“It is difficult to write. News changes so fast. Drama comes in headlines. My mind stutters. My thoughts are short. Words drown in horror. And yet there is the shape of a summer sky – the whim of a summer breeze – a cloud without purpose. Words ripple like pebbles thrown nonchalantly into a placid pond.
That which is unchanging and invisible does not require a hand to shape its presence but the incidental and the anecdotal kindly request fingers willing to give form and voice to their existence. The fleeting does like to masquerade as permanence.”
Autumn reflections: October 8th
It was a beautiful sunny autumn day today in Kraków. As I write this to you, R is watching yesterday’s French news on his IPad: immigrants trying desperately to cross the Channel, truckies obliged to prevent them or risk having their merchandise confiscated and being arrested for illegal trafficking of human beings, a new publicity campaign launched by the government to support parents who have lost their adolescents to the jihad in Syria……..
And we spent the day wandering the alleys and blockhouses of Auschwitz – Birkenau.
Like you, we have seen the films, read the books and tried hard to imagine how it could have happened. In New Zealand where I grew up, so far from Europe, it is easy to ignore such atrocities with a moral certainty, “it could never happen here”. As a kid going to Sunday school I knew Jesus was a Jew but I didn’t know what a Jew was – what that meant – and I had no reason to ask either.
93% of the people murdered here were Jews; men, women and children of all nationalities (10% of the Polish population prior to the war was Jewish), and the other 7% were homosexual, social agitators or basically anyone considered by the Nazi regime as being unfit to belong to the German nation.
Phil, our guide is a Brit married to a Pole – came here to teach English as a career change; didn’t like teaching so switched to tour guiding. Over the years he has boned (HA) up on the camps and is a mine (HA again) of knowledge so we were very privileged. There were only two other people in the car – a couple from the UK. We started out chatty and grew silent as the day passed. Words seemed inadequate or superfluous as the day wore on.
Phil showed us an 18 minute film made by a Russian camera man in January 1945 when the Soviet “liberators” first discovered the existence of the camps outside Kraków. The drive from Kraków takes about 1 hour 15, so you might think that a film would be a good way to fill in time on an otherwise uninteresting journey. What we, relaxing in the comfort of a warm car, saw in crackly, black and white on a tiny screen on the back of the seat in front aimed to prepare us for the museum that Auschwitz has become today. The man who shot the footage is a very old man today but he still remembers the impact on him when they first met the surviving remnants of the inmates of Auschwitz-Birkenau. They continue to stalk his mind when his eyes close. The Soviets were heading further east to liberate a Polish village but were diverted when told about the camps.
The film showed the mountains of children’s shoes, the hair and shaving brushes, the battered suitcases, the prayer shawls, the hills of human hair, broken dollies and miscellaneous personal effects. We saw the photographs of emaciated people with dead eyes and shaven heads; alongside them smiling soviet nurses in full flesh and health assisting doctors who poked, and weighed and measured the hopeless human frames. We heard the stories of the lethal injections given to pregnant women, babies and mothers; we heard about the experiments with drugs and diseases inflicted on “healthy” people; we heard about Zyklon B gas and how efficient it was for performing acts of mass murder using gas chambers to kill and furnaces to incinerate. In fact we saw and heard how it was possible to exterminate people systemically, methodically on a scale that exceeds imagination. The attention to detail and the ingenuity invested in perfecting the means to annihilate an entire race of people tempts one to think it had to be a work of pure fiction. No, it was carried out with the full collusion of those who stood to benefit from it all: industrialists, those who felt that communism would be a greater evil than Nazi fascism and just those who did not want to think about what they might have agreed to in supporting Hitlerian madness.
When asked why the allies didn’t act earlier, Phil replied that at the time it meant flying over enemy territory unable to carry enough fuel for the return trip and, oh by the way, why bomb a camp full of starving and half dead people? Better to stick to taking out the enemy towns and factories.
Auschwitz is just over 40 acres in size and Birkenau 425 (175 hectares). When you visit Birkenau, just over 3 kilometers from Aushwitz, you see a vast expanse of practically empty land dotted with chimney stacks, a few brick and wooden block houses, stones and more stones. There are trees far away in the background and a railway line running through the centre of the land from the emblematic watch tower at the entrance. Double rows of barbed wire fencing run around the “complex”. There are no birds to be heard or seen. Phil says it’s because there are no insects, bugs or beetles crawling the ground for them to eat. We are in a gigantic human cemetery where nothing deigns to live even 70 years after the slaughter. There is a solitary goods wagon parked on the vast platform where mostly Jews arriving from all over Europe were unloaded and sorted. Mothers with babies or very young children were dispatched immediately towards the “showers” at the far end of the field as were the sick and elderly. They were told to undress, given bars of soap and herded into the showers. It was when there were 2000 packed into the shower room and they could no longer raise their arms to use the soap that they must have realized that it would be impossible to shower. Fake shower nozzles in the ceiling contributed to the deception. The Zyklon B pellets took about 10 to 15 minutes to active their deadly poison. The body heat of the stacked and naked would have facilitated the heating process. Special workers (the sonderkommandos) were used to get the dead bodies, once their gold fillings had been removed, to the incinerators just next door to the gas chamber. On a good day, they could put through two lots. Those awaiting their “shower” under the shade of the trees or in the freezing cold or snow, depending on the season, never suspected anything because the gas chambers and crematorium were built next to the sewers so while the smell was horrendous it was explicable. They never saw that no one came out the other side.
Most Jews from the ghetto in Kraków thought their deportation was yet another resettlement in their long European history of persecution, exodus and “resettlement”. Did anyone imagine the utter horror of these camps? They must have had serious suspicions but could they have ever dreamt that the blueprint was one of total extinction?
These gas chambers and their connecting incinerators were all but destroyed by the SS when the front was closing in on them and they feared their crimes would be exposed. However the detailed and precise architectural plans left behind revealed the perpetrators of these crimes against humanity for the monsters they were. Fortunately – and I insist on the word “fortunately” – for us, the visitors of today, there is only rubble to look at but a good guide is able to help the mind reconstruct the facts – a mind willing the eyes to keep staring at a pit the size of a pond that was filled with human ash; to see the tunnel leading down into the gas chamber, the wall separating the sewers from the incinerators, the mud, the cold, the heat in summer (the range in temperature in the area can go from -37 to +42 today) ……..the bunk beds that slept 6 or more to a bunk……..
The lone train wagon standing stark, locked and lonely contains the prayer shawl of a man who refused to give it up so paid the price. His son survived, went to Australia and founded Westfield supermarkets, made a fortune and put this memorial to his father here in Birkenau.
The wagons transporting Jews from all over Europe has always been the part of the drama that has troubled me the most. I have asked myself many times, had I been in France at the time, would I have helped close the wagon door?; would I have turned my back and refused to see what was happening?; would I have tried to do anything however small? I will never have answers to these questions and I will never know until faced with such a crisis. I asked myself today, October 8th, if I were a “voyeur” – someone fascinated by the horror as if fatally attracted towards it or someone adding another travel badge to their collection of places seen and powerful experiences had. Yes all that is true but – and – it is vital that as many people as possible see this place least we collectively forget what man is capable of doing to his fellow man – least we forget that we are all human beings with a right to exist in dignity and mutual respect.
I share this “experience” with you not as a travelogue but as a very small contribution to the remembering – to the collective memory and I leave you with the question:
Could it happen again? If not, why not? If so, how?
And I leave you with this quote from SCHOPENHAUER (1788 – 1860) as fuel for your thinking………
“The Things themselves, in the permanency of which only the limited brains of man and animals believe, do not ‘exist’ at all. They are……the fierce flashes and fiery sparks of drawn swords…..clashing in the battle of opposing qualities.”