Sunday, 16 March 2014

My Day-Trip to Auschwitz

Most of my blog-posts where I babble about what I did on any given day have a pun-tastic title. I... well, I didn't think that this was a pun worthy thing. Yes, I did go on a day trip to the area we know as the concentration camp of Auschwitz. I know that I spoke about it already in my review of the Wake and I know that most people don't come here to listen to me spout.


Nevertheless, this is part of my experience and, to be honest, this is part of how I cope with things. I record them and that is part of my processing. I'm not sure that what follows will be coherent, let alone interesting, and I'm absolutely certain that it will be less amusing and uplifting than my posts on the beers that I drink and review. It will also be accompanied by some of the pictures that I took on the trip. If this ain't your bag or you don't really wish to observe just how I deal with stuff that is difficult then you don't need to click on the link below.

Would you really like to know more?



I already forgot that my mother had been here twice in the past. It's not a place that lends itself easily to talking about or even comprehending. We all know the figures and the numbers, we all know the zeroes and the stories and the inhumanity. We know that the numbers are so huge and so impersonal that we can't wrap our heads around them, the stories so far removed from our experience that we cannot really empathise still less understand and we think we know the reason for places like this: never again. Except that they must fail every single day if that were their aim. Sure, no one is murdering Jews or the Sinti or the Roma. But homosexuals, transexuals, asexuals, ethnic Russians, ethnic non-Russians, Muslims, non-Muslims, Catholics, Buddhists .. The list goes on. No... it's not the kind of place that allows you an easy get out clause.

The only synagogue in a town with no Jews in it any more.
Oświęcim, a place that remains normal.
Instead of that, instead of facts, I'm going to try and use my notes that I wrote on the day and see if they can make any sense of what I saw. I rather suspect that they won't flow very easily. We start in Oświęcim - site of the Jewish community near what would become Auschwitz. Jews made up 60% of the population of this small town, numbering some 40-50,000 inhabitants in 1939. At its height, Auschwitz II, Birkenau, held 90,000 inmates at any given time. Here we stood at the site of the Great Synagogue, destroyed by the Nazis when they moved in, and then we visited the last remaining synagogue, behind the house squatted in by the only Jew who returned to Oświęcim after the Second World War ended - he opened the doors every morning and closed them every night until he died in 2004. He lived alone from 1946 to his death and did not own the house he squatted in. But the people of Oświęcim let him be. How could they do any different?

The fence.
Even before I went to Auschwitz I, I dreamed of the Zwischen, of the Between, and the not being one or the other. Once one has been dehumanised can one be rehumanised? When identity is ripped away or lost can it ever be regained; can one be reclothed in what one has lost? What is salt when it loses its saltiness? Those who die without their identity and unremembered, what one does afterward cannmot change their history. They are the Zwischen. If all we have are the numbers then we cannot know the Zwischen and the Zwischen perhaps do not want to be known. Do the dead wish for us to truly know them? Who are we to presume to know their wishes? Final Solution was the name given to what was referred to as the resettlement to the East, a euphemism to extermination, "liquidate the ghettos".

Buildings in Auschwitz I were on two or three floors and the people who were sent there had to buy their own railway tickets.

Zyklon B canisters. It's a disinfectant. But in these
quantities. I do not understand those that deny the
Holocaust. It was too big.
Much too big.
Where are you from? What is it that creates an identity and thus what is it that is taken and how? Gold teeth, human hair, belongings: all are plunder and all provided income for the State. What then the value of humanity? What then can be offered to pay the debt? Set to flame, evidence was removed to ash, what can be hidden? To live without past, possession or future is not, itself, death. To die and be named and recalled is not, itself, evidence of having had life in the first place. It is the cracks, the tiniest part of the ephemera of this world. It is the Zwischen. It is the Between. The question hangs: "This is a hard thing, how can you show these things as they are?" But the answer is already known: because they must be shown. The banks of shoes, of hair and suitcases, the toys of children and the shaving brushes of men.

A camp within a camp. This was the Russian POW
camp at Auschwitz before it was extended at what we know
as Birkenau.
Block 11 was a Gestapo prison that held summary court sessions in which the only sentence was death. This was a prison for civilians, they weren't actually inmates of the concentration camp. The basement was a prison for members of the camp itself who were punished in suffocation, starvation and standing cells. Block 10 has blocked up windows but the prison can see the execution yard. The cellar here was where gas was first used. Cell 18 is where Maksimillian Kolbe, the Polish Priest, stood in for a Jewish inmate and died. He died last. "Someone had to accompany the others as they died." Having seen the cell where he died and the memory kept alive the story is no more real, to add reality with more reality is not possible, the inhumanity is no more inhuman, the silence no more oppressive.

A gallows.
Two roll calls a day, wooden booth for the SS officers. The death of Hoss, the commandant who was hanged outside the gas chamber, achieves...? Lived and worked directly next to the gas chambers and the crematorium. He lived with his wife and five children. Of course he did. It was how they could do what they did and how we do what we do and how we ignore the things we ignore. We do it for our family and we do it to protect our families and we can't get involved in things because to do so would endanger our perception. And that's why he had his family with him. That's why the SS officers and guards were able to be good people with those around them. They needed that to do what they did. As we need them to do what we do. Humans carried out the executions, humans conveyed people to the place of death. Humans. And they all took choices.

What does it take to be a good human? What if there are no right answers? What can be said, what can be sung, how can we live, speak with what tongue? "Well, what were expecting?" asked Leonard Cohen in his poem, All there is to know about Adolf Eichmann. the question was asked, the one that was unnecessary; and the answer, the one that was completely necessary, was given.

A second part will come, I'm not done yet.

1 comment:

  1. What a cool post! Auschwitz is an amazing place with powerfull history.

    ReplyDelete