Hacktreks in Eastern Europe: Poland
captions beneath the photos were terrifyingly stark:
Name; Occupation; Birthdate; Admitted; Deceased.
to Auschwitz-Birkenau wended its way down Pilsudski Street past the
Sokol Gymnastics Society, taking in romantic views of Krakow across
the Vistula. This where the fat complacent traveller gets at least a
modicum of empathy for the victims; the kind of empathy you cant
get from academic textbooks. So this is what its like to be driven
to Auschwitz. Our Guide spoke of the collapse of the Polish forces in
September 1939 as we weaved our way through the attractive villages,
and one could not help absorbing a slight sense of dread as we approached
this infamous place, formerly a rather innocuous barracks and arms dump.
Auschwitz is by far the smaller of the two camps in the Auschwitz-Birkenau
set up, but it was certainly the most active in the territory of the
Greater Reich, slaughtering around 1.5 million innocent men, women and
children. After a harrowing documentary film in the visitor centre,
we made our way towards the infamous gate bearing the grotesque legend
Arbeit Macht Frei (Work gives Freedom). The layout of the
small square at the entrance to the camp bears testament to the cold
rationalism of the killing process, with the administrative HQ immediately
inside the gates for the registration of new arrivals; the square itself
for the macabre selections, and set further back and very
conveniently on the left, the insignificant looking, squat little gas
chamber, poorly disguised by a grassy knoll. The gas chamber is a dank,
primitive structure. Remove a few vents and iron doors and you could
be in a cave.
A pause for reflection, then on into the prisoners quarters housing
the many displays of camp life and the horrific industries
contained therein. In neat display cases I saw masses of human hair
female hair, shaven from womens heads in what turned out
to be their final moments. There were piles of spindly metal spectacles,
shoes, the suitcases personalised with names, addresses and birth dates
by those new arrivals who imagined they would shortly be reunited with
There were also displays of tiny childrens clothes. At one stage
in my life I had the privilege to teach Holocaust studies to mature
students. The experience is engaging, enthralling, but ultimately extremely
painful. You read things you wish you hadnt certain incidences
are too horrific to delve into: the fate of pregnant women caught up
in the Nazi terror, the evacuation of the lunatic asylum in Amsterdam,
the children at the Drancy concentration camp in Paris. There was a
photograph on the wall of one of the museums, of a boy about to be evacuated
from Drancy. He reminded me of my son. A study of the holocaust is a
kind of stark aversion-therapy course against racism. For every casual
remark of hatred towards other human beings, this, ultimately, can be
the end result. Rather oddly, one of most terrible things that has struck
me about the entire evacuation process is the absence of drinking water.
Victims were packed into trains and left in thirst, often until death.
Every parent remembers the stress of a child deprived of a drink until
he gets home. But what if there will never be a drink? Even if you put
yourself, as a parent, in that position for even a moment, you can almost
feel the sheer terror and hysteria building up. Fix the stress of your
own mildly thirsty child in your mind, then multiply it by about a million.
This said, empathy for the cultured post-modern can be difficult to
come by. So in another building the dead inmates forced it upon us,
by staring. A corridor contains photographs of new arrivals, reminiscent
of police mug shots, but with a resounding historical meaning. These
men and women were looking at us; we all sensed it. Their stares were
almost too much to bear, in fact some of them seemed to be trying to
avert their eyes, as if the moment were too intense. They were all prematurely
aged, with faces an odd mixture of resignation and mortal fear. It was
almost as if the stares were meant to accuse their tormentors, in a
final act of defiance. Or perhaps after all they accused us, the inhabitants
of the twenty first century, with plaintive, searching messages: "Yes
I know Im already dead, but you mustnt forget why I died."
The captions beneath the photos were terrifyingly stark: Name; Occupation;
Birthdate; Admitted; Deceased.
leaned on the windowsill, sharing an inmates view of the sentry
towers and barbed wire fence. Was it evil? It seemed
to be, almost in the supernatural sense of the word. How could human
beings, men like myself, perhaps with families, do this to others?
That is the most horrifying aspect of most perpetrators their
mundane, hugely recognisable lives. If the victims were parents,
so were the guards. We should consider for a moment a number of
incidents in the complex tapestry of Axis war crimes during the
occupation of Europe: An SS soldier remarks during a round-up that
a Jewish girl looks like his daughter. A camp guard wakes screaming
from a nightmare and fires his rifle into the ceiling.
Trapp of the Order Police becomes hysterical with grief when asked to
liquidate the women and children of Jozefow, Poland. The
Germans who slaughtered the Jews were indeed human, and they continued
to be human while they committed their crimes. These incidences were
tiny glimpses of humanity; in all they represent a negligible portion
of German responses to the holocaust. And it must be remembered that
the main desire of these few individuals was simply to be somewhere
else while the killing was taking place. The history of Nazism is one
of the failure of humanity. Ordinary men should have protested,
should have acted differently, but didnt. In my teaching I often
used to encourage students to consider the extent of their own susceptibility
to Nazi propaganda if suddenly transported back to the thirties.
Sometimes you think "Would I have killed, and thought little of
it?", then you stop yourself.
Being at Auschwitz reinforced the truth about what fascism actually
was, far more than academic study of that nebulous, virulent ideology
ever could. Fascism was made flesh by the sheer hatred evident in that
place. Punishments inflicted on those innocent inmates reflected pitiless
cruelty. On one occasion a fifteen year old girl was made to stand barefoot
in the snow for a whole day. She survived the war to have both feet
amputated. On another a man was made to stand waist deep in a barrel
of freezing water in the middle of winter. He was kept there overnight,
and was frozen solid by morning. To have the choice of inflicting a
painless death, but choosing instead the most painful and most humiliating;
that is fascism.
In all of Auschwitz I, the most harrowing place for me personally was
the camp prison. I have never been in a setting that corresponded so
closely to my own vision of Hell. We passed the tiny cells in which
prisoners were housed to await either trial by SS court-martial, or
sentence; usually the gallows or the firing squad. For less fortunate
prisoners there was however another form of execution. In the prison
basement a truly terrifying place - there were the punishment
cells, in which prisoners who had particularly offended the camp authorities
were placed, and left simply to starve to death. There are holes in
the cell doors enabling guards to periodically check the progress
of the victim. One of the cells was a metre square, and was often used
to hold up to four prisoners. This is like something from the works
of Edgar Allen Poe; or Orwell. It is Room 101; the worst thing in the
Condemned men and women would undress in the room adjoining the courtyard
in which the firing squad awaited, so that their clothes could be re-used.
The room resembled a stable that was still in use as such. A tap dribbled
adding to the feeling that we were standing at the very end of the world.
People paid tribute in silence at the wall. I thought of my own parents
for some reason. These people had been normal; they had
had homes and jobs in Krakow and elsewhere before the war. Now here
they were, broken and humiliated, being led to a freezing courtyard
to be killed by smirking SS men.
Birkenau, or Aushwitz II, established by order of Himmler following
a visit to Auschwitz I in 1942, is much larger and much greener, with
dormitories constructed not of brick as at Auschwitz I, but of wood.
The characteristic entrance gates and sentry towers made infamous by
dramatized versions of events and documentary footage are immediately
recognizable, with railway lines protruding starkly into the heart of
the camp. In contrast to the smaller Auschwitz, only a few of the wooden
dormitories were open to the public. In these purposefully harsh living
conditions inmates slept stacked in three storey bunk beds, with as
many as eight people per bunk. The latrine and washing block was emblematic
of the primitive and ultimately murderous sanitary conditions. At this
point our guide took the opportunity to tell us of the uprising of the
Sonderkommando (those men in striped pyjamas) at Birkenau an
extraordinarily brave act of defiance amidst the futility and senselessness
of so many innocent deaths.
Outside the camp gates a group of visiting Israeli students looked more
like a demonstration, replete with Star of David flags. And elsewhere
a number of other visitors did resemble Neo-Nazis and acted, true to
form, like they owned the place. I surveyed some of the books and postcards
on sale at both camps, and my eyes were drawn to a number of items in
less than decent taste. Capitalism being what it is, it is very possible
that all types of ethno-cultural tourist are sought after, including
the Neo-Nazi pilgrimage market. But this is the stuff of other articles.
On the return journey we passed Auschwitz III at Monowitz-Buna, in which
the German industrial concern IG Farben exploited prisoner slave labour
in its drive to manufacture cheap synthetic rubber and petrol for the
Wehrmacht. The Italian author and chemist Primo Levi was imprisoned
there. He would live to liberation, only to suffer forty years of survivor
guilt. He finally committed suicide in 1987. The holocaust continues
to haunt the survivors. They lived through the most unimaginable horrors,
and have suffered more pain and humiliation than any living being should.
The least we can do, in our post-modern comfort and security, is to
remember them, and pay tribute with our eternal vigilance.
© Philip Seddon November 2003
all rights reserved