My eyes were swollen from weeping and my nose rubbed raw from tissue when we entered a building marked “Block 6”. Here we walked down a long bleak hallway where row upon row of black and white photographs lined the walls. They were intake pictures the Nazi’s took when prisoners arrived at the camp.
And that’s where I saw him… Staring back at me in black and white was a man of medium build with a neatly shaven head. He wore the standard striped concentration camp uniform assigned to all Auschwitz prisoners. The triangle on the left side of his chest was emblazoned with a large “P” indicating he was a Polish prisoner and not Jewish. The Nazi’s assigned him number 32527.
Where those in the photographs around him wore a look of defeat and stared at me in unison with lifeless eyes, this man had an unmistakable sparkle in his gaze. He had a challenging tilt to his chin and what appeared to be a slight grin tugging at his lips. Underneath his picture was the name Stanislaw Antoni Kubalski. It said he was deported on April 24th, 1942 and was executed at Auschwitz on May 27th, 1942. His profession was listed as an Architect.
As I stared back at him I had a million questions run through my mind at once and it took a few moments before I realized my guide was trying to get my attention so we could continue the tour. I quickly snapped a picture of the man, and after a final curious glance back at him, I followed her out the door.
That evening in my hotel room I sat on the couch in a numb silence, wide eyes staring at the blank television screen on the wall in front of me. I now understood what the term “shell shocked” meant and it became clear to me while still at Auschwitz that I’d been naive before arriving in Poland. I was false in my belief that because I’d read the history books, had looked upon the pictures, and watched the documentaries that I would somehow be prepared for what I would see. I believed my visit would be of a more clinical nature. How wrong I was.
When you walk along the same path those unfortunate souls took before facing certain death you can still feel their pain and terror seven decades later. It is absorbed into the structures around you and thickens the air, making it harder to pull into your lungs. There is a constant prickling of your skin and though the fast paced buzzing of visitors from all across the globe fills the camp, it is simultaneously as though everything at Auschwitz moves at a slower pace.
Finally, with trembling hands, I picked up my phone. I began to scroll through the hundreds of photographs I’d taken throughout the day, though hesitant to relive it all so soon. I was in search of one specific picture though and when I finally found the man from the hallway I stopped. I hadn’t been able to shake his image since I’d first encountered it and my mind was again overloaded with questions. Who was he? Why had he been sent to Auschwitz? Why had he been executed?
I opened my laptop and began to search but hours later, when my eyelids were drooping and the sun was rising outside, I was left frustrated and disheartened because I could find nothing more than some minimal information on a few genealogical websites. These only told me what I already knew; his name, the date he was born, the date he died, and where he died. The less information I could find the more I needed to know. The thought that a person’s entire existence had been reduced to nothing more than a photograph on the wall of a death camp had my eyes welling with tears again. To have your life and future ripped from you in such a way was tragic enough but to follow that up with the loss of your entire identity was something I found impossible to accept. Whether it was from jet lag or overloaded emotions I’ll never know but as I sat alone in that quiet Kraków hotel room I made a promise, a promise that I would know this man’s story.
To be continued…
Video and picture by Jennifer-Lynne Brack.