, too, whom he at first mistakes for a fellow student from the grammar school in Łódź. It’s not him, of course, and it’s highly improbable that it could be, but since so much along his road has been improbable, it’s not that far-fetched to imagine another improbability or two. At any event, there they are, standing on the platform waiting for him, and they embrace him and help him down the steps with his suitcases and come along to show him the way to the room where he’ll be lodging, and on that still, light August evening they tell him everything they know about the place, where they’ve all just arrived and which none of them knows very much about, and they in turn want to know everything about people and events in the place where the man boarded the train, which is where they last met. They’re all still on a journey, and every place is just a brief halt on the road to somewhere else, and those who are here for the time being do their best to keep themselves posted about those who are somewhere else, because this restless, mobile community is the only community they have. Little by little, each of them will try to make one of these many places his own, and one place after another will gradually separate them, usually for good, and this particular place will eventually do the same. Only one of the men will try to make this particular place his own, and that’s the man who’s just stepped down from the train.
I’m still unaware of all this, for I don’t yet know the man who just got off the train and who is not yet my father and who doesn’t yet know that this will be his final stop. I don’t think he can even imagine a final stop, because I don’t believe he can imagine any place as his own. Nevertheless, I visualize him continually and curiously looking around, inspecting it all to see if this could be such a place, because the need for at least a slightly more extended stop is starting to become pressing. And I think that’s why he notes with interest and commits to memory the brand-new rows of attractive, three-story apartment blocks along the newly built road, lined with rowan trees, that runs through the new housing area just below the train station. I think that’s also why he immediately wants to know what kind of town this is and what sort of people live here and what the working conditions are like in the big factory where he hopes to get a job and what opportunities there may be for a woman not quite twenty-two years old with no vocational training and only the briefest exposure to the language they speak here, briefer than his own. I actually think he’s already inquired about such a job and just needs to look into it a bit more closely, and above all to see if he can exchange his rented room for an apartment before he asks her to take the train from the place he’s just left to the place where he’s barely arrived.
But what he thinks about his future on that August evening in 1947 is mere speculation on my part, and I’d rather not speculate, and most of all I don’t want to run ahead of his life. He’s lived for only twenty-four years, yet he’s already lived through so much, and he has the right to carry on with his life without my prematurely burdening him with what’s going to happen to the rest of it. I shall take his days as they come, and where I can’t see how they come to him, I’ll let them come to me.
So on this day, in the lingering brightness of early evening, he finds himself lugging two battered and rather heavy suitcases in the company of three not very close friends. After all, he means to take up residence here for an unspecified length of time, and even the possessions of a newly begun life soon start to weigh a good deal. Naturally he’s wearing one of the suits, perhaps the elegant, pale-grey check, and a white shirt and matching tie, and a hat on his head even though it’s still summer. It’s been the hottest summer for a hundred years and the evening is warm, and it would have been nicer to walk bare-headed, but there hadn’t been any room in his luggage for the hat anyway, and taking the train to an unfamiliar place in a new country is something he wouldn’t dream of doing in his shirtsleeves. The four men have set off from the station on foot, taking turns carrying the cases, and A., who has been here the longest, says they’ll have to take the bus from the next stop because there’s still quite a way to go and otherwise they won’t have enough time to find a place to eat, and besides it’s Saturday evening and there’s a good movie showing in town and they might just catch it if they hurry. So they hurry for all they’re worth, and the man who just got off the train scarcely has time to take possession of his lodgings in the recently built detached house or to introduce himself to his landlady, whose husband has recently died, and so instead of turning the place into a home for herself she’s obliged to rent out rooms to single men working at the factory, but she’s nonetheless friendly and welcoming. Then they briskly move on to celebrate the fact that they’re all, at least for now, in the same place and in one another’s company. The movie, for which they arrive just in time, is being shown at the Castor cinema by the idyllic harbor in the middle of the town, where the little lift-net boats are moored for their Saturday rest and the townsfolk are taking their evening stroll along the quaysides. The film is set on a slave ship whose captain intends to get married and become respectable and wants to give up slave trading. He orders his first mate to change both the cargo and the crew, but when he goes on board with his young bride for what’s meant to be their honeymoon, he discovers that both the cargo and the crew are still the same. It’s a thrilling story with a script by William Faulkner, starring Mickey Rooney and Wallace Beery, and although it’s set in the nineteenth century, I imagine they’re able to identify with it a little, having all just experienced the way apparently ordinary ships, or in their case apparently ordinary trains, can prove to be something else entirely. And none of them is yet quite sure what kind of ship or train it is that they’ve just boarded, or rather, what kind of place it is where they’ve just disembarked. Perhaps they all go back to one of the rented rooms afterwards, have a glass or two of lukewarm vodka, envelop the place in a haze of cigarette smoke, tell each other stories, and play cards, forgetting for a moment that they’re in a place they don’t know, a place that doesn’t know them; they’re still young, and it’s Saturday evening and the night is as silver as the full moon and they want to make as much as they possibly can of this brief stop on the long journey that has accidentally and probably only for a short time brought them all together precisely here.