The Suitcase

In 2002 I attended a conference in Krakow for hospital directors. For once the event was scheduled while my wife Ria’s students were on holiday, and she had been able to join me for the trip. We had never been to Krakow before, so we had arranged to stay on after the conference for three extra days with a few other directors. I’d been looking forward to it. Our first day would be spent sightseeing, enjoying the city’s ancient streets. The following day was reserved for exploring the neighboring salt mines. On the third and final day we planned to visit Auschwitz, World War II’s largest concentration camp, and the adjoining camp in Birkenau.

As the final day approached, I couldn’t help asking myself what business I had visiting the camp. The evening before the planned trip I told my wife I was in no mood for the excursion. I had never been to a concentration camp, and nothing about it stimulated my curiosity. The documentaries I had seen during my school days had been enough. Was I trying to rationalize a deeper impulse? I told the group they could count me out.

At breakfast the following morning, a few colleagues tried to persuade me to make the trip after all. How could I not be interested, they argued. And it’s only a stone’s throw away. Out of solidarity I let them convince me. That morning I boarded the bus with mixed emotions.

After an hour’s drive we arrived at a vast flat terrain. The place seemed immense. Wooden barracks extended as far as the eye could see. Our guide was a young man with short blond hair who welcomed us with a broad smile. After introducing himself, he led us through the camp gate with the words Arbeit Macht Frei suspended above our heads. Countless people were murdered here, our guide informed us, most of them Jews. Men, women, children, even babies. I felt like a disaster tourist. What was I doing there? Why hadn’t I stood my ground that morning and stayed behind in the city?

With undiminished enthusiasm, the guide steered us past a number of stone buildings, stopping at a wall where people were executed on a daily basis. We then entered an adjoining building where Dr. Carl Clauberg conducted his medical experiments. The building had also been used to accommodate prisoners, and our guide led us to their dimly lit quarters, where confiscated property was piled behind glass.

One display contained an enormous quantity of spectacles; another contained piles of human hair, some of it still braided. While my colleagues lingered, my wife and I proceeded to the next room, which was filled with suitcases. Prisoners were obliged to mark their baggage to make sure it didn’t get lost, at least that’s what they were told, so each piece of luggage bore its owner’s name and country of origin.

My attention was quickly drawn to a large brown suitcase situated at the front. Astonishment glued me to the spot. The suitcase was from the Netherlands and was inscribed with the name “Glaser” in large letters, a relatively unusual name in my country. My wife read it as well and took my hand. In the display window I saw our reflection superimposed over the tableau, a suitcase going nowhere with my name on it. Silence engulfed us.

A moment later the voices got louder, signaling the group’s approach. “I’m not in the mood for this, let’s get out of here,” I told my wife, and we hurried out of the room toward the exit. The fresh air did me good. After a while, everyone joined us outside. “Did you see it? The brown suitcase with your name on it?” someone asked. I had been dreading that question, secretly hoping that no one would have noticed the suitcase or read the name. I felt awkward and confused, and just before I attempted an answer someone else chimed in, “Did you have family here during the war?” I responded reluctantly: “My name? Yes, I saw it too. I have no idea who the suitcase might have belonged to.” More questions followed, but I managed to brush them off. To my relief the guide cut in and we continued the tour. But my thoughts were with the suitcase.

At dinner that evening the group chattered spiritedly. Under normal circumstances I would have joined them without a second thought, but that night I was quieter than usual and went up to my room early.

As I lay in bed, I couldn’t erase the image of the suitcase from my mind. Why had I been so evasive with my friends? Why did I beat about the bush when I knew precisely what to answer? I finally made a decision. The following morning I was still convinced: it was time to go public with the family secret.

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