Sunday, 3 June 2012

Auschwitz 2

It was a 24 hour day. I was up at one in the morning, and out of the house by half three, wearing about three layers because we'd been warned countless times that Poland is cold, my remembrance poppy, and my old school boots because New Rocks and customs can equal inconvenience. By six AM I'd arrived at Gatwick airport, met up with Chris, the other Itchener, battled through security and was sat around reading the welcome pack for forty-five minutes or so because really, what else could you do?

The plane left at seven. We were given breakfast, which I didn't find that bad and then wondered what the hell was wrong with me, this was plane food. At one point, our entire row was asleep, which was just as well really. We'd have been dead by the end of the day otherwise.

Touchdown at 10:00 local time.

On the coach to Oswiecim, the Polish town that was renamed Auschwitz during the war, we were advised to try and get some sleep, but being the geography geek that I am, I put my glasses on and tried to just sort of... take in Poland. The area we were in was a bit run down, full of shabby buildings, some with cracked walls and broken roofs, and most of the countryside looked quite desolate, but it was quite a nice place nonetheless and I barely took my eyes off the scenery for the hour we were on the road.

Eventually the buildings became more numerous and began to look larger and neater. In a bay in a narrow street, the coach finally stopped, and we filed off into the centre of Oswiecim, which was a very calm, well-kept place. We followed the road upwards and stood at the top of a bank overlooking the river Sola. We were informed that this had once been the site of the town's largest Synagogue, which had been destroyed totally by the Nazis shortly after the outbreak of the war. In later years, numerous artifacts from the Synagogue were discovered buried underneath the site, having been rescued by local Jews as Nazi anti-Semitism closed in around them. From there, we went on to the surviving Synagogue, which weathered the war due to being converted into a storage area for the invading forces, and is now being used as a museum documenting the plight of the Oswiecim Jews, of which there are none left. Here, Rabbi Barry Marcus, who had organised the trip and was a very dynamic speaker, gave us a bit of background, describing what happened in the town, and telling the story of the last Jew to live in Oswiecim, who had returned from captivity to find himself alone. Every day up until his death ten years ago, Shimshon Klueger opened the Synagogue door every morning and shut it every night, just as if it was still in use. He lived behind the building in very poor housing, and spoke to no-one.

By the time we got back on the coach, the atmosphere already felt different.

The plan for the rest of the day was thus: We would travel across to Auschwitz one, the first part of the camp to exist (and the camp to bear the infamous Arbeit Macht Frei sign), and then to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the second and largest part of the camp, and the part used primarily for mass slaughter. There is a third camp, slightly away from the other two and used mainly for labour, and several other mini-camps, where inmates had been shipped off to work in specific areas, but time was very much of the essence, so we wouldn't be visiting any of those.The first thing that struck me was just how close to civilisation Auschwitz one was. We were all expecting the coach to turn off down an isolated road, trundle off into the wilderness for half an hour and eventually arrive at the camp in the middle of nowhere, but it wasn't like that at all. We were driving along, past houses and shops and garages... and suddenly there it was on the right. A bored looking woman with a high-visibility jacket directed us into the coach section as we went to park.

Actually getting into the place took a bit of time. As there are usually multiple tour groups about, tour guides have to speak to their groups through miniature radio headsets in order to prevent them from needing to shout over each other, so we all had to be fitted with one of those. It was, as you'd expect, a solemn atmosphere right from the start. From the moment we stepped through the doors, nobody really spoke. We loitered around in the entrance for a while, adjusting our headsets, before being ushered off down the path, under Arbeit Macht Frei (a replica, we were told- the original had been stolen), and into the camp itself.
                                                                                    Above: Walking through Auschwitz One.

The weirdest thing about walking around Auschwitz one was how, well, nice it looked. The buildings themselves were the incongruous but functional looking giant bricks I'd expected, but the camp in general had been prettied up. I have no idea when or why this happened- for all I know the camp always looked like this- but somewhere along the line somebody had decided that what a place of mass death really needed was gravel walkways, well-kept trees, and cute little pewter lanterns everywhere. It was half barracks, half Manor Gardens. The effect was really disconcerting. If I hadn't known where I was, I'd never have guessed. Inside the

The name 'Klara Goldstein' is readable
on the foremost suitcase. 
Prayer shawls taken from
Jewish victims
buildings, however, there was no getting away from it. The glass cases containing suitcases and prosthetic limbs, shoes and prayer shawls, made sure that everyone knew exactly what had happened where they were standing. Some of the exhibits were particularly striking: The room of hair, for example, houses the shaven hair of the prisoners. In a tank at one end, ponytails and plaits remain intact. One of the first rooms we went into contains canisters that once held the deadly gas used to kill the prisoners, and one of the last held clothes, shoes, and toys that had clearly belonged to children.

Children's belongings

Due to time constraints, we were hurried through all this rather quickly, with the guide's voice piping constantly through the headsets. Despite this, we were able to take in everything. Before arriving in the camp, I hadn't really known how I'd react, whether I'd feel absolutely nothing or burst into tears after five minutes. What I got was neither of those things, but a feeling of unsettled detachment as I struggled to properly comprehend where I was and what had once happened right where I was standing. I walked around in a haze, and after we'd left the barracks and gone back outside, I found myself walking ahead of or separate from my group on  multiple occasions.

Tribute Wall: In memory of
murdered prisoners of war.

Looking over Auschwitz's last
standing gas chamber
It was the outside that held some of the most poignant parts of the camp.  A row of candles placed in front of a wall which had once been used for shooting prisoners against formed a memorial. Above it was a flag, blue and white striped to resemble the camp uniform, but also bearing the red triangle the Nazis used to signify Prisoners of War, which most of the camp inmates were. Back towards the gate, two sets of gallows could still be found; one of which had been used to hang Rudolf Hoess in 1947.

The most unsettling part of Auschwitz one was, of course, the gas chamber. Auschwitz One hadn't really been a death camp- that had been Auschwitz Birkenau, but all four gas chambers there had been demolished by the Nazis towards the end of the war, leaving the small chamber at One the only chamber still standing.

These canisters contained the gas used to
kill thousands
It was one of the strangest experiences of my life. You think you'll feel something, but it's almost impossible to get your head around the fact that seventy years ago, right where you're standing, thousands of people were being systematically murdered. As I looked up at the hole in the roof where the gas had been poured in, I became more detached, except now the detachment was accompanied by a kind of dry horror. It's difficult to explain in hindsight. I think it's one of those things you simply have to do to understand.

One of the oddest things about the trip in general was that all this was being accompanied by a very businesslike atmosphere. We walked out of the gas chambers, handed in our headsets, and scrambled back onto the coach, where our team leaders gave us a jovial briefing and a weather forecast (cold). We'd gone from death camp to basic, day to day organisation within just a few minutes. As we drove onwards past the shops, garages and houses of Oswiecim, there seemed to be a clash of worlds, and this made the whole experience feel even more surreal.

It didn't last long, however. Five minutes after getting on the coach, we were getting off again, at Birkenau. This time, there was no denying where we were.

Unlike Auschwitz One, Auschwitz-Birkenau had been built for purpose. It didn't have the deceptively innocent look of the first camp. Here, there were just wooden blocks, guard towers, and chain fences, as far as the eye could see, in every direction. It was one of the bleakest places I'd ever seen. Hardly surprising, really, as this was the largest purpose-built death camp run by the Nazis during World War Two. Four gas chambers operated here, burning up to . As the Red Army advanced into Poland towards the end of the war, all four were destroyed.

After disembarking, a local journalist who'd tagged along took Chris and I off for an awkward photo in front of the fence with two students from another nearby college and MP John Denham (who'd also tagged along). We were then shepherded to the watchtower and given a small Jewish candle each, with the instruction to stash them away somewhere as we wouldn't be needing them for another four hours. This wasn't a pleasant prospect- the temperature was dropping rapidly and staying outside for four hours was probably not going to be fun.

Nonetheless, we hooked up headsets once again and made our way into the camps. There were no decorative plants here- unlike Auschwitz One, Birkenau had been left exactly as it was. We often found ourselves jumping muddy ditches because nobody had bridged them, and while there were paths, the quality of them varied rather. Even the buildings themselves hadn't been adapted. There were no exhibits in here- they contained the skeletons of what had been bunks, and holes which had once been used as toilets. They were dirty, rusting and not a great deal warmer than outside. It was close to a time capsule, and here, you got a fragment of understanding as to what living in the camp may have been like. You looked at the bunks and pictured people sleeping in them.

Other parts of the camp had been left intact too. The railway was still there, and one of the cattle carriages used to bring in prisoners from all over Europe had been placed beside the platform. Again, it was all to easy to see what had happened exactly where we were standing: Jews, Gypsies, Prisoners of war, disembarking, and then being roughly divided up. Many adults and almost all children would be sent to one area and then taken straight to the gas chambers: Those who looked strong enough to work would be sent to another area, where they would live a while longer providing slave labour for the Nazis.

Birkenau as seen from the top of
the Watchtower: This was the best I
could do, I'm afraid.
Then, to let it really sink in, we were taken back towards the entrance and told to form a queue. It took me a while to work out what was happening, but eventually I realised we were being sent up to the top of the watchtower, in small groups due to the ever weakening foundations. As I reached the turnstile at the foot of the steps that counted people in, and got waved through by Rabbi Marcus, I wondered how exactly the camp would look from the top. Would it be bigger than I'd realised? Smaller? Would I be able to see over the trees at the far end? As it turned out, there were no real surprises, but the view was haunting nonetheless. I'd expected to see barracks stretching almost to the horizon in every direction, but actually looking at the bare landscape,  peppered only by imposing guard towers and wire fencing, really brought home exactly what the camp had been used for. It was really strange when you looked further into the distance and saw a few modern houses, sitting just outside the camp boundaries. How the local population felt about living so close to places like these had been a subject of much discussion throughout the day. I wondered how long it took them to get used to it.

Back outside, we regrouped and headed into the camp once more. Sunset was beginning, and the sun was a weirdly symbolic blood red. The  temperature was dropping fast and nobody really wanted to be outside anymore. The cold was overpowering to the point where we were all losing concentration on the history and the only thing on our minds was getting indoors. This was us wearing several layers of winter clothing. The prisoners would have only had their camp uniform, plus they'd have been much physically weaker than us to begin with if they'd already been in the camp for a while. In between wondering how much longer we'd have to be outdoors, I found myself questioning as to how anybody at all had survived the conditions here.

As night finally fell, things got creepy.

By this stage, we'd moved towards the far end of the camp, and stumbled across an area which was full of remembrance shrines. Candles of every colour stood out against the pitch black sky, and illuminated the flowers, letters, and carved stone slabs that lay beneath them. It was... pretty. And about as devoid of threat as anything can be. I was standing in Auschwitz-Birkenau, and yet somehow the atmosphere felt peaceful and respectful. I fought hard to make sense of this. Birkenau was a death camp. Candles or no candles, it wasn't supposed to feel peaceful. I concluded that I was clearly just a bit screwed up, and decided not to tell anybody else present, lest they mark me down as a semi-sociopath or something.

We weaved around this end of the camp, passing the ruins of the four gas chambers (although some of the steps up the entrances were still distinguishable), hearing a story about a rebellion attempt and how it was quashed when the Nazis told all the prisoners present, whether they were guilty or not, lie down, and then shot every third person. We walked through the woods. I thought these were pretty too, in the dark. I worried for my brain.

 My memory of this part of the day is a bit hazy, because all anybody was really focusing on was getting indoors. Eventually, we got our wish. A large building, I'm guessing an information/conservation centre, stood about as far from the gates as it was possible to go. It had previously been the place where new prisoners who'd been selected for labour rather than death had been brought to be processed. They'd been stripped and showered in one room, then their heads had been shaved in another, then they'd been given the camp uniform to put on and sent out to the barracks. As we slowly followed in their footsteps, the guides made a point of emphasising that thousands of people underwent this process every day when the camp was at its peak.

A large part of the project was making the Holocaust human. Although facts and figures were mentioned a lot, putting names and faces to victims and perpetrators alike was a large part of  what they did. This was why, when we went into the last room, we were given plenty of time to look around what it contained.

Several large boards, each covered in photographs. Family albums, mostly, from before the war began. Set of pictures of a person, whose name and description was given in the middle of the images, having fun with friends and family, holding their children, going to work, totally unaware of where they'd end up. You always know that the Holocaust ripped families apart, but now we could see. We'd look at the photos, read the names of the people they contained, and then read about how two of them had died and the others took forever to find each other after the war was over. It's the kind of thing I think there should be more of- it's so easy for atrocities on this scale to end up as numbers in a textbook, but everyone involved was a person, and the more we remember that, the harder it is to allow the Holocaust to become an irrelevant abstract. This point was drilled home yet again by Rabbi Marcus, who herded us all back together for some readings given by a few volunteers, and then a sermon. He talked at length about the importance of not forgetting, then asked us to join him in prayer. The prayer was, of course, Jewish (and in Yiddish), but he made it clear at the start that we could adapt to our own beliefs where necessary.  I'm an atheist with no God to worship, so I chose to treat it like a two minute silence and just listened and remembered.

On the now intensely cold walk back towards the watchtower, I fell into step with Chris, and, he too admitted to finding Birkenau weirdly peaceful. I was relieved it wasn't just me, but not especially surprised, as by this point, it had started making sense. These days, people come to Birkenau for education and remembrance. Despite it's past, it is now a place of respect, and feels less dangerous than pretty much anywhere else I've ever been. It's a very strange contrast, and one I still have trouble fully getting my head around- but there it is.

By the time we left, there were over 100 more pinpoints of light standing out against the night sky. Battling against the wind, a few matches were passed and we finally lit our Jewish candles. It took most of us two or three goes, and trying to manoeuvre our candles together in a way that would allow the flame to travel across the wicks was incredibly tricky, but eventually, we managed it. We set them down in a sheltered spot right outside the watchtower, which felt incredibly symbolic, but it's only as I've been writing this that I've fully realised why. The fact that a place of genocide is now full of endless memorial plaques, stones, and candles... the fact that remembrance services are now held in the room where prisoners were once processed... the fact that the watchtower once used to aid mass murder now shelters tributes to the victims from the wind. It all adds up to one huge statement: The power Birkenau was given by the Nazis has been taken away.

The sun sets on Birkenau

A week after the visit, I attended a second, follow up, conference in London, and was assigned for created a presentation for Holocaust Memorial Day in February. The one thing that had irked me about the project was the way it seemed to focus exclusively on Jewish victims, to the point where it was difficult to remember that other groups had been involved at all. To me, it felt as though the Roma, Disabled, Gay, POW, Polish and 'Undesirable' victims were being forgotten completely. Therefore, I made sure I included as many groups as possible in my presentation. I also included lots of personal stories, from all kinds of victims, because if there's one thing this experience has taught me, it's the importance of remembering that the Holocaust was made up of individuals.

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