Nothing prepares you for this place. You’ve read much about it, seen reports, accounts, documentaries, films. Maybe you know or have spoken to survivors or their families. So you think you know what you’re letting yourself in for. But you don’t. You really don’t.
It begins with the moment you realise you are going (and it is a sense of a realisation, or an understanding, rather than a conscious decision). Everything starts to feel just a little bit wrong. Everything lends itself to interrogation. Most obviously: What are my motives for going? There’s a powerful argument that everyone should visit Auschwitz, it’s true. But do you go out of conscience? Moral duty? It’s more than curiosity, certainly. Does it address a psychological or psychic need? Something else? Are you a tourist? Is it an education?
You’re subjecting yourself to a deeply harrowing experience, no matter how you prepare. And you know inside yourself that, whatever you might wish to feel, you are never going to wring any kind of comprehension, any kind of sense, out of what Auschwitz is or what it represents. And if you’re already too familiar with the facts of the Shoah, and you have no direct connection with anyone who suffered in Auschwitz, why would you go?
Non-Jewish friends and acquaintances who’ve been are virtually unanimous in their agreement that the very realisation that they were going – to Auschwitz-Birkenau or any of the remaining concentration camps – pitched them into a world of self-examination. All were equally agreed that – if you are in southern Poland or nearby regions – Auschwitz draws you. It isn’t easily denied. The omission – not to go – would be a greater issue.
The sense of wrongness grows as you start to make arrangements. Everyday words take on a different, darker hue. The disquietingly ironic notion of a ‘visit’, a ‘trip’. The simple knowledge that you go by choice, in comfort, and will decide the length of your stay, the rating of your accommodation, the most convenient and comfortable means of transport to and from the camp. Innocent, simple, everyday arrangements. Innocuous terms now freighted with alternative meaning.
And then you arrive. You’re probably staying in Krakov, the former Polish capital, and the nearest major city. After the Nazi conquest of Poland, Krakov was designated the seat of the General Government in the East, under the governorship of Hans Frank, a former lawyer and a favourite of Adolf Hitler. The city was left physically undamaged by the occupiers, and was also virtually untouched by allied bombing or advancing Soviet forces. Hence its perfectly preserved medieval centre, imperial castle and cathedral, its mix of Renaissance/Italianate style and flamboyance. Gothic and Baroque buildings and streets have retained their character. It’s beautiful, majestic, imperious, fascinating, ancient.
I lodged in the old Jewish quarter, Kazimierz. Once a separate town, it was a Jewish ghetto from the fifteenth century. The Krakov region, and Kazimierz in particular, became, over centuries, an important centre of European Jewry. Prior to 1939 Krakov was home to a Jewish population numbering some 65,000. Fewer than five per cent survived the Shoah. The Jewish Community now numbers a few hundred. Though I wasn’t aware of it when booking, Ulica Szeroka, the street where my little rented apartment is situated, was used by Stephen Spielberg for many of the ghetto scenes in his film Schindler’s List. The actual Jewish ghetto established by the Nazis, over the river in Podgorze, a kilometre or so further south, had been too modernised post-war. Kazimierz now, and Ul Szeroka in particular, retains a rundown charm, but also a tangible sense of absence, of cultural loss: it’s an enclave of former Jewish homes, shops, businesses, restaurants, synagogues and cemeteries, and, in more recent years, memorials. In fact, purely as it stands, it is in itself a profound memorial to the lost.
In recent years Kazimierz has also become a centre of nightlife for Krakov youth and visitors, and regularly hosts festivals of Jewish music, arts and culture. Now it’s the middle of winter and the place is chill and bereft. Visitors, at least in this quarter, are few and far between. At night the bars and restaurants are near-deserted. You stand in the street and observe the buildings, the former homes, the old shop-signs and hotel names, the Yiddish inscriptions, and that sense of disquiet returns. In your apartment you wonder: whose room was this? Whose home? What were they like? Of what did they hope and dream? The next, natural question needs no asking. You know what became of them.
Many of the restaurants around ul Szeroka serve traditional Jewish cuisine, are designed in sentimental mid-nineteenth century style, play klezmer music, sometimes live, evoking a lost era. The food can be delicious, but it isn’t guaranteed kosher and though the atmosphere is generally warm and welcoming, few, if any of these establishments are Jewish owned or run. Likewise, the Centre for Jewish Culture is apparently run by non-Jews.
You visit Podgorze. It’s a busy, ancient and modern town centre. Some sections of the ghetto wall – mockingly constructed under Nazi directive to resemble Jewish gravestones – still remain, with memorial plaques and spaces for candles and messages. The central square, Plac Zgody (Concordia Square), now known as Plac Bohaterów Getta (Ghetto Heroes’ Square), was the so-called Umschlagplatz where thousands of Jews were rounded up from the ghetto and selected for deportation to death camps: Belzec, Treblinka or Auschwitz. It is marked, as of December 2005, with a memorial taking the form of 70 illuminated chairs, representing the stolen or abandoned furniture and belongings of the former inhabitants.
A few minutes walk away, in a backstreet, ul Lipowa, is Oskar Schindler’s enamels factory, Emalia. At the time of visiting it was pretty much a building site undergoing conversion to an official Schindler museum and art gallery. You enter the accessible part of it, watch a slide-show, see Schindler’s office with the original furniture, nameplate etc.
Another couple of kilometres out, on the outskirts of the city, is Plaszow, the forced labour camp vividly depicted in Spielberg’s film.
It was levelled under the direction of its SS guards fleeing he approaching Red Army in 1945, and is now bare heath, a nature preserve. At its perimeter a powerful monolithic monument to the dead towers high from atop a mound. It was erected in the sixties under communism, and in true communist style its inscription refers only to ‘the martyrs of Hitlerism’, with no reference to race or ethnicity. A smaller memorial nearby, placed by Krakov’s Jewish community, leaves no doubt as to the actual victims. A third memorial remembers the Gypsies who lost their lives here.
By the roadside at what was the entrance to Plaszow stands an anonymous grey villa, the former home of the psychopathic camp Kommandant Amon Goeth and his mistress, Ruth-Iren Kalder. It has been converted into council flats. On the same road, a hundred metres away, is another former villa. This was the Nazi camp officers’ HQ and barracks, complete with cells and torture chamber in the basement. A family car stands outside. A child’s toy plastic tractor is up-ended in the yard. Someone has bought this place. Someone has chosen to live here.
And so to Auschwitz-Birkenau. It has been on your mind. You’ve considered and discussed cancelling. But here you are, travelling in near silence the 70 kilometres to the death camp. The Krakov tourist authority organises regular daily tours from the city, but in my experience it’s better to go there independently. The official city tours have schedules and timetables to keep, and can leave you with a feeling of incompleteness. If ever there was a place that demands time and contemplation, this is it. Buses and trains leave Krakov regularly for Oswiecim – the original Polish name before the Nazis changed it to Auschwitz. Under ordinary circumstances it is an unremarkable provincial town, but since the war its name has been forever linked to the death camps. From the railway station it’s a two-kilometre walk or bus ride to Auschwitz One and the Auschwitz museum, where you can arrange in advance for an experienced guide.
At one point the Auschwitz complex comprised up to forty separate camps and sub-camps. Two remain, more or less as they were at the end of the war: Auschwitz One, the main camp, and Birkenau, three kilometres north.
You pass through the entrance gate to Auschwitz main camp, beneath the infamous wrought iron arch bearing the words: Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Makes You Free), and your ‘tour’ begins. Words can’t adequately describe either your feelings or the true enormity of what happened here. You are faced with a relentless, wrenching catalogue of horrors as you witness, on an unimaginable scale, humanity’s capacity for unleashing savagery upon other human beings, and ultimately upon itself. The many rows of red-brick blocks, originally a Polish army barracks, and poplar-lined streets between, present a deceptively neat and orderly picture. The ordinariness of your surroundings is striking. But each block, and almost every corner, wall and tree, has its own tales of countless crimes against individuals: men, women, children. From the frozen streets you enter the heated blocks, both grateful for the warmth and shamed that you think of your own comfort. But here are the exhibits: first the mountain of suitcases taken from arriving Jewish prisoners. Some are designated, by their original owners, Kinde (child); some Waisenkind (orphan). Then you are shown the piles of spectacles, of shoes, of toothbrushes, of prosthetic limbs and other personal belongings. In some ways most shocking is the mound of human hair, predominantly women’s and young girls’, and next to it bolts of cloth into which it was woven. Liberating the camp in 1945, Russian troops found more than seven tons of human
hair, bound into bales for delivery to textile factories. It was a fraction of the total that had been dispatched throughout the war to manufacturers to be processed into industrial felt, socks for submariners and clothing for the military, or for making torpedo warheads watertight.
When your guide is not speaking, the silence is encompassing. Visitors, and there are many, are rendered near-mute. You have no resource to draw upon. In your lifetime you have never learned, or expected to learn, ways to respond to a thing like this. You have entered a wholly unfamiliar space in which, for now, you are numb . From time to time someone does ask a question, but the delivery is unnatural, a little awkward, spoken perhaps as much for human contact in this inhuman place as for an answer. Normality has gone. Nothing is appropriate.
You are shown the infamous Block 10 where Dr Josef Mengele, a refined, highly-educated mass murderer, performed experiments on living children, twins and the physically handicapped; where Professor Doctor Carl Clauberg, a gynaecologist, carried out sterilisation experiments on women. You visit the Death Wall, the notorious Block 11 with its torture cells, its starvation cells, its standing cells all carefully crafted for maximum prolonged suffering. The staggering cruelty behind their design again leaves you with no understanding of how to integrate what you are witnessing.
An unscheduled and unsettling event happens when you find yourself being followed by a German-speaking tour group whose guide speaks in an
unthinkingly loud and harsh voice that reverberates from the bare walls of the barrack rooms. It adds a profoundly chilling element to your experience, and your own guide becomes visibly and verbally distressed and ushers you on.
Towards the end you are taken to Auschwitz One’s existing gas chamber and crematorium. By this time you are almost beyond feeling. You’ve been through a gamut of emotions, from horror, pity and sadness, to revulsion, mute rage, outrage and despair. But your feelings, you can only acknowledge, are as nothing compared to the experience of those who were held here. You seek some kind of solace in redeeming tales of individual heroism and self-sacrifice: of local Poles who smuggled children out of the camp and cared for them in secret, who risked their own lives to bring food or medicines to the prisoners; of the enigmatic Nazi Dr. Ernst B. who protected and saved many inmates. The most celebrated account is that of the Franciscan priest, Father Maximilian Kolbe, himself an Auschwitz prisoner, who asked that he be allowed to take the place of a Polish prisoner who, with nine others, had been condemned to death by starvation as retribution for another prisoner’s escape. When the former soldier, Francis Gajowniczek, cried out for his wife and children Father Kolbe volunteered to die in his place. You are shown the cell, now a shrine, where Father Kolbe and the other nine were left to die. After two weeks without food or water he was found to be still alive, and was murdered with an injection of carbolic acid as the SS guards required the cell for other tortures. Further eyewitness accounts record numerous additional examples of Father Kolbe’s selflessness and extraordinary self-sacrifice in regard to his fellow prisoners, and he was subsequently beatified and canonised by the Catholic church. Less well-publicised is the fact that, “from 1935 to 1939, Kolbe was the publisher of the virulently anti-Semitic Catholic tabloid Mawy Dziennik (Little Daily)”(1)
Now you take in the ovens, the little narrow-gauge rails and revolving trolleys used for quickly and efficiently transporting corpses from gas chamber to incinerator. Everything was worked out for maximum efficiency: the maximum amount of deaths in the shortest possible time, the maximum possible bodies on each trolley, for each oven; even the general size and weight of individual corpses was calculated for its capacity to burn quickly and efficiently. On the side vents of the ovens’ iron lids the name of the manufacturer, Topf, is proudly embossed.
Did the makers of the ovens know what they were creating their ovens for? Yes. They came and worked on ways of improving their efficiency. Did the factory owners who came here to barter over the cost of bales of human hair know what they were buying? Yes. They came and haggled over the price. What does it take to reduce civilised, intelligent human beings to such a level that they are no longer capable of recognising others as human?
You pause for a short, welcome break in the small museum cafe before moving on to Birkenau.
The cafe is busy. Even now, in freezing winter, visitors come in droves. The cafe’s customers speak in undertones, if at all. Like you, they quickly and self-consciously consume toasted snacks and hot coffee.
You arrive at Birkenau outside the notorious redbrick hulk of the guardhouse, and its entranceway for the trains that brought the thousands upon thousands of prisoners in cattle carts to their deaths. The sheer size of the camp stuns. Near endless rows of primitive barracks or their remains, mostly wooden, into which as many as 1000 prisoners at a time were crammed. Birkenau covers more than 170 hectares, surrounded by the ubiquitous (formerly electrified) barbed-wire fencing and regularly spaced with wooden guard-towers. Even from the vantage point of the infamous main entrance guardtower overlooking the camp it’s impossible to make out the entire perimeter. The railway ramp where prisoners were unloaded and selected for forced labour or immediate death runs across the centre; flowers, lamps and candles placed there in remembrance, as they are throughout the camps. Beyond the ramp’s furthest point lie the ruined gas chambers and crematoria. As you begin to walk slowly around the vast camp your guide informs you that there is not an inch of ground here or in Auschwitz One where you are not walking on human ash. In the far northern corner of the camp is a pond whose water is still grey from the ashes of the murdered deposited there from the crematoria. It is snowing and piercingly cold, and you shiver under three or four layers of warm clothing and try to imagine the misery of those who experienced winter here.
In his book ‘This Way For The Gas, Ladies and Gentleman’, the Polish writer, Tadeusz Borowski, himself a ‘political’ prisoner in Birkenau, tells in extraordinary detail of life in the camp, of atrocities “becoming an unremarkable part of a daily routine. Prisoners eat, work, sleep, and fall in love a few yards from where others are systematically slaughtered.” He describes how, under such appalling circumstances, “the will to survive overrides compassion, and the line between the normal and the abnormal wavers, then vanishes.”(2) This is illustrated in countless scenes of what had become daily life in which unimaginable brutality and suffering sit side by side with the everyday. Amongst the most vivid in the simplicity of its telling is a description of how, one Sunday afternoon in spring, he and a number of other prisoners are playing football on a pitch they had managed to create in a clearing behind the hospital barracks – remarkable enough in itself, given the setting. In goal, he runs to the fence beside the ramp to collect the ball, and sees a newly arrived trainload of Jewish prisoners. The people unloading from the train, in colourful summer dresses or shirt sleeves, move in slow procession towards the gas chambers, or sit on the grass and wait, not knowing what they are waiting for. He returns to the game, and minutes later runs to retrieve the ball again. The train has gone, and so have the people “Between two throw-ins in a soccer game, right behind my back, three thousand people had been put to death.” (2)
My friend, Ana, a psychotherapist, who was born years after the end of the war, has visited Auschwitz a number of times in remembrance of family members of her parents’ generation who were murdered here. What does she feel, coming to this place? ‘Like you,’ she replies, ‘like most everyone who comes here, I cannot wholly express my feelings. Nor can I truly appreciate how it was for those who were here. But in the end, as well as sorrow for the masses who died, I feel a deep personal sense of grief and anger over those of my family and those possible friends who I was not allowed to know, and who were never allowed to know me.’
Has she experienced anti-Semitism in her life? She reflects before answering. ‘At a personal level, no. At least, not directly. But there are times when I’ve understood the inadvisability of admitting my background. And in the back of my mind at all times is the awareness that even now there are those in the world who, if they could, would do me harm with barely a thought, would do my children and family harm, purely because of our origins’.
We gaze around the vastness of Birkenau as we walk. The air is biting, the sky filled with snow. Over the road outside, beyond the barbed wire, several children are playing on a sportsfield. We pass slowly through the former women’s camp, pause at the gas chambers and crematoria.
‘How do you explain this?’ I say, hardly anticipating an answer. Ana gives a wan smile. ‘There is no rational explanation, of course. It is a collective insanity. But in my practice we do a lot of work on suppressed emotion. One area of particular relevance is the notion of blame. It is common, generally perceived as ‘natural’, when experiencing misfortune of any kind, great or small, to project blame and its accompanying feelings of anger, resentment etc. outwards, onto others perceived as the cause or source of our misfortune. Sometimes, as well, we project it back against ourselves, further reducing our own self-esteem and intensifying our negative feelings towards both ourselves and the world ‘outside’. In addition, and crucially, blame, like belief, can be viral in nature. Others will bond with you, support you in your blame or belief. In therapy we work on this. The objective is to help people to not project, not seek sources outside. We work on the basis that such negative emotions are surfacing to enable us to process and integrate them and eventually be free of their harmful influence. We have had encouraging and sometimes quite remarkable results.’ She sighs. ‘Perhaps if the world had had access then to what we are learning now, perhaps if we’d had a fuller understanding of the processes of the unconscious mind, if people had known not to project negativity onto a perceived outer cause, perhaps – it is a very big perhaps – none of this would have manifested.’ She shrugs. ‘Maybe for the future.’
In the end words fail. The facts and the stark statistics are astounding. It’s accepted that at Auschwitz alone at least 1.5 million were murdered. At Belzec some 600,000. Chelmno 340,000; Treblinka 800,000; Sobibor 250,000; Madjanek 230,000. The list goes on and on. It’s estimated that the Nazis established upwards of 15,000 concentration camps of one kind or another across the occupied lands of Europe and Russia. And much as we may wish, we cannot consign it to the past. The Shoah stands as arguably the most terrible crime against humanity, but such atrocities continue, in varying forms. Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Kosovo, Armenia, Kurdistan, Darfur and so many more. It is perhaps a cliché, but pertinent nonetheless, to point out that throughout history mankind has endeavoured with greater or lesser degrees of sophistication to destroy mankind. The UK, my own nation, rightly took pride in its openness to immigrant communities, but we are seeing changes in recent times. And in the genocide stakes Great Britain is far from innocent. Little known are the deaths of up to 29 million Indians permitted to starve under British rule in the nineteenth century as we took their rice and grain for ourselves and actively discouraged any form of relief work (3). It doesn’t end there. Past British oppression, mass torture and attempted genocide in Kenya, Tasmania, Malaya and more are documented, though not widely-publicised.
At times it can seem that we literally do not know how to stop mistreating one another. And I use the inclusive pronoun deliberately, for it helps little and is far too easy to point the finger of blame elsewhere, at a group, an ideology, a doctrine. Vile though some ideologies and doctrines may be, they are human constructs which can only appeal to what already lies within but may not be fully realised. The Cree people, indigenous to North America, talk of the entity of wetiko, a collective psychosis, a virus of the unconscious that has infected humankind and driven us to a pervasive insanity. Wetiko is invisible to us, for the most part we do not know that we are infected. Through its pathological distortion of our perceptions, we are able justify the horrors we inflict.
If blame and other negative emotions can be viral, then it is vital to take responsibility, collectively and individually, to ensure we do not allow ourselves to become infected. This involves recognising our own emotional turmoil and working to release it without projecting it onto others. Easily said, of course, and even the most cursory look at the world shows that it’s a lot to ask. But psychological and consciousness research, pioneered in the West by Carl Jung, have made huge advances, more recently by practitioners and writers from a variety of fields. The projection of negativity onto others is understood to be the rejection of a part of ourselves – in Jungian terminology, the subconscious shadow becoming manifest. Its manifestations are observable anywhere, from family to community to nation to race. Uncleared resentments, misdirected blame, suppressed pique and little hatreds, unexamined, can, in exceptional circumstances, lead here, to the gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Why work of this kind is not taught as a priority in our education system is a mystery.
What should be obvious is that, in our myriad and celebrated differences we are, quite simply, one species. Viewed in this light, war against others may be seen as a war upon ourselves. The vigour with which we, as a species, evince every indication of working to render our own environment uninhabitable for all is possibly the ultimate expression of this, the wetiko disease.
Is there anything to be gained by visiting Auschwitz, a place that should never have existed but which now must never be allowed to disappear? In coming here you are coming face to face with humanity’s darkest potential, and it’s a sobering, deeply harrowing experience. It demonstrates unequivocally how ordinary people, cultured people, not primitives, not idiots, but people like us, may be reduced to monsters and persecutors, or equally find themselves the victims of such. Visiting Auschwitz brings home the appalling reality of the Shoah in a way that no number of books, films, documentaries, accounts (including this one) can. It’s hard to imagine anyone, of any faith, culture or creed, not being changed after witnessing first-hand the industrial scale of the slaughter and cruelty that took place here. The tragedy of being human is that witnessing this has to be considered a necessity.
(1) Steinlauf, Michael C, Bondage To The Dead, Syracuse University Press, 1997; see also, Ronald Modras The Catholic Church and Antisemitism, Poland, 1933-1939 Harwood 1994; also, John Gross’s reviews of Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s List and Patricia Treese’s A Man for Others: Maximilian Kolbe, Saint of Auschwitz in the Words of Those Who Knew Him, in The New York Review of Books, 1983.
For information on visiting Auschwitz see http://www.auschwitz.org.pl/
Accommodation and tourism in Krakow or elsewhere in Poland: http://www.visit.pl/