I hadn’t expected Auschwitz to be such a tourist destination.
It was a grey and sombre Friday in November yet, apart from the absence of those ubiquitous key ring vendors, it felt as touristy as the Eiffel Tower. Groups of teenagers on school trips flirted loudly with each other and dropped litter. Coach loads of older people discussed their packed lunches and made a beeline for the toilets. A little gift shop sold coffee, chocolate and postcards, and it was all remarkably normal; not the silent and time-locked ghost of a place that I’d expected. After some prior deliberation, I was glad I’d brought my camera after all.
Setting off in small guided groups, we passed under the iconic ‘Arbeit Macht Frei‘ (‘Work Makes You Free’) sign and wove our way around the place that had started off as a Polish army barracks, become a notorious extermination camp, before finally being transformed into a site of historical interest and remembrance. Clouds were blowing across the sky, rain fell, the sun broke through, leaves were falling off the trees around us and our footprints were gently eroding the well-trodden stone steps at each building’s threshold. It was hard to imagine that so many horrific things happened here.
Apart from the weirdness that always comes from reconciling past horror with current normality, two other things struck me. The first thing was the way that Auschwitz messed with my sense of scale and the second was the dehumanising functionality of it all.
One room housed two tonnes of human hair, cut from the heads of those who died in the gas chambers. That doesn’t sound like much but did you ever do one of those school tests about weight and density? ‘If you are going on a hike, would you chose to carry 2kgs of polystyrene or 2kgs of steel?’ Everything in you wants to say polystyrene because it’s lighter, but actually 2kgs of polystyrene would be so much bulkier and a right pain if you were walking up a mountain. Along similar lines, two tonnes of human hair, given how light it is, is a lot of hair. It is, in fact, a whole roomful. That’s a lot of people. It was a moving place and I felt irritated at the person who ignored the ‘no photography’ sign.
And there were other rooms full of everyday items that had been salvaged from those who died in the camp: saucepans that had been at the heart of kitchens and family meals, brought by their owners in anticipation of a new life elsewhere; piles of shoes that weren’t just a brown uniform mass but a selection of different sizes and styles; suitcases and make-up. Although these items were just a fraction of the overall total, their volume helped bring home the human reality of a genocide in which numbers are simply too intangibly big to grasp. There was something deeply unsettling about the fact that each item represented an individual life; someone who had been born, named, loved and known. Worn shoes, battered pans, human hair: composite parts of life reduced to bits of stuff, without the soul, narrative or relationships that give them value.
In terms of scale, it wasn’t just that tension between micro and macro that got me, but the warped sense of space that made it hard to believe that so many people could be exterminated in such a small geographical area. Although the neighbouring camp of Birkenau felt like a vast expanse after the compactness of Auschwitz, the actual gas chambers seemed so ridiculously tiny for the scale of human destruction they brought about.
As a teenager, when we ‘did the Holocaust’ at school and I read the Diary of Anne Frank and other such narratives, it was the personal stories which drew me in and made me jump at the idea of visiting Auschwitz many years later. In the museum, rows of photos of people with shaved heads holding prison numbers reminded me of my younger self’s incredulity at the existence of cruelty that stripped individuals of their hair, clothes, names and all the things that helped differentiate them from each other. It was as sad to me then as it had been as a teenager.
But what really struck me now was the fact that by the time the camp was liberated even those violations hard largely been dispensed of. That particular dehumanisation process was too much effort and people weren’t photographed, numbered or even registered. They were simply removed from a train, gassed and burned, with any re-saleable item removed. The whole process was somehow legitimised as an administrative process because it was carried out by doctors and ‘experts’ who decided who lived and died. Some, who had any remnants of energy to extract, were spared for a brief spell and forced to work until their utility had been exploited and extinguished.
Standing on the platform where so many people had got off the train and walked a few hundred metres to their deaths, I was suddenly glad that there were so many tourists snapping away and that it wasn’t the individualistic quasi-religious experience I’d expected. Remembering Helen Bamber’s encounter with a dying woman at Bergen Belsen, which I’ve written about elsewhere, and her determination to witness to the suffering endured by so many and not be a bystander, I was glad that this place remained as a testimony to what happens when you strip people of their humanity and take barbarity to its extreme.
The basement of Block 11 at Auschwitz was like the epicentre of that barbarity. This is where they first experimented with gas as a means to kill large numbers of people with more efficiency and less trauma for the killers and where prisoners were taken be punished, experimented on, starved to death or shot. If someone tried to escape from the camp, ten of their fellow inmates would be selected at random and taken to Block 11 in punishment.
The basement of Block 11 was one place where photography was not allowed yet this was the place that I most wanted to capture and to communicate. Although any photos I took of the small cells would not have done the place any justice, there was something about the depth of its darkness that made me want to expose it to the light. In the depths of Block 11, a small candle flickered in memory of Maximilian Kolbe, a man who volunteered to be starved to death in place of another. Here, even at the heart of Auschwitz, the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.
People seemed to assume that I’d come back from Auschwitz-Birkenau a changed person, darkened by the scale and extent of the depravity to which the camps testified. And yes, there was something deeply moving about being physically present in a place where so much horror had occurred; something disquieting about standing in a gas chamber and imagining the past. However, it wasn’t a radically unfamiliar feeling. My feet had already stood on unsettling terrain much closer to home.
I know we all like to think that we’d have stood up and said something, that we’d have never been complicit or let it happen, but sometimes I wonder if that’s true. I’ve not tried this myself, but apparently if you drop a frog into boiling water, it jumps straight out and lives. However, if you put a frog in cool water and slowly notch up the heat, it won’t notice and ultimately boils to death. Drop us into Auschwitz and we react with horror. Is it me? Surely not I? But incubate us in a culture where we start to normalise certain behaviour and attitudes, vote for certain voices and implement certain policies, and we simply don’t notice the direction in which we’re heading.
What, I find myself wondering, are the possible ultimate consequences of our dehumanisation of the mythical ‘other’ who constantly seems to be taking our jobs, benefits, housing and healthcare, threatening our own wellbeing at a time of apparent financial scarcity. When do policies like the ‘dispersal’ of asylum seekers to particular parts of the UK, or simply the pricing out of certain groups of people from certain areas, start to slip into ghettoisation? When do apparently administrative measures, like prohibitive ID cards or food vouchers for some, start to become more overt yellow star-like differentiators? What is happening to us as a society when it becomes sort of normal and liveable-with that boatloads of migrants drown anonymously when trying to reach Europe? What road are we ultimately on when we uncritically demand the right to mercilessly mock other people’s beliefs with very little compassion or desire for peace?
70 years after the liberation of the camp, I stood at the end of the railway line in Birkenau by the ruins of the gas chambers and found myself echoing Helen Bamber’s commitment to witness and not be a bystander. Now, more than ever, when policies and rhetoric divide, surely this is a time to call to mind the consequences of taking dehumanisation and abuse of power to their extreme. Camera in hand, I imprinted Auschwitz-Birkenau on my mind and imagined a different order of things, recommitting to a remembrance of reconciliation made possible, of love for enemies, of worth bestowed on all people, of light in the darkness, and of power relinquished for the sake of others.
And we will be your witnesses.