One of the places I visited on my recent trip to Poland was Auschwitz. My original idea was not to go, but in the end I did go on an organised tour, and I am glad (that is not the right word, I know, but I can think of no other) that I went. The Auschwitz tour, which over a million visitors a year take (one can hardly call them tourists) is educational.
It is always revelatory to visit a place that you have heard much about, and of which you have seen many pictures. The reality is never the same. First of all, there was no such single entity as “Auschwitz”, but rather a complex of camps, some forty-eight in all; but the tour is restricted to Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II (also known as Auschwitz-Birkenau). The first is the one with the well-known Arbeit Macht Frei over the gate; the second is the one with the haunting railway line passing through a gateway.
Auschwitz I was smaller than I expected, which makes one realise just how overcrowded it must have been; the brick buildings, originally army barracks before they were taken over by the Nazis, are now given over to various explanatory exhibitions. These are understated, and all the better for that; the objects displayed are stark and eloquent. Most people I know mention the huge pile of shoes. I was more struck by the ocean of chamber pots which the deportees had brought with them, which spoke of a perfectly reasonable expectation that their lives were destined to continue after deportation. Those chamber pots tell us that for the victims, as for ourselves, their fate was unimaginable.
Because the Holocaust is something that transcends words – for nothing can describe this horror – Birkenau, which is essentially a large desolate space, is starkly eloquent too. Most of the wooden huts have disappeared, leaving their ghostly outline against what is now a field full of wild flowers and grasses. The gas chambers were destroyed by the retreating Nazis and are now piles of ruins. The surviving huts are terrible beyond belief, unfit for human habitation, originally conceived as stabling for horses. Here too the overcrowding and the attendant filth and disease must have been unimaginable. Now, there are hardly any people, and so the grass and the flowers have grown where once there was only a sea of mud, or a desert of dust.
Birkenau contains the memorial to all those who died in the camp complex. It is a collection of huge stones, vaguely reminiscent of the work of Henry Moore, the significance of which I found rather hard to understand. Somewhat to my surprise there is not much memorialisation at either site, which strikes me as correct. After all, the whole site is a memorial.
I was interested by what our Polish guides had to say when they took us round. Their words were, I think, well-judged. One of the very first things we were told was that though now in Poland, the Auschwitz camps were set up on territory that had been annexed to the Third Reich, and that all the local Polish inhabitants had been expelled from the area. At that time there was no Polish government. In other words our guides wanted to make sure that everyone understood that this was not a “Polish death camp”. But it saddened and surprised me that anyone could think that in the first place.
The second thing our Polish guides did was to draw a moral conclusion from the visit to the camps. This again surprised me, as we are often cautioned about not instrumentalising the Holocaust and using it to make points. But I was glad of what they said, which was to the effect that racism and xenophobia are on the increase, and that we need to guard against trends that might lead to similar crimes in the future.
Auschwitz poses a huge moral question, namely “Why?” Why on earth did the Nazis do this, something completely against all humanity and all reason? And along with the “Why?” comes the reasons why these things should not have been done – why these actions were so wrong. Put simply, there are moral absolutes. There are some things that are simply evil in themselves, and never to be justified, no matter how strong the temptation, how pressing the excuse. The impression I took away from Auschwitz was this: that if we abandon the idea of moral absolutes, this is what will happen to us. And the frightening thing is that already many of the guardians of our culture have in practical terms abandoned moral absolutes.
So, I am glad I went to Auschwitz, as it teaches an important moral lesson, one that we all need reminding of; others will perhaps have other reactions; but this was mine. And I would urge all who have the chance to go there too.
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