For over a million people this place, together with its slightly older counterpart a couple of kilometres away, was just that… perishing. On this very spot, towards the climax of the Nazi’s reign of terror, thousands of people, mainly Hungarian Jews, climbed down from their transports and were immediately sorted, sifted and processed. Those who were deemed able to work by the camp doctors were marched away into their ‘new home’. The elderly, sick and infirm, together with many women and children (including those yet to be born) were taken on a short walk to the gas chamber.
The selections were a charade organised with mechanical precision… a careful deception, which gave away nothing of their fate to the unwitting captives. As a result, there was no panic as they trudged off to meet their end alongside the railway tracks on which they arrived. The cold in those days would have been, at its worst, many times greater than it is for me now; for the detainees there were no warm coats, gloves and scarves to protect against it. It occurs to me though, in the face of hunger, disease, grotesque medical experiments, summary executions and simply losing the will to live, that the temperature was the least of worries for those who survived the selections.
A shiver runs down my spine as I think about it. It’s not a shiver caused by the chill. This place is still bleak and desolate. As I look ahead towards the rail depot control tower, to my right are the brick huts used to house the more fortunate arrivals. I hesitate to use the word ‘fortunate’. It is a cause for debate amongst those I am travelling with and my wife, friends and I find that our opinions differ about which group of arrivals would have recognised any fortune in their fate. To my left, as far as the eye can see through the surrounding barbed wire, the skeletons of wooden huts run off into the distance. Only their chimney stacks remain. Behind me are the exploded ruins of a couple of the gas chambers.
Dotted around, among the physical remains of this place are the camp’s modern inmates… tourists. We too climb down from our transports and are sorted, sifted and processed. Our selection, however, merely results in us being allocated to a tour guide. At the older camp, now known as Auschwitz I, our group snakes around the rooms containing the exhibits, up and down the worn steps, hot on the heels of the party before us. Then we too are shipped off to Birkenau.
I notice that some of the tourists may have more claim to be here than others. Gathered by one of the broken gas chambers in Birkenau, a group of Israeli schoolchildren and their teachers, all of them draped in the Star of David, are holding some sort of service. They incant prayers. Tears are flowing. Around them other people are taking photographs, seemingly oblivious to the solemn act of remembrance taking place beside them. I find myself clicking away on my camera too and I wonder why we are here?
I know that I wanted to come here precisely to feel the dark weight of history. At least that what I tell myself. I’m here – so goes my justification – to show solidarity with those who suffered. To add my metaphorical voice to those who say that this place… and what happened here and in other places like it… can never be forgotten. And there’s something else too. I feel passionately that we become better human beings by learning from our mistakes. That is especially true when we consider lessons from history. So I’m here too, to learn from one of the most heinous acts of recent human history. Everyone should know about this place, and to know about this place you have to experience it.
I find myself, unexpectedly, experiencing a physical reaction here too, especially standing on the ‘Judenrampe’ and looking at the exhibits at Auschwitz I. There you sense the blood drain from your body as you walk into a room to be starkly confronted by a mountain of human hair, cut from the heads of tens of thousands of the sorry souls who ended up here. We file dutifully past the shoes, luggage and prosthetic limbs taken from the dispossessed. My wife can’t face looking at a display of children’s clothes. But I can’t shake off the feeling that I am simply a tourist and that makes me feel distinctly odd.
The holocaust has cast a lasting pall over this part of the world. In nearby Krakow, the picturesque city where we are based, we later tour Oscar Schindler’s factory, brought to life first by Thomas Keneally’s novel ‘Schindler’s Ark’ and then by Steven Spielberg’s film. It now houses an absorbing and compelling display detailing the history of Krakow’s Nazi occupation. I stand on the stairs where Liam Neeson appeared from his office and looked down to cast an eye over a prospective secretary in Spielberg’s film, only to find out that this was a much later addition to the building. It would appear that all is not what it seems. In Schindler’s actual office, the names of the people he helped save from extermination are enshrined within an installation built of facsimiles of the enamel pots that were made in the factory.
We take a tram and then walk to the site of Płaszów concentration camp. It is a memorial park now. There’s nothing much here, except some shattered remnants of the desecrated Jewish cemetery that stood here before the camp. Up on the hill Amon Goeth’s house still exists, a haunting presence, his balcony facing out towards where we stand. Back then he took pot shots at the inmates with his rifle. I try to imagine the sound of the shots ringing out and the fear and panic that would have caused. The house is now just one of several residential homes clinging to the hill; it’s further away than I imagined and easy to miss… as we did.
It is raining. In fact it hasn’t stopped raining since we’ve been here. At the site of Krakow’s ghetto we stand in the square, Plac Zgody, which was the focal point of its horrific liquidation. It is now full of empty chairs, a silent but poignant tribute to those who were taken away from here, never to return. In the Jewish quarter, Kazimierz, there are more monuments to see as we walk past murals on houses commemorating families who had lived here for centuries, only to be wiped out completely in 1941. I normally love treading the ground of history. I always feel the electric buzz of connection when I stand in a place where something of note happened in the past. I’ve been to countless castles and battlefields all over the world and I never fail to feel that pulse of excitement. But holocaust tourism feels very different. It feels necessary… yes, obligatory even for the reason already explained, but it feels uncomfortable too… bordering on the voyeuristic.