Wish you were here? …The unsettling allure of the Holocaust.

Whenever it is very cold my Mum is often heard to say, “It’s perishing”!
The phrase pops into my mind now as I stand on the so-called ‘Judenrampe’ at Auschwitz-Birkenau. It seems an apt description. It is cold. Very cold. The freezing wind is blowing icy daggers of rain into my face and my lips and fingers are numb. I think to myself, how on earth can I complain about the cold here, of all places?

The ‘Judenrampe’.

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 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 the captives fate, ensuring that there was no panic as they trudged off to meet their end alongside the railway tracks. The cold then would have been, at its worst, many times greater than it is now and for the detainees there were no warm coats, gloves and scarves to protect against it. It occurs to me though, that in the face of hunger, disease, grotesque medical experiments, summary executions and simply losing the will to live, 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 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.

The entrance gate to Auschwitz I with its brazenly misleading motto – “Work sets you free”.

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 and up and down the worn steps, hot on the heels of the party before us. Then we too are shipped off to Birkenau. 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, hold 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?

Watchtower and huts at Auschwitz I.

I know that I wanted to come here precisely to feel the dark weight of history. To show solidarity with those who suffered here. To add my metaphorical voice to those who say this place… and what happened here and in other places like it… can never be forgotten. At least that’s what I tell myself. I feel passionately that we become better human beings by learning from our mistakes. History is no different. Everyone should know about this place and to know this place you have to experience it.

 I find myself, unexpectedly, experiencing a physical reaction here too, especially standing on the ‘Judenrampe’ and 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 site of the Płaszów Concentration Camp.

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. 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 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 that would have caused. The house is now just one of several residential homes clinging to the hill and easy to miss… as we did.

Plac Zgody Square (now Plac Bohaterow Getta).

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, but it feels uncomfortable too… bordering on the voyeuristic.

 That sensation grows from the knowledge that the awful things which happened here… and the ordinary people they happened to… are graphically still on show and we are witnessing them anew. It also stems from the knowledge that the ground upon which these events happened must surely still harbour some residue, however small, of the blood, pain, tears, anguish and desperation that fell upon it. The screams and wails of a million victims too must still echo a little within the earth that remains and the bricks that still stand. An unimaginable millions of victims there may have been, but each one of them had an intensely personal story, which is why even fiction can bring a gut-wrenching and heart-breaking reality to it all, when many of those who disappeared left no trace behind. One need only think of William Styron’s ‘Sophie’s Choice’, Tatiana de Rosnay’s ‘Sarah’s Key’, Lindsay Hawdon’s ‘Jakob’s Colours’ and even John Boyne’s ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ to emphasise the point. I am thankful that I was born too late and too far away to be close to it. Despite the discomfort, however, I know that I am glad I came. I can perceive that both my empathy with the victims and my disgust at the heinous crimes of the perpetrators has sharpened… I know that I could never stand by and let it happen in my world… and I also know that I will never complain about the cold again.
 Auschwitz I - Wire BW
Worth a look too… Auschwitz: A History in Photographs’ by Teresa Swiebocka, ‘Hanns and Rudolf’ by Thomas Harding, The Cracow Ghetto Pharmacy’ by Tadeusz Pankiewicz and Schindler’s Legacy’ by Elinor J. Brecher.

‘The Daylight Thief’  by Alan Williams is out now. The Daylight Thief Cover

3 comments

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s