‘Nothing can ever prepare you for Auschwitz’ we were told.
And yet as we walked around the camp, each of us plugged into headphones, listening to our guide’s rapid, rehearsed jabber, I simply rolled my shoulders which were aching from the weight of the water in my rucksack and shifted from one tired foot to the other.
Yes, the hair was shocking. The mounds and mounds of hair. And the glasses. And the shoes…
But there was no reaction: I’d heard it all before, seen the pictures countless times.
We listened to the stories of the escapees whose friends paid the price: up to twenty could be killed for their associations with the wrongdoer. We saw the places where they were punished: the starvation cell, the standing cell, the wall of death. Bang. Bang. Bang. All through this, I begged for a reaction, tried to imagine myself in the same position. I was disturbed by the calmness which held me. A coping mechanism? Perhaps. But I didn’t feel numb; I just felt normal.
Auschwitz was a film set. I was walking through a Granada studio, next door to Coronation Street. The ‘Arbiet Macht Frei’ gate was just a prop. That’s how I felt. I couldn’t connect with any of it. Not even the gas chamber in which millions had suffocated and then burned.
Auschwitz-Birkenau was the same. Barrack upon barrack upon barrack could be seen from the watchtower window through which I knew murderers had once peered. Of course, I was struck by the vastness of the place, and shocked by the figures: 1,000 to a barrack, 8 to a bed (a euphemism for the shelves on which the prisoners slept.) Yet when walking the same walk that so many others had taken as their last, I couldn’t feel anything.
What did affect me, though, were the family photographs, accompanied by brief biographies, taken before Auschwitz destroyed everything that they had. In particular, I remember a picture of three girls, about my age, proudly playing their musical instruments for the camera. I didn’t have time to read their biography so am left wondering whether they made it out. A face touches far deeper than a number.
The finishing ceremony, given by Rabbi Barry Marcus, at the point where the train track to Auschwitz-Birkenau ends, also provoked some response. As darkness fell and his prayer, sang in Hebrew, echoed over the vast expanse which once pulsated with feeble life, anger and fear ebbed dully within me. My main thought was of how reminiscent the contemporary cliche, ‘they’re stealing our jobs’, seems of the attitude held by many in the lead-up to the Holocaust. Did it ever really go away? Or did it just transfer from one minority group to another? Yet rather than it being those who hold with such a skin-crawling sentiment, I think that it is those of us who aren’t ignorant and bigoted and cruel that could pave the way to the next Holocaust. Our blind belief in ourselves is fast leading to a complacency which is sure to assist the spread of prejudice. We cannot allow a loss of urgency. To think ‘Oh, it will never happen again’ is just as dangerous as the contemporary myths being spouted about immigration and Islam.
Nevertheless, on the plane home, I was left selfishly pondering what was wrong with me. How was I supposed to feel? Was I heartless? Did I lack imagination? And then I went home and slept, where not a thought of the preceding day disturbed me.
But today, on my way to school, I passed a woman and a child. The boy, with a cunning smile, was obstinately refusing to follow her, secure in the knowledge that his mum would never abandon him here in the park. Yet after a couple of warnings, she began to walk away. The smile faded into a scowl and then into an expression of terror. The child was subsumed with tears as he tottered after his mother screaming ‘You left me, you left me!’
In that moment I was taken back to the train track at Auschwitz-Birkenau where mothers and children were separated with the gesture of a thumb. Husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, friends. Split into two categories: indefinitely prolonged life and death. The child’s screams continued long after his mother had scooped him up, back into the safety of her arms.
At Auschwitz, it was difficult to connect with that which happened nearly seventy years ago. To me, it didn’t feel real. It was just a place. The people that died there were just a number. History GCSE, ‘Schindler’s List’ and ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’, have all allowed me to explore the Holocaust, to come to terms with the horror and the suffering and the evil. Thus I argue that you can prepare for Auschwitz.
But sat here, with the image of that panic-stricken child chasing his mother who was only a few metres away, tears fall onto my hands and I realise that what it is impossible to prepare for is coming home.
And so, as the time between us and the Holocaust expands, we become less and less connected to it. This distance is becoming especially profound as the number of survivors dwindles. Yet we must remember. We must continue to visit and continue to educate others. We must always grieve the loss of life and put faces to those who suffered at the hand of the Nazis. If not for the victims, we must do it for ourselves and those that will come after us.
‘The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again’ George Santayana
Thank you to Lessons From Auschwitz
Another interesting article: Bystanders