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Hacktreks in Eastern Europe: Poland

Philip Seddon

The captions beneath the photos were terrifyingly stark:
Name; Occupation; Birthdate; Admitted; Deceased.

The coach 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 can’t get from academic textbooks. So this is what it’s 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 women’s 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 their possessions.

There were also displays of tiny children’s 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 hadn’t – 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 I’m already dead, but you mustn’t forget why I died." The captions beneath the photos were terrifyingly stark: Name; Occupation; Birthdate; Admitted; Deceased.

I leaned on the windowsill, sharing an inmate’s 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.

Major 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 didn’t. 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 world.

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


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