The title of this blog-post, ‘Midsummer in Auschwitz’, certainly sounds like the title of an interesting story. Yet it would be a story that I do not think I could write, or do any justice to if I did.
A week and a half ago, on Wednesday, as our plane chased the midsummer sunset over Poland and Germany, one of the trip organisers spoke to us over the aircraft tannoy. Until that point I had not realised it was midsummer’s day and I have certainly borrowed the title from what he said to us. I had, however, been keenly aware that the 28oC that we had experienced during our tour was significantly cooler than the 36oC heat of a humid London. It had also been very clear to me that my generic understanding of Auschwitz was incorrect. The cold, sub-zero winter temperatures that are the norm in that part of Poland, are only a feature of the winter months. Southern Poland basks in the sun just like anywhere else.
Having been keenly aware of the Holocaust since a very young age, initially through my father’s collection of ‘Purnell’s History of the Second World War‘, Auschwitz has always been a place I have been ambivalent about visiting. I have always been nervous about visiting a scene of one of the many massacres that took place across Europe, especially one that is so high in the public consciousness. Even while a student, I kept at a discrete distance from Holocaust Studies, aware of the great historians who were arguing about the interpretation of sources and the events while fighting off a rising tide of denial. Yet, I have always wanted to see these places for myself, to make them as real as one can after so many decades.
The opportunity to visit Auschwitz came up when I recently changed schools. Over the years I have worked with the Lessons From Auschwitz project to send pupils and teachers to witness the museum on the site of the former death and concentration camp. This year I finally got the opportunity to go. After a weekend development seminar, at which a Holocaust survivor spoke, I was ready to go, although wary of how the trip may affect me.
After an extremely early start, the flight descended over Poland, the first time I had seen the country. Already a glorious day, everything glistened in the sunshine, the fields green and fertile. One of the first things to strike me, as we made our approach to the airfield, were the small strips of farmland dominating the landscape, totally unlike the post-enclosure fields of agricultural Britain.
The first stop on the tour was to the cross-roads town of Oświęcim, a reasonable coach journey from the airport. Having returned to it’s original name, this town deserves to be known for much more than the crimes committed under it’s Germanic name. With many old buildings and a glorious town square, the centre of the town is picturesque. As a major meeting point on old trade routes and the railways, it has a rich history as a meeting place. Prior to the events of the Second World War, it was also relatively well integrated, and people of all faiths and nationalities lived alongside each other. Of course, the events that took place on the outskirts of the town, underlined by the destruction of the synagogue, led to the end of that integration. Also much overlooked by those outside of Poland is the extreme suffering of the Poles during the war.
The visit to Oświęcim was truly a whistle-stop one. Before long we were back on the coaches for the short trip to Auschwitz I, the old army barracks. As it came into sight, I was surprised by how close it was to the town, barracks building that I had seen in countless documentaries were clearly visible from the road. Hotels and commercial buildings around the entrance to the camp built up to support the vast numbers of people who make a pilgrimage to the museum every year. Make no mistake, this complex is now a museum, a place to learn and reflect, no longer a place of torment and death.
During our guided tour, the exhibits and the expert knowledge of the guide proved thought-provoking. On more than one occasion I could feel the hairs on my arm stand on end. This was no tour of mass slaughter, but rather a reflection on the personal experience. Everywhere there was evidence of individuals, identified by name, date of birth and ultimate fate. The controversial exhibit of human hair, was one such moment when I dwelt upon the end of a specific individual.
In various places, I could see the locations of the different survivor accounts I was familiar with. The tour of the barracks rooms was highly organised. For various reasons it covers the whole history of the camps at Auschwitz, not just the story of the events that took place in those rooms or even Auschwitz I. It is clearly a museum within the maintained shell of the old Polish barracks, the barracks that was converted into the first part of vast Auschwitz-Birkenau complex. The museum faces the challenge of telling the story to multiple nationalities, of varying ages, and significantly varying interest. Imagine living in a country where Holocaust Studies is a significant and compulsory part of the school curriculum and that you are required to visit the camp as part of your education. You may end up more liberal in your lifetime views, but not every teenager can cope with being told to go on school trips and visit places relating to subjects that you have already been heavily-exposed too. Having said that, all the teenagers I saw were respectful. The museum also has the challenge of how to maintain the original fabric of the site while using replicas in an appropriate and sensitive fashion. The famous sign above the gated entrance to this camp is one such example, a replica now standing following the theft and recovery of the original. Another place where this dilemma was noticeable was the gallows where the former camp commander Rudolf Hoess was executed in 1947.
The bareness of the improvised gas chamber and crematorium, stood in stark contrast to the various exhibits in the barracks building. This is a building that is familiar to anyone who has watched Laurence Rees’ ‘Auschwitz – The Nazis and the Final Solution’ and ‘The Nazis – A Warning from History’, both made by the BBC. It is also the only intact gas chamber at the Auschwitz-Birkenau site, the others destroyed either by a prisoner uprising or the retreating Nazis. The silence in the building was almost total, with our guide talking to us over the radio headphones. I doubt I was capable of any rational conversation at this time.
The remainder of the day was spent at the Birkenau camp. With a mixture of restored and replica buildings, wrecked buildings and the destroyed gas chambers, this was a different experience. Auschwitz I was based around the experience of the individual, Birkenau was based around sheer scale even though there were careful exhibits to remind us about the individual scale.
The camp was vast. From the famous rail entrance to the camp, the wire fences stretched into the distance, the back of the camp also out of view in the distant tree-line. Near the entrance are a series of brick prisoner barracks in various stages of preservation. There were also several wooden barracks in various stages of reconstructions, the wood falling prey to the high water-table over the years and having to be replaced. Even the telegraph poles had been removed from contact with the damp ground, now anchored to concrete posts. The majority of the concentration camp was in ruins, pairs of chimneys marking the locations of the many barracks the prisoners were held in. With so many buildings in skeletal form, it is easier to see the vast scale of the camp. While the decision to maintain, and recreate, a small number of buildings was more than adequate to communicate the horror of the place. Among the recreated buildings was a toilet block, while the sleeping quarters next door, clearly illustrated the appalling conditions the inmates were forced to live in. It was clear that the intention was for the prisoners to die over time.
The rail sidings through the centre of the camp were capable of taking long trains before sorting individuals for instant gassing. Approximately 5,000 people could be delivered by each train. There are an immense number of accounts that recall what happened here. To be stood in a location, that is the centre of such historical documentation, leads to many mixed emotions. As an Englishman, who has visited many of the historically important parts of Britain, this visit was on a completely different level to visits I have made to historical sites before. While there have been great crimes in the history of Britain, there is no one site that can compare to this. Of the many sites of extermination in Eastern Europe, few are remembered on the scale of Auschwitz.
The wrecked gas chambers and crematorium were vast, preserved in their destroyed state, ponds besides them that had been used to store ashes. One building had been destroyed by the retreating Nazis, the other by revolting Sonderkommandos. As you stand by these buildings, the mathematics of the camp cannot be ignored. Hundreds of thousands of individuals were ‘processed’ through these buildings. The photographic evidence from the time is sparse. While the Nazis were thorough in their photographic documentation of the camp, only photographs taken covertly by the Sonderkommandos, show the buildings in use. However, the eyewitness testimony and the human remains, are the strongest evidence.
As I walked around Birkenau, I struggled to take in the scale, too vast in numbers of deaths. As a museum, the former concentration and death camp is clean, grassed, empty, almost desolate despite the frequent evidence of wildlife. Yet places were recognisable from the photos that exist, but are today transformed by peace.
The rest of the trip passed in a blur of tiredness. As we flew into the sunset, I began to reflect. I have continued to reflect in the days since the trip. Intolerance and prejudice must be challenged quickly and effectively. Auschwitz is a warning of what can occur when people do not stand up for each other, an extreme warning of what can happen in an enlightened modern society. However, it should be remembered that intolerance and prejudice comes from humans-beings. The challenge is to stand firmly against their views, while remembering that they too are human.
While the scale and nature of persecution against the Jews, by the Nazis and their supporters, was unprecedented in human history, other groups suffered immensely. There is a challenge today to remember the many other victims of the Nazi persecutions, without disregarding the suffering of the Jews. Among these were Germans of all religions, sexualities and political viewpoints; Poles; Russians; Ukrainians; Romani; and the disabled.
There is also the challenge of remembering that Auschwitz was the exception, not the rule. Millions were murdered by Einsatzgruppen firing squads; camps such as Treblinka were brutally effective in both scale and lack of survivors. Locally initiated pogroms and the ghetto system also led to vast amounts of suffering and deaths. Much of Nazi-occupied Europe was subject to the persecutions and genocides; and while many people participated, many also resisted.
Perhaps the most challenging reflection came from one person on the trip, who was concerned by the lack of a vigorous challenge to anti-Semitism, by one of the main British political parties. That political party has been accused, by some of being institutionally anti-Semitic. In the last week, some media sources have even suggested that this party is experiencing a cult of personality. Contrasted to this is a policy of one of the other major political parties in Britain that has led to thousands of disabled people dying after they have been declared as ‘fit to work‘ and had their benefits cut. Not that such a policy directly caused their deaths, but the stress of the review process will not have helped their health. Nor is it fair to target someone for austerity measures who clearly has a terminal condition. Yet, neither situation is anywhere near the scale of what happened in the 1930s and 1940s, but there is prejudice and discrimination going on. In Britain today, there is also the spectre of Islamophobia and the question of how to deal with Brexit, while not tolerating racism.
How does one person fix these things? They do not. They make a stand for what is right and encourage those around them to do so to. Whatever the ‘-ism’ or ‘-phobia’, it must be challenged and not allowed to flourish, while remembering that the people who hold these ideas are human.