17 September 2009
Today we spent the day at Auschwitz. I don’t even know how to describe it. There is nothing I want less than to be all sentimental and talk about an icy feeling clutching at me as I entered—because there wasn’t—but neither can I pretend that it wasn’t profoundly moving.
We took a bus filled with lots of other people from central Krakow, a drive of about one hour and fifteen minutes. As we drove, we would have looked out on pretty peaceful scenery, except that our eyes were glued to a screen, watching a documentary of footage filmed by a cameraman among the Soviet liberators of the camp. It was pretty shocking stuff but there were two low points for me – 1) footage of Soviet pathologists performing an autopsy on a limp, dead baby found in the camp, emaciated and tiny; 2) footage of child prisoners, aged maybe five or six, in a group, raising their arms to show the numbers branded on them (they probably did not know their own names), looking for all the world like a primary school class, except that they were skeletal and branded. Result: a sense of grimness before we even reached the place.
However, entering the camp itself, it was hard to picture these things. It could have been a normal, almost pretty, apartment complex, if you ignored the barbed wire and watch towers, or if you didn’t enter the buildings. We followed a guide around—in the buildings now is housed a museum, and we saw photos, documentary evidence, material evidence (piles and piles of human hair, shoes, glasses, etc.)… We saw a recreation of the wall where prisoners who had committed some ‘crime’ were shot, now stacked with flowers and candles, and the punishment cell where Father Kolbe, a Polish priest who sacrificed his life for another prisoner, was sent to die by starvation with another nine prisoners. We saw ‘standing cells’, about one square metre, into which four prisoners were crammed overnight, with only a small ground-level door as an opening to crawl through—after a night in these, the prisoners were still expected to work all day. We saw a whole hallway of photos of shaved-headed prisoners, with their names, their numbers, their date of arrival and date of death; of all the ones I read, only one had no date of death, and almost all the rest died within two or three months, at the most. A few here and there had traces of a half-smile as they had their photo taken, the vestige of their personality, stolen by the Nazis; they died no later than anyone else. We saw the place where Rudolf Höss, the camp commandant, was hung after the war, about two hundred metres from the house he had lived in with his wife and children and had a happy life, right next door to utter misery. We walked through a gas chamber and crematorium in which thousands and thousands of people died a slow, painful death.
Lord, have mercy on us.
I felt pretty grim all the way round (an understatement) and did not feel at all like talking, but actually came extremely close to crying at one point, in the little square where the prisoners were shot – I don’t know why it was there, but there it was.
After a short break in which we ate lunch and felt bad about it, we got on the bus for the short ride to Birkenau, otherwise known as Auschwitz II. This seemed much more how one would imagine a concentration camp—a big empty field with long wooden huts on either side, train tracks down the middle, the remains of crematoria the Nazis tried to destroy before they fled—except that the grass was a brilliant, Irish green.
We only had about half an hour here and saw the latrine hut, which prisoners were allowed to use twice a day—about 2000 people had to make it through in half an hour, or an hour if they were lucky. No need to do the maths to understand how impossible that would be. We also saw a hut with the sleeping bunks—even in its clean condition it was horrible but to imagine how it must have been with 700 or 800 people, in either summer or winter…
I bought a book: “The Holocaust: Voices of Scholars”—academics such as Kershaw or Wiesel or Bartov discussing the difficult questions of the Holocaust. It looks very interesting, but the blurb on the back is a bit pretentious and was obviously written by an academic:
“The duty to raise questions about the Holocaust rests especially upon intellectuals, since from them we await answers to critical, difficult questions of values…” Really? Do we?
And now we’re back at the hostel. My last night in Krakow, my last night in continental Europe, and the last time I see Katie for almost a year.
Moving Day: Blog in Review
9 months ago