When going to the office means following the barbed wire to the building next to a gas chamber....
When Jarek Mensfelt, 49, first came to work at Auschwitz, it was for pragmatic reasons. He had studied languages and besides Polish, he also speaks English, French and Spanish. He’s now been here for 16 years.
“It was only after I started working here that I think my life changed…not before,” he says.
He began working as a guide and then an interpreter at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum and Memorial. But he never thought of it as a ‘mission,’ he adds. Although he was born in a town only 7 km away, it didn’t occur to him in his youth that he would build a career out of the history surrounding the former Nazi concentration camp where 1.1 million people – the majority of whom were Jews – were killed.
Today, he heads the press office, and while his day job involves maintaining the museum’s website and managing relations with journalists, he still conducts three-hour tours for visitors three to five times a week.
Working in his office, he sips green tea or his favorite sweetened boiled rhubarb drink. He usually starts his day by watering his plants and having a discussion with his three immediate colleagues. But reminders that his isn’t a regular office are never far away.
“Behind the window, you can see the barbed wire and just ten meters away is the former gas chamber where tens of thousands were brutally murdered,” he says.
His office on the grounds of Auschwitz I – the first of the satellite complex of camps – is in the former SS canteen, and next to the gas chamber. He recalls an incident that struck him when he first came to Auschwitz to apply for a job. He asked for directions at the reception and was told matter-of-factly: “go along the barbed wire and you’ll see the chimney and that is the crematorium and that is where the office is.” So while he tries not to think about that all the time, he also hopes never to forget where he works and what happened here, 70 years ago.
“Each time I’m going into the camp at Birkenau, I can still sense the emotions,” he says, referring to Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the largest of the camps that held up to 90,000 prisoners and where 90 per cent of the victims here were killed.
To cope with the intensity of these emotions, he adds, he simply tries to “be mindful” – staying aware of who he is and where he is, not going into “a dreamlike mode” but yet not letting the emotions take control of his life.
Mensfelt is divorced and has a stepson, 28, who lives in Ireland, and a daughter, 23, who is studying cognitive sciences. He still lives in the village he grew up in, near his mother and sister. When he isn’t at work, he can be found walking his dog, riding his bicycle or swimming.
In his career at the museum, he has led more than 1,500 groups on tour around the museum and memorial. If you’re lucky enough to be guided by Mensfelt, he may take you to a spot not usually on the standard guided tour route – the swimming pool.
Even though it’s been more than 10 years, he has never been able to forget what happened on one of the tours he led.
One of the questions he is asked most often is about how people could live in the villages around the camps.
“This is sometimes hard to understand for foreigners, because they would think of Auschwitz as a black hole with no life, where everything was destroyed,” he explains.
Similarly, he adds, it is hard for most people he meets to understand how he and about 260 other employees at Auschwitz go to work every day at a site of great human tragedy. In hindsight, he recalls, he himself was depressed in the first two years of working here.
“It was really affecting me and I couldn’t simply switch off,” he said. “I became quiet internally and I changed my attitude to life.”
But now, he adds, his work in “conveying history” fulfills him and he feels gratified thinking that each day, the thousands of visitors passing through the Auschwitz gates, under the famous “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign will leave having learned something.
“I became more optimistic after all,” he said. “I’m doing what I like doing. I’m a happy man.”
Unlike his colleague Mensfelt, press officer Pawel Sawicki has worked at Auschwitz for only three years, but he feels as if his life’s journey has led him here. The 30-year-old former journalist and soon-to-be father of twins talks about the mission of “working with memory and educating people.”
“I think many people think of us as very sad and terrified people because we have to deal with murder and with gas chambers and so on, but in fact, what I learned from the survivors is to be happy every day.” – Pawel Sawicki.