Last weekend, I went to Krakow. I’d heard it was a wonderful city ( disregarding the high proportion of stag and hen parties ), high on culture and architecture and really worth exploring.
My husband decided we should visit Auschwitz. I’ve been to Hiroshima ( see previous blog posts ), Vietnam, Cambodia, the Burma Railway, Changi and the hideous site that is Oradour-sur-Glane in France, so these things are not new to us, and although we are normally stunned into silence, the message we come away with it that of determination never to allow it again in our name.
We spent four hours on Saturday at Auschwitz and Birkenau, and it was utterly traumatic. The guide we had MUST have had some personal experience or family connection because she was absolutely visceral in what she said. She was obviously still desperately upset and angry about having had some Holocaust Deniers on a trip last week, and she wasn’t going to let up for a minute in her description of the horrors. When I asked her how she could do this every day, to walk amongst such scenes of depravity and degradation – and then have to defend it to the kind of bigots who have no eyes to see nor ears to hear – she said to me that she is on a mission to make sure people understand. Four hours with her and you DO. I’m still going over and over it. The weather was appalling while we were there – lashing down with rain. It had been hot and dry all week, but even so it was a quagmire in no time. Maybe that is the best weather in which to see such a dreadful place.
There are plenty of sites which will list those depravities for you and I don’t intend to do that here. Auschwitz I is a museum, and it explains, hideously, what happened.
Auschwitz II – Birkenau – is, simply, THERE. It explains nothing, beyond a large sign at the entrance. You are escorted by guide who explains what your eyes are alighting upon. And the more you understand of where you are putting your feet, and in whose steps you tread, the more your soul sinks under the weight of the knowledge of it.
I can’t bring myself to wear my shoes again until I’ve washed them in the machine. I feel as though I’ve brought death home with me, ridiculous though that sounds. I don’t want a milligram of DNA from that place in my home.
Yet, why? Hiroshima was a place which filled me with revulsion: so was Kanchanaburi.
But Birkenau is different. There is no plea for forgiveness, no request for redemption, no attempt to say ‘Lest we Forget’ or ‘Please leave money for the Visitor Centre’ or – anything. It just IS. It sits on the skyline and it sears your eyeballs. You stand under Death Gate and your eyes follow the railway track to Hell.
How could this be.