Some 30 years ago I found myself in Krakow, Poland, alone in a communist country with contact phone numbers that did not work and meet and greet arrangements that had gone wrong.
I had a day to fill and looked at the hotel tours of castles, lakes, mountains, ski centres, pretty villages or Auschwitz.
Auschwitz? Was that really a tourist attraction? Should I go there?
To visit as a tourist seemed to cheapen the place and the terror suffered by the people who were there. I thought longer and harder about this than any other trip I have made.
I recalled one of my University tutors made a pilgrimage to a former concentration camp in Germany. He told us how all the concentration camps except Auschwitz had been raised to the ground and sanitised by laying lawns, planting trees, commissioning artwork memorials and carefully curated museums. Only in Auschwitz, he mused, could one appreciate the true horror.
I decided to go. After much telephoning, form filling and the exchange of $US a taxi arrived with a delightful Polish girl who was to be my guide. We drove for an hour through fields and forests, bleak in the midwinter greyness. The trees were black in contrast to the white snow lying.
We entered through the gate, beneath the frieze reading Arbeit macht frei, work makes you free.
There were no memorials, commemorative gardens or well-kept lawns. Just the brutal realities: piles of shoes, toothbrushes, hair shaven from heads, false teeth, the tattooing equipment, clothes, many of them from children. I remember the pock-marked wall against which prisoners were shot.
“Tell my mother”
One detail brought tears to my eyes. An inscription scratched on a wall read (in German) “I am (name.) Tell my mother I am still alive on (dated 1944).”
Websites will tell you what is there to see but they cannot tell the terror and the horror I saw. I felt profoundly sad and angry; a deep shame that our civilisation could have done this and a fearsome realisation that it could happen again.
I acquired a small booklet containing some rare pictures taken inside the camp. It was too harrowing to read in detail and after some years I disposed of it.
My lovely guide was an oasis of reality. She was used to people weeping and falling silent. She told me all the facts and figures she should. She revealed that one of her uncles had perished there. I committed a faux pas by asking her about the massacre at Katyn. She stopped, stood still and went pale. She looked me in the eye, “We cannot speak of that but we know about it.” She whispered.
I was glad to have been; not happy, it was a tormenting day. I felt I had performed a duty to myself, to my colleagues who had not had the opportunity to visit and somehow, to the former inmates.
Children of Auschwitz
The youngest, Zofia Wareluk, was born in the camp two weeks before it was liberated in January 1945 and has just celebrated her 70th birthday.
I know many similar tragedies have happened before and it is doubly distressing to know that some have happened since, Pol Pot for instance. Most important is to recognise the lines of thought that lead to similar tragedies and to head-off the ideas before they develop.
What happened to Katyn?
After the German invasion of Poland in 1939, the Russians also invaded from the East and the Polish army was ordered not to resist them. On the orders of Stalin, the Russians took over 20,000 Polish army and police officers to the forests of Katyn and massacred them.
When it was discovered, the Russians blamed the Germans and the Poles were not allowed to question this but they all knew the truth. It made Soviet occupation all the more galling. Not until 2010 did the Russians acknowledge responsibility.
Should I have gone? Was I not just rubber-necking the misfortunes of others? What would you have done? It would have been easier to visit the local castle.
From BBC News – Auschwitz: Drone video of Nazi concentration camp
BBC News – Aerial video of Auschwitz-Birkenau: “Drone video shows the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp as it is today – 70 years after it was liberated by Soviet troops. The camp in Poland is now maintained as a World Heritage Site and is visited by thousands of tourists and survivors every year.”
“Auschwitz Birkenau is now a museum run by the Polish Culture Ministry, and a Unesco world heritage site.”