Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Auschwitz/Auschwitz Birkenau

I have been promising a report back about my trip to Auschwitz for some time now - and though it probably doesn't sit fantastically well with the comparative frivolity of having a book published, I want to write this while it is still fresh in my memory. I appreciate it's not the most cheerful of subjects, so by all means, anyone out there who isn't interested, please look away. (Political Umpire, I know you will be!) It also isn't intended to be an indepth analysis of the history, so maybe a bit short on detail, but rather it is a personal reaction to what I saw there. Part of me feels it is rather arrogant to write it at all - after all what more can I add to the reams of words written about the Holocaust? But another part of me thinks remembrance is important, and so for what it's worth here is my testimony to what I saw.

We travelled to Krakow halfway through October, and arrived to freezing cold weather. It snowed on our first morning, so our trip to Auschwitz (which is an hour and a half by taxi from Krakow) was slightly bizarre, as we passed snowfilled fields juxtaposed with trees dancing in autumnal reds and golds.

Our incredibly helpful taxi driver took us to the entrance, organised our tickets and guide books and said he'd meet us in two hours.

I must confess, I walked through the gates at Auschwitz with some trepidation. As I posted before I went, Spouse and I took a trip to Buchenwald many years ago, and though we only walked around the perimeter fence, it was eerie enough to make the blood run cold. I wondered how I would feel going to the camp which has become synonomous with the Holocaust.

We were struck first by the fact that the original camp at Auschwitz (at first used to round up Polish anti facists and the aristocracy) was made up of red brick buildings, and looked more like an army camp then anything else. This is because it was originally army barracks. One of my friends remarked it wasn't how she'd imagined it from the footage you see, and this is because, the bits you associate with Auschwitz are at the secondary camp, built in the mid 40s when the first one got too small.

The place was packed, full of people on tours, going in and out of the barrack rooms, which were set up as exhibitions. With that many people you'd expect a lot of noise. But visiting Auschwitz is unlike any other tourist attraction (if indeed that's what you can call it) I've ever been to. It is a sombre, sometimes distressing business, and one feels disinclined to chat even with the closest of companions, unless in a whisper. Anything louder feels disrespectful somehow.

In one of the first rooms we came to, I spotted this on the wall, which for me expresses perfectly the reason, anyone with breath in their body and humanity in their soul, should at some point in their life make a pilgrimage, if not to Auschwitz to somewhere similar.

As readers of this blog are probably aware by now, I think history is fantastically important, and I think this quotation sums up why. Stumbling across it gave me the answer to why I was there at all, to why anyone comes to visit a place of such suffering. I am fortunate never to have lived through dangerous and cruel times, but it behoves those of us who are so lucky to bear witness and remember for future generations the cruelty inflicted by man on his fellow man.

The Holocaust is unique in the annals of human evil in that it was done in such a cold blooded calculated, way. We came across rooms where there books open listing in great detail prisoner's names, and addresses, and why they were there, and how they died. I find it incredible that anyone could ever deny the Holocaust took place, because it's all there in black and white. My German wasn't up to deciphering a lot of it but it was easy to get the gist. My good blogging friends Political Umpire and Dave Hill were discussing the David Irving business at Oxford last week, and I am sympathetic to their reasoning no one should give airspace to his obnoxious views. But actually, having been to Auschwitz, I think we should go one better then that and just laugh at them. How he can claim to be a credible historian and deny the numbers is beyond me. Because it happened. There is evidence. And what's more the state recorded what they actually did.

This of course is the most iconic image of Auschwitz. Arbeit Macht Frei - I think translates as Work makes you free, the irony being here of course, that most of the inmates of Auschwitz were literally worked to death. To the left of the entrance is a little wooden hut where a sentry apparently sat.

When people first came here, I wonder what they thought? Did they know that they were going to certain death? To begin with Iget the idea, the deaths were more arbitary then planned, and a result of cruelty and neglect. As I mentioned previously the original inhabitants of the camp were dissident Poles, but already in their treatment you can see the seeds for the order and regulation of the Final Solution.
Every single Polish prisoner was photographed and given a number. Many of those photographs were on the walls in the exhibition rooms. I don't think I have ever seen anything more haunting and terrible. The pictures are in black and white, and whether it is the way they were shot, or simply that the faces were so thin, but the thing that struck me principally were people's eyes. There were pictures of old men looking resigned, younger men looking defiant, children holding back tears. On all their faces there was a look of reproach that I cannot understand how anyone could ignore. Surely whoever took these photos must have had some sense of remorse about what they were doing? Or maybe not. Somehow somewhere in the hell that was Auschwitz, normal humanity seems to have walked away and looked on the other side.

The prisoners were housed in the barracks above. They slept in some instances in bunks, and others on straw and matting on the floor. There were roughly 400 to a building, which had poor sanitation and was freezing cold. Even in October it was cold. I dread to think how bad it must have got in the depths of winter. Disease was rife and thousands perished simply from illness and poor malnutrition,and it's easy to see why.

Here's an example of the sort of detail which makes Irving's position so laughable. Here is (I think from memory, I couldn't blow the picture up anymore) a list of the women who came to the camp, when they arrived, when they died. Each of the pictures I mentioned above had the prisoner's date of birth, arrival at the camp and date of death. When Jews were brought here, they weren't photographed, but their details were recorded meticulously. There have been (and sadly will be again) genocides in the world since the Holocaust, but the bureaucratic way it was done does I think make it chillingly unique. How could the people who worked here have squared this laborious detailing of people with the knowledge of the brutal way they were treated? I think that is the thing that shocks you over and over again at Auschwitz. What made ordinary people behave in this way? How was it that Rudolf Hoss, the camp's commander was able to work day after day sending people to their deaths and then go home to his family and drink wine with his wife (as described by Laurence Rees in his excellent TV programme and book about Auschwitz)? It does defy belief.

Here is the entrance to one of the most chilling places in the camp: the so called Death Wall. Prisoners were taken and housed in a barracks to one side, and then stripped naked before being taken out to be executed at the death wall below. Or they were hung on posts as punishment for hours on end. One of the many cruelties was using other prisoners who got better food and conditions as a result to carry out this work. What would any of us do in such a hell hole to survive? I wouldn't like to bet on nobility carrying the day. I doubt I would be that brave.

And here is part of the Death Wall itself. Reconstructed and with touching memorials to the people who died here. Despite the very sombreness and terrible nature of it all, it is possible to take heart from the fact that people haven't forgotten, and do come here to remember and mourn. Thousands died here, but individually, many of them are still remembered by family and friends, which is, I think a testament to the strength of man's spirit.

One particularly unpleasant aspect of camp life was the daily roll call which took place here in all weathers. Often prisoners were made to run round the block without shoes, on cobblestones till the cobbles ran red with blood. There were attempts at escape apparently, and the Polish resistance was active, but what could you do against an enemy which wore you down till you were physically too weak to do anything, or which dealt with insurrection by shooting every tenth prisoner?I think, not a lot is the answer.
And yet there were people who defied the regime. We visited (not pictured) the cells where Zyklon B was first adminstered (again the systematic way it was done is what shocks - you can still see the pipework going into the cells), and I came across the cell of one Maximilian Kolbe. As a catholic his name was familiar as a martyr who gave his life for another prisoner, but I hadn't realised it was here. A shrine is now set up in the cell to his memory - whatever you think of religion, it is another small step in favour of the human spirit rather then against it.

This is the original gas chamber. It didn't seem appropriate to take pictures inside so I didn't. I was quite surprised in a way how small they were. People were stripped and shaved, and told they were going to shower, and taken inside a very small room with tiny windows at the top, and then locked in while the room was pumped with gas. It took them twenty minutes to die. After that their bodies were removed and burnt in ovens next door. This was also done by other inmates. I did find it quite hard to picture that, because it was utterly horrific, but coming out we came pretty much straight to the spot where Rudolf Hoss was hanged at the end of the war, and despite being generally against capital punishment I have never felt more strongly that hanging was actually too good for him. Compared to the suffering people underwent in his camp, his end was relatively swift and painless. I didn't and still don't feel the slightest remorse thinking about that, which I find quite striking, as perhaps it illustrates how easy it is to fall into the notion of revenge. If I could feel so little compassion for the man when I have only seen what he did, how much more must those who suffered at his hands felt?

We came away from the main camp feeling very sombre, and rather sad. There is no other way to experience it I think.
"Very sad place," our taxi driver said, as he drove us the three kilometres to Auschwitz Birkenau - a cliche perhaps, but nonetheless true.

Here is a picture you will no doubt recognize for it's iconic nature. This is the main entrance to Birkenau, and was where we've all seen in war footage and photos, the people were taken off the trains and divided. Those considered weak - the elderly, nursing mothers, children under fourteen, were separated off and made to walk down the train tracks pictured below. They're gone now, but in the distance they would have seen the chimneys of the gas chambers, little realising what they were going to.

There was a steady plod plod plod as we walked around which can only have been a fraction of what it sounded like. And maybe, because I've seen it so often, or maybe because there is nothing left (the Nazis burned the camp as they left), I could picture it all too well. Thousands and thousands of people being stripped naked at the side of the tracks and then forced to walk down the track to their certain deaths. We wondered how they could have been so passive, but I don't know how much people understood what was about to happen to them. Plus they were weakened by days in the cattle trucks, and if you were there with your small children would you risk being shot? Probably not, if you didn't know that you were facing certain death.

One of the saddest things in the exhibitions, is the property that was left behind. There are displays of glasses, wooden legs, bowls, cups, toothbrushes. Most heartrending of all to me though, were the suitcases, still with people's addresses on, and the shoes. The shoes really did for me. Thousands upon thousands of pairs of shoes piled high behind glass, some together, some separated from their partner - a tragic metaphor for the families ripped apart perhaps? - many of them with the heels worn to absolutely nothing, where the owner has walked how many miles to what end? These people were fed the most preposterous lie, that they would be repatriated from the Ghettos and given a new life in the East, so they took with them everything they owned, and instead were sent to their deaths, their belongings stolen. The shoes seemed to symbolise that in a particularly tragic way.

The lucky ones - who were given a second chance - were marched off to the quarantine section of the camp, pictured to the right in the picture. Here they stayed for a year to get fully inured to the camp conditions, unless the cold and disease hadn't killed them first. The huts you see are reconstructions and I counted 25 of them roughly, and about 15 rows. About 200 people were crammed into each hut. The turnover was vast. For Irving to say that the figures of the Holocaust are wrong is arrant nonsense. If anything I wouldn't be at all surprised if the numbers were greater then currently thought. Even with the Nazi's thoroughness, the throughput of prisoners was such that they might have got it wrong

Conditions were impossibly bleak. Prisoners wore thin clothing and ate less then 1000 calories a day.

They slept in bunks in huts like this, which must have been even colder then the ones at the main camp.

Again sanitation was an issue and disease was rife. Quite frankly it was amazing anyone survived it.

Here is the remains of one of the gas chambers. A lot is often made of the obeying orders line the Nazi regime took. Here is evidence, if it were needed that the architects of the Final Solution knew that it was wrong - why else would they try to hide what they'd done?

I was moved to tears here by a plaque simply bearing the message in memory of the people who died. Such a simple phrase. So many many victims. It's shocking and sad and to our fortunate eyes almost incredible to think such evil should ever come to pass.

For ever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity.

I started with a quote and I end with this one from the memorial at Auschwitz. For despair we should always feel about such evil acts and we should learn the lessons of history, and take heed.

Sadly, I feel the cry of despair resonates across the decades and can now be heard in Darfur, Zimbabwe, the Congo and many others.

I would like to feel that we have learnt our lesson, but as Michael Palin said who visited Auschwitz in his recent tv series (coincidentally shown the weekend I was there), I'm not terribly hopeful.

But so long as places like Auschwitz exist and remain as a memorial to the great evil that was done there, and so long as there are people who come and still remember, maybe we stand a chance of learning from the past.

As we walked alongside the tracks, the only sound we could hear was the tramping of feet. There were several school parties visiting the day we went, and many of them walked back down the track. At first, I was slightly shocked, I don't know why - it didn't seem respectful and Auschwitz is a place that demands respect. But then, I admired them in a way. A bit of me didn't want to walk on the tracks, to cover the ground where so many people suffered, and I think perhaps that is the wrong reaction. Walking in their footsteps is a form of pilgrimage perhaps, and a way to honour and remember the dead.
Visiting Auschwitz wasn't an easy thing to do. And I am not sure what words I can use to describe how I felt when I left. To say I'm glad I went seems not quite right somehow, but I think it was a good thing to do.
As I said at the beginning I think the purpose of visiting is to bear witness and to remember and pass on the knowledge to future generations. The future is the path untravelled, and if the cry of despair has any purpose, it must surely we all have to hope give us the opportunity to change that future before it happens.


Political Umpire said...

Great post Jane, nothing I can usefully add at the moment.

Political Umpire said...

I read a lot of WWII when I was younger, and my grandfather (who was invalided out of naval service, which I think always shamed him slightly; other grandfather did serve in home defence - clever sod, volunteered two weeks before his call-up papers, so he got the service of his choice) used to lecture us on it from time to time. I lost interest after a while as there didn't seem to me anything left to say. Interest was rekindled after coming to the UK, especially when my sister moved over here as well as her husband is a military history buff and very knowledgeable on WWII.

The holocaust is one of the best-told stories of WWII. But after watching The Pianist I did some research into the Polish Ghetto and realised there was another side to it - not as clinical a killing machine as the death camps, to be sure, but nonetheless properly included within Nazi persecution.

Having said that, the Russian involvement in fighting Hitler is something I find many English fairly ignorant of. The whole of D-Day could have been dropped in the middle of the Battle of Kursk and I doubt anyone would have noticed.

Secondly, however, whilst most have heard of Stalingrad at least, and realise that the Russians paid the highest price, few seem aware of the Chinese involvement in WWII. That would be eight years conflict (1937-1945), with 20 million dead and 15 million wounded - second only to Russia, and far higher than what the Western allies suffered. I suppose most people have some idea of the Rape of Nanking (on which a spate of films is coming out shortly as it is the 70th anniversary this year). The Japanese experimented on whole towns with chemical weapons, in a desperate attempt to find something that would knock the Americans out of the fight. After the war, the head of their chemical weapon research programme gave himself up to the Americans and got a job with them heading up their own research - something of a contrast to the perpetrators of the holocaust ...

Jane Henry said...

I have a copy of Stalingrad by my bedside as a matter of fact - it's on my tbr pile. Spouse has read it - a friend of his mother's was on the Eastern front and was lucky enough to survive. From the German connection we do now a fair bit about the Russian war. Apparently Spouse's German grandfather wept at the outbreak of war because he knew Germany could never sustain war on two fronts and was certain from the beginning they would lose.

The Nazis certainly don't have the monopoly on evil - there are plenty of equally horrific modern instances of genocide: Rwanda and Serbia spring to mind - but I think the systematic recording of it is particularly wicked, and the fact that they really did consider the Jews to be worse then animals and didn't see anything wrong in exterminating them. Perhaps you have to dehumanise your enemy to justify your actions.

The Polish connection was fascinating, and I picked up a book written at the time by a Polish journalist with information smuggled out of Auschwitz. Interestingly the numbers mentioned seem to tally pretty much with what we know today. It is written in a bit of a shlocky 40s cheap thriller style but hugely informative. And the stories of the way the Gestapo rounded people up in Warsaw were horrific.

If I get to it I will do a brief summary of visiting Schindler's factory and Plaslow, as there are some interesting moral ambiguities there which I found fascinating.

The Chinese story I didn't know at all, though I did a bit about the Red March and Mao Tse Tung at school, and of course it's part of the background to the Last Emperor isn't it?

Political Umpire said...

"Apparently Spouse's German grandfather wept at the outbreak of war because he knew Germany could never sustain war on two fronts and was certain from the beginning they would lose"

That of course was what the Germans had tried to avoid in both world wars and yet failed on both occasions. Even Hitler wanted to avoid it at all costs in WWII but let the early success go to his head. Indeed it was somewhat ironic. Von Manstein, one of the greatest generals of the war, made the key call for the 1940 campaign. Whereas the other German generals were simply going to do the Schlieffen plan mk. 2, it was Von M. who thought to punch through the Ardennes. Everyone else - including, crucially, the French, who left it relatively undefended accordingly - thought the Ardennes was impassible. Hitler accepted Von M.'s plan, however, which was a stunning success and led to the encirclement of the allied armies. It was this success that convinced Hitler that he was a strategic genius when, of course, it was Von M. in reality.

Then on the Eastern front Hitler proceeded to ignore all recommendations of the Generals including - indeed, especially - Von Manstein and left the sixth army to die at Stalingrad (on which I've posted today). Von M. did a prison sentence after the war, but upon release was invited to be an advisor to the German army. He spent the rest of his life grumbling that if only anyone had listened to him they'd have won. That's a moot point - rather like the American civil war, I think the disparity of resources meant there was only ever one likely outcome. But it is rather ironic.

dreadnought said...

Jane Henry. This really is an excellent post. I am reminded of the words of a one Harry Bateman, at the height of the Battle of the Somme, scribbled above one his sketches of the dead in no man’s land: “This hell’s parade”.

I think you are absolutely correct in your assumption about de-humanizing. The Nazis did regard their victims to be sub-human and not worthy of life. Anyone who can pick a small child up by its ankles and swing it round, headfirst, into a brick wall cannot view his victim in any other way. It is a common thread through all ‘great’ acts of mass murder.

As for David Irving, he is not worth of any further comment. He is certainly not worthy of mentioning with regard to your topic. If we all ignore him he might go away.

P-Ump: you are of course right in Germany wanting to avoid two front wars. It is perhaps ironic that they lost the Great War when they were fighting on one front. Of course by this time their principle opponent was the BEF.

Political Umpire said...

Jane - Dreadnought is the capital ship of military history bloggers, so that is praise indeed.

Dreadnought - true it is that the Germans ended up losing on one front in WWI, but I do have cause to wonder if the earlier battles would have gone quite the same way had the Germans had all their divisions on the Western Front ...

Jane, sadly I think the Japanese behaviour in WWII at least matched, and possibly exceeded, that of the Germans for inhumane barbarity. They certainly did so far as mechanical fighting mentality was concerned - while some of the hard core SS units were suicidal in their mentality, it was the Japanese rank and file who did things like hide in holes in the ground with a chisel and an aircraft bomb waiting for Grant tanks to pass overhead before detonating the bomb and themselves in the process. Their treatment of prisoners and occupied civilians - particularly in China - just beggars all belief.

Political Umpire said...

Jane - on Stalingrad read Stalingrad bis zur letzen patrone, by Heinz Shroter (Translation by Michael Joseph) before any secondary sources.

Jane Henry said...

Dreadnought, thanks very much for coming by the blog and for your nice comments. After what PU said, I can see it's a real honour!

PU I am so dumb. I didn't read your post properly - so of course I was aware that the Japs weren't that nice, but thanks for the info. I hadn't realised all that about chemical warfare. And thanks for the tip about the book. I'll certainly look it up. I know Spouse will be interested too.

Anonymous said...

Hello Jane - I am a friend of P-Ump and followed his link to your article. A very thought provoking piece. I am fairly well informed on WWII (Dutch background - my mother still gets cold chills when she hears the sound of airplanes in the night, or boots marching on cobblestones). My family was lucky - granddad old to be picked up by the Germans and transported off for "work duty" and my uncle too young. They did lose their house on a day's notice (literally) to make way for a part of the Atlantikwal (the German utmost Western defence line on the coast). Of course Holland lost most of its jewish population in the camps, in a way because the Dutch are so similar to Germans. Not in the treatment of the jews, but in being organised and more prone to obey the "law" (whatever that may be at the time) and orders based on the law. So if the local Jewish Council said they had to arrive at a rendez-vous point with a bag packed that's likely what they did.

I often read biographies rather than military discourses - "Dresden" being a notable example (and what an interesting book it is, too). I have read of course Simon Wiesenthal's "Murderers Among Us", Anne Frank, and the excellent biography which appeared a few years ago, so not only her diary. I find often that she is held up as someone who would forgive her enemies, but the diary obviously stops before she is taken away, and from interviews with survivors it is obvious that she was both bewildered and angry in the camp. I have a fantastic little book called "Rena's Promise", the story of a Polish jewess who was on the second transport to Auschwitz and survived the entire war there, together with her sister, who came only a little later. It gives a fascinating insight in the daily goings on. Also read some works about women resistance fighters in Europe (such as Violette Szabo and New Zealander Nancy Wake). I have also read semi-fictional works such as those of Leon Uris (Mila 18 very interesting, and Exodus of course, as well as QB VII). And seen many, many films on the subject. Very important one is also Martin Gray's "For Those I Loved" and I could go on and on. Fascinating stuff, all of this.

Anonymous said...

Oh an by the way just finished the book on Gladys Aylward, who was a missionary in China in the 1930s - amazing story too.

Jane Henry said...

Hi anonymous - thanks for coming by and sharing your stories/interest. I think the fact this post has had such a response shows how important a story the Holocaust remains.

Fascinating to hear about the Dutch experience too.

I know the Grace Alyward story too I think - isn't she the one that saved all those children? I read her story in Look and Learn when I was about nine and was completely inspired by it.