Why Everyone Should Go to Auschwitz
Last year I went to Auschwitz. I was accompanied by my two oldest children – 30 and 28 – and it was a day trip from our weekend break in Poland’s lovely Medieval city of Krakow, where we visited churches and a castle, ate pierogi and drank vodka.
But for me the trip was always about Auschwitz. It was a journey I have talked about since my children were small. I felt that I wanted to bear witness to the horrific acts that had been carried out there, to walk under the Arbeit Macht Frei sign, see the empty shoes and photographs of dead-eyed families arriving at the station, to feel the desolation that was left behind.
I have no Jewish heritage and in fact I come from New Zealand where only 0.2% of the population identify as Jewish. As a teenager I had an elderly German tutor, Frau Perl, whose family had escaped the country in the late 1930s. To get me through the equivalent of GCSEs she was supposed to help me with cultural questions as well as language, but every time we tried to talked about Germany, the country and its culture, she welled up. Otherwise I knew little about the people whose lives had been so appallingly affected by the Nazi campaign to clear Europe of Jews.
But, born in the 1950s, and living in the UK since 1982, I wanted more and more to understand what had gone on in the war that had destroyed and then redrawn the boundaries of so much of Europe. I studied history at university; I knew that wars happened for reasons, and usually with mass support. But I couldn’t stop thinking about how ordinary people in Nazi Germany did appalling things to people who had once been their neighbours, colleagues, even friends. The response to the EU referendum results also made me want to look back at what had gone before and ponder the similarities to where we are now.
In preparation for our trip I read Laurence Rees’s detailed book on the history of Auschwitz and watched Son of Saul the Hungarian film which won the Oscar for best foreign film. If you haven’t seen it - and I have not met many who have - it’s the story of a Sonderkommando in Auschwitz in 1944. These were prisoners who obeyed their SS bosses — herding the new arrivals into the gas chambers, pulling out the bodies, stuffing them into incinerators, clearing out the ashes — all the while knowing that after a couple of months they too would be killed. The opening scene in which those who are destined for the gas chamber are selected on arrival at the camp is one of the most intense pieces of cinema I have ever witnessed.
As Peter Bradshaw wrote in The Guardian: “Prisoners are stripped and herded as if part of an industrial process of evil: the Nazi officers are all the time tricking and pacifying them with nonsense about how they are to be fed, clothed and used as craftsmen. And the awful truth is the presence of the Sonderkommando, helping to superintend this business and to hoodwink and reassure. It is a theatre of pure evil, all but unwatchable.”
Since then I’ve read acclaimed human rights lawyer Philipe Sands’ prize-winning book East West Street, which weaves the stories of how two men from the same city in Poland (now Ukraine) created the legal concepts that drove the Nuremberg Trials, for the first time in history putting defeated leaders before an international trial; the story of his own grandparents’ family, never told to him in their lifetime; and how the experiences of their fathers shaped the lives and beliefs of two sons of senior Nazi leaders. On a broad canvas stretching from Lviv to Vienna to Paris, for many in the story, including Sands’s great-grandparents, the road ends, definitively, at Auschwitz.
And now I’ve also seen Denial, a film of the 2000 trial in which British historian David Irving accused American academic Deborah Lipstadt of libel for calling him “a Hitler partisan who distorted evidence to reach untenable historical conclusions”. To defend herself Lipstadt and her crack legal team had to literally “prove” the Holocaust. They focused on Auschwitz, and in the film — on a misty winter’s day — they visited the site of the death camp.
It was a cool, drizzly day when we visited. Actually we went twice, but on the first day we weren’t allowed in without being part of a guided tour, so we returned the following day. We walked under the infamous sign and spent several hours walking from one barracks building to the next. Once the dormitories for those workers who were spared the gas chamber, they are now museums dedicated to various groups: the Polish Jews; the Hungarian Jews; the French Jews, along with the Roma, Poles and Soviet prisoners. They are filled with pictures, clothes and belongings, maps and diaries.
But I already knew many of the stories; it was the overall scene that I wanted to experience. This neat, well-tended place, nestled up against a small town on a railway line cutting through pleasant countryside, had been the site of one of the 20th century’s best-known atrocities. As The Guardian reported on the 70th anniversary of its liberation, “According to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, the German SS systematically killed at least 960,000 of the 1.1-1.3 million Jews deported to the camp. Other victims included approximately 74,000 Poles, 21,000 Roma, 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war and at least 10,000 from other nationalities. More people died at Auschwitz than at any other Nazi concentration camp and probably than at any death camp in history.” The Auschwitz camp we visited was the original; a mile or so away was Birkenau, also known as Auschwitz II where the killing was truly on an industrial scale with no fewer than five crematoria.
Some people say that there is no point in going to places like Auschwitz. It’s history; we can’t change it, and it’s a kind of voyeurism to wander about with selfie sticks and then give it a score on Trip Advisor. That’s not how it struck us. We didn’t cry and we didn’t talk much either. It seemed too shockingly sad for that.
Afterwards, sitting in a bar back in the tourist hub of Krakow, surrounded by people from all over Europe and beyond, we talked about the long history of anti-Semitism in Europe, but also about other examples of ethnic cleansing - in Syria, in Iraq, in Georgia, in Sudan - and more day-to-day racism against minorities of every kind that the world is witnessing in this century. As Philippe Sands told The Guardian after his book had won the Baillie Gifford Prize last year “Alarm bells are ringing in this country.”
Being present in this place of so much death and terror clearly showed where hatred and racism could eventually lead, we agreed: we would never forget our visit to Auschwitz.