When I was a kid we traveled in Europe extensively, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe. One year, there was a large conference in Poland that my father was attending, and since we were spending the summer in Yugoslavia, we all took the trip. Most of what I remember of Poland is massive, dark-bricked buildings and roast duck. But at one point we took a trip far into the country. It was a beautiful, sunny day, and we drove through small towns and through the woods and into a huge, grassygreen field. In the middle of the field was a huge barbed wire fence, and towers, and beyond that, cement-grey buildings, with a long road leading to the single entrance.
Many of the buildings in Auschwitz had been destroyed by the Nazis as the Red Army approached. The gas chambers were cement-lined holes where people knelt and lit candles to family members who had died there. There was a museum, but children were not allowed. It was deemed too disturbing for kids, so my brother and I were left to wander around the bunkers and barracks and the old railroad tracks by ourselves. When my parents returned, they told us about the room of eyeglasses, the room of gold teeth, the room with the human-skin lampshades. But these things were too abstract, really, for us to grasp.
We were kids. I was between 4th and 5th grade. My brother would be going into kindergarten in the fall. We climbed the walls, relit the candles that the wind had blown out, explored every nook and cranny we could, and then, bored, took to throwing pebbles from the paths at each other.
And I noticed that there were some really weird pebbles, much lighter than normal pebbles. They were everywhere. I found someone who spoke English, one of the guides. I held a handful of these pebbles up and asked him what kind of stone they were. He looked at me sadly.
"At the end," he said, "when the Germans knew that they were losing the war, they accelerated the rate of the extermination. They were executing people faster than they could dispose of the bodies. They dug everywhere and threw the bodies in, and when the hole was full, they would cover it with a couple feet of dirt and dig a new hole. The bones are old and broken, and every time it rains, more of them come to the surface."
I dropped bones I was holding and told Lennie to stop playing with them. But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't take a step without stepping on someone.