Tuesday, 27 January 2015

My visit to Auschwitz

Josh and I visited Auschwitz last year as part of a visit to Krakow. We'd considered before, whether we wanted to go, and I didn't endlessly want to, but we decided in the end that it would be a good idea to visit while we were there.

My apprehension at going can be summed up quite simply - I'm not somebody for whom seeing things necessarily makes them more real. Seeing the wreck of the Titanic scattered across the ocean floor doesn't help me understand the horror, or the loss of life. Similarly, visiting Auschwitz didn't help me to understand atrocity.

In that sense though, I don't think we visit places like Auschwitz to understand. How can you understand? Standing at the gates, under the sign, didn't help me understand the warped parade of men, women and children who marched in and out of Auschwitz 1 camp on a daily basis, accompanied by the cheery music of the camp orchestra. What I did notice was how strange it was, to stand beneath a sign so infamous, and notice with some discomfort how well engineered it was. To notice the 'Halt' barrier, tilted at an angle, now, like something from a lego kit.

Seeing the mountains of shoes didn't help me understand what had led to this, but it did make me fear history. As you walk into another room, and realise that one wall is made of glass, you recognise the fear of looking any further. In that split second, you realise that the space holds something that will hit you like a train, even before you see what it is. That's the fear of knowing that you're a human being - not a Jew, a Gypsy or a gay, as such - but that you're a human being, and it was your people that did this, it's the fear of looking your own history in the face. Then you do, and it's suitcases. A small suitcase that used to be red, and used to belong to a little girl who didn't see as much life as you've spent asleep. It does hit you like a train, and so it should.

Auschwitz Birkenau, again, is uncanny. When you've seen something in pictures, or in documentaries, so often, it's strange to realise that this place exists. People say that birds never sing at Auschwitz Birkenau, and it's rubbish. Birds very rarely sing in places that don't have trees, and this place doesn't have many. Rather than realising that, people buy into this helpful thought, as if nature is judging what has happened there, as if God knows. I don't know about God, but to me, it's a way of moving our gaze. If we're trotting around thinking about the supernatural power of birds to recognise atrocity, we're distracting ourselves just slightly from the horror of it all. The forest near Birkenau is one of the richest in the area for mushrooms, but nobody eats them, because the soil is fertile with the ash dumped there seventy years ago. Accept the grim reality of that, and then give me hokey talk about birdsong.  

The news has made a great deal of the fact that the number of survivors returning to Oswiecim this year is dwindling. Around 300 people will visit the site today, to remember what happened there and act as a warning to another generation. In another five years, or another ten, they'll be gone, and we'll have the camps themselves, and the recorded testimony to remind us - the sum total of six million lives.

Visiting Auschwitz didn't help me understand what happened there, because, simply, nothing can. Most human beings can't clearly imagine twenty people standing in a row, so it's probably a bit much to expect to be able to quantify death and degradation on such a horrific scale. But what it did do is help me understand my link to it. I'm not German, I'm not authoritarian, I don't hate people, but I am human and I am capable. It's very easy for us, with seventy years of blue water, to pretend that the whole thing is too distant and too brutal. It isn't - it's all very normal. I have sat on a bus and heard people mocking somebody else for the way they're dressed, and I sat in silence and watched, because I didn't want to get involved. There is literally nothing between me, and somebody who noticed Jewish people steadily disappearing from their neighbourhood, but who didn't want to get involved.

That's why I visited Auschwitz. To bare witness to the capability of us - all of us. Nobody can stand up and say, with a clear conscience, that this should never happen again, without an awareness that on various scales it's happening all around us. Whether on killing fields, or in Russian prisons, or in the areas controlled by Islamic State Militants, human beings are being divorced of their humanity, and often butchered on a horrible scale. We stand solemnly at the gates of Auschwitz, yet blindeye Boko Haram. We all know of the horrors of Nazi Germany, yet lower our flags to remember a Saudi King whose regime sentenced people to paralysis - not death, paralysis.

I'm not suggesting that we can tackle all of the world's horrors. We can't. We don't live in a black and white world, we live in shades of grey. Auschwitz isn't an answer to any question. It didn't help my understanding, it doesn't offer a solution. But if Auschwitz and the holocaust can teach us anything, I hope it's that we're all human beings - it was 'our people' that did this. We're all capable, and we're all involved, and perhaps the best we can hope for is that, bit by bit, we get better.

Please visit Auschwitz, but not because it's about Jews or Nazis. Visit Auschwitz and become aware. It's about all of us.