Sunday, January 28, 2018

Visit Auschwitz, it's hard, but necessary

It's been almost a year since Rachel and I took our youngest son to Krakow in Poland for a city break. Absolutely central to the trip was to visit Auschwitz and Oskar Schindler's factory in Krakow. I haven't been able to find the words to express what we experienced, but not a day has gone by that I haven't been haunted by what I saw, what we all felt and why it's important.

Part of the reason for the blockage is that there are far more eloquent witnesses than I. There are books, documentaries and witness accounts. Anything I can say also sits badly with the rest of what I warble about on this blog. Anything I could possibly express about a place of such bleak barbarity and profound evil will just look awfully crass and unfeeling. I'm sorry for that. We didn't take photographs. We took only our memories and what we were told by a tour guide who managed to describe everything in an incredibly descriptive, powerful and mesmerising way.  But I can't skip it any longer.

On a fairly regular basis friends and colleagues pop up who are planning a trip to Krakow. And to each one, I look them firmly in the eye and say that they absolutely must visit Auschwitz. It is one of the most important things you can do today but it forces you to remember and it forces you to reflect on what happens to people because we let it happen.

This week we have had Holocaust Memorial Day, the day that marks the liberation of the death camp from the Nazis. On this day, many of us remember; we share social media links, sign memorial books and light candles. Others still feel it necessary to question why we need to, question why we should and, outrageously, deny that there is even a need for us to do so. One of the reasons I have found it so hard to write anything about the experience is the sickening prevalence of Holocaust deniers. I followed the earlier trials of these attention-seeking truth twisters with horror. Their insidious motives drip feeding insult upon the injury and industrial scale cruelty of what happened.

I also despair at the hasty "yeah" and the insolent "but" that prefaces a breathtaking rant that lacks both awareness and shame. I lament the numbers game that history forces us to play, but at Auschwitz it's simply too overwhelming to contemplate engaging with anyone who offers a desultory "what about?".

I'll be honest, my primary senses weren't assaulted by either the stench of death or the intense humming of evil. What you see, what you hear and what you feel are far more overwhelming. The first horror is the piles of spectacles, suitcases and shoes in the brick built barracks behind the barbed wire and the notorious Arbeit Mach Frei gates. These mountains of artefacts betray the treachery and deceit that many of the victims were lured to. Then there's the sheer mechanised bureaucracy that sustained the vast camp itself.

On its own the death camp is hard enough to take in. But the context and the brutality of the Nazi occupation of Poland confronts you profoundly in the tour of the Jewish ghetto in Krakow and Oskar Schindler's factory. A people erased from life, eradicated like vermin, reduced to being the "other".

We won't forget that this happened, we can't. The greater danger is that we forget how. That we stop believing in love and give in to hate.

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