So we managed to have a pretty civilized evening yesterday and had a good night’s sleep. Adam’s snoring did wake me a couple of times throughout the night, but a well aimed jab in the ribs quickly remedied that situation and it was a mostly peaceful evening. That was lucky because today was to be our long day of visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau.
I was somewhat ambivelant about visiting the camps. On the one hand, I had wanted to do it for some time. It’s something I think everyone should do, if only to more fully understand something that, incredibly, happened within living memory. And the whole thing has been so mythologised by books, television, films etc — the holocaust seems to be departing into the realms of the wild west in popular culture. I wanted to see it for myself. But I also recalled now our trip to Normandy last year and the impact of seeing the mass graveyards at Omaha beach. It was the first time any of us had indulged in collective grief on such a grand scale, and we were definitely unprepared for the emotion that was brought forth. But Omaha beach would be a puddle of misery compared to the tsunami that Auschwitz would surely unleash.
I had heard a lot about what you see, hear, smell, feel while at Auschwitz. As you read previously, I had been surprised to find that the town next to the camp wasn’t a dreary backwater full of miserable people where sunlight failed to penetrate. That should have given me my first clue to what I personally would experience at Auschwitz. This morning was beautiful – sunny and clear. We drove off to our destination not without trepidation, and as we drove down a road which ran adjacent to some of the blocks where prisoners were kept, I felt my stomach tighten considerably. I think we all bristled slightly and am willing to bet we all had the thought that this was a terrible, terrible idea.
This tension was broken pretty swiftly, however. Remember yesterday I told you how Adam couldn’t remember whether he had booked a hotel or not, and we ended up just rocking up at one of them and booking a room on the spot? Well, the plot thickened. During dinner, Adam got a call from the hotel he had ACTUALLY booked, somewhere in the town, wondering where he was and when he would be turning up. Of course by then we were in this other gaff so Adam had to apologise and tell them there had been a cock up. Presently, as we drove down a long, desolate road, Birkenau to our left and Auschwitz to our right, numerous small buildings in between, we were just about to pull into the Auschwitz car park when Adam suddenly saw an imposing grey building across the road and exclaimed ‘That’s the one! That’s the hotel I’d booked!’ Fuck a duck. This gaff was literally across the road from the death camp, and looked fucking hideous. Evidently Adam forgetting about hotels and what not was a most fortuitous occurence.
Back to the narrative of the day. The sun was still shining beautifully as we got into the camp and joined a tour group. Apparently you’re not allowed to wonder round Auschwitz unaccompanied, and although I was a bit miffed at the beginning, as I stupidly thought we would be herded around like a bunch of mindless tourists, but it turned out that our guide knew exactly what she was doing. The place runs like clockwork.
So there was the usual. We were shown the gate, the watch tower, the famous sign which greeted deportees. There were the usual exhibits with old pictures we had seen a thousand times before. But things quickly got pretty deep. There were piles of suitcases that had been taken from murdered Jews, who were told to write their names and dates of birth on them to maintain the illusion that they would eventually get their luggage back. Next up, there were piles of shoes — thousands and thousands of shoes. Each pair had been part of an outfit. Each pair was a choice someone made when they thought they were heading for a new existence in Poland. Each pair was a life. Same with the piles of glasses. One couldn’t help but imagine them being ripped away from their owner and tossed into a pile in one of the vast warehouses at Birkenau. Hence why they were displayed in their thousands as one, single, twisted mess. There were hair combs, tins of polish, and probably most shockingly of all to me, two tonnes of real human hair that had been shaved from the prisoners upon their arrival. There it was, behind a glass case, this endless sea of different shades. These were the last physical remnants of lives which had been gone for 65 years or more.
We saw the prison block, with tiny cells that had standing room only. We saw the death wall, where people were shot dead in their hundreds. Finally we were taken across to Birkenau, about 3km away. Its the one with the huge gatehouse that the railway track runs right through. There is very little left of Birkenau, having consisted almost entirely of wooden brigs where prisoners were held before they were gassed in chambers at the far end of the compound. These had been destroyed with dynamite just before liberation in an attempt by the Nazis to cover up their crimes. The brigs were dismantled after the war, so that now Birkenau resembles a vast field dotted here and there by a brick chimney. After the suffocating closeness of Auschwitz, the green expanse of Birkenau was something of a relief. Finally, we ended at the memorial located right at the end of those famous railway tracks, and were left to wonder and take it all in as we saw fit.
This all sounds like it should have been a miserable, draining experience. It truly wasn’t. I expected to feel like I was trudging through a dark, heavy cloud of gloom. I thought that the misery of the one and a half million souls that had perished there would have permeated mine. But they didn’t. We’ve all been to those kind of places — old castles or dungeons or whatever, where they really try to ham up the drama of what had taken place there, and really ram it down your throat in a pathetic attempt to give you an ‘experience’; not so at Auschwitz. The tour is pretty matter of fact; perhaps this is because the facts speak for themselves. And that is the overwhelming feeling I have. Auschwitz and Berkenau are not there to impress you with a gimmick, draw you into their legend, or depress you. They are a memorial, they are treated as such, and they speak for themselves: they seem to say ‘Here we are. This is what happened here’
Perhaps it was because the sun shone so brightly and brilliantly all day. We pondered later that perhaps our perception of these places had been skewed because of this. So, we decided to wait until dark and head back out to the huge, looming gates of Birkenau and see if we didn’t change our minds about what we felt there. We jumped in the car, and sped back through the night. The gates loomed out of the darkness and we parked the car. We got out. We walked up to the fences. We looked at the barracks in the blackness. We saw the train tracks disappear into the shadows. We saw the guard tower jutting out into the night sky. And still, I felt no different. It stood as it has always stood. As a memorial. Even darkness couldn’t scare me into feeling that there was something ominous and sinister there. There was no fear in me whatsoever.
As you walk through Birkenau, you look around and see the grass that grows around the train tracks and derelict barracks is lush and green and dotted with daisies and dandelions. Birds even fly through the trees that line the crumbling gas chambers. This is a place to reflect and remember. The harsh misery of all those souls is gone now, replaced by something resembling peacefulness and serenity. Perhaps they are still there, wondering the tree-lined roads between the blocks of Auschwitz, no longer subject to the pain and agony that marked the end of their lives. I don’t know where that energy could have gone; all I know is the camps are free, the huts are burned, and we try our best not to atone but remember. Meryl Streep and Stephen Spielberg may have their Oscars, but for Auschwitz and Birkenau it is the truth of their continued immovable presence that is a greater testament than any fictional legend.
So now you know, don’t be scared.