It is my second visit to Auschwitz Birkenau, and there are other places that typify the wickedness that lies beneath our lives, but none so great as this.
From the moment we are labelled by our guide to the moment we are summoned back on board our coach, the human condition that brought us here is foremost in my mind. We are shepherded reassuringly, as they were shepherded reassuringly. We too are addressed, instructed, guided, taken to barracks, cells and sites of extermination.
But they did not leave. Their normal lives had ended. As one of guards usually said, greeting prisoners newly arrived at Auschwitz 1 : “You will only exit through the chimney of the crematoria.”
Today’s visit is warm and sunny. The barracks of Auschwitz 1 are orderly and cool. The sign “Arbeit Macht Frei” is one of promise, and not of blood and irony.
But it is inescapably wicked. To see the everyday order of an advanced industrial society putting its skills to such perveted use, and to think how close all countries came to anti-semitism then does not, as they say, bear thinking about.
Except it does.
Most places here are filled with evil every day. Or everyday evil.
My particular nightmare is the photograph collection. Walls of staring portraist of named prisoners – mugshots, unsmiling, with and without hair, striped jackets, jobs, dates of birth. And dates of death, of ourse. The Germans were thorough and professional in the early days – when mainly Poles are brought here for their misdemeanours – and for being Poles.
Did they think because they were being logged and recorded, the Germans were not about to kill them in the end. Was that part of the insiduous reaassurance? Because they werre very good at that. Bring a suitcase, only 25K. Hang your clothes there and take a ticket. Come along here to the nice showers. Have a drink, you must be thirsty.
It is a terrible place. Poland is full of terrible places. And now its cities are calm. They are rebuilt. They can forgive.
But, in spite of a tendency to theme-park their prettiest locations, they also can remember.
So I will not go on about Birkenau – the extermination ground, the railway, the blown up crematoria and gas chambers. Visit yourself. As all German School children are made to do
Here is a list instead – and as if you were a Nazi school textbook in the thirties, I would encourage you to do the maths.
To murder 1.2 million people, what quantity of the following do you need?
tins of Zylon B cyanide, lengths of railway track, tons of concrete, tons of coal, number of guards, rolls of barbed wire, steam locomotives, cattle trucks, forms, pens, striped uniforms, cameras, tatooing ink & needles, pistols & rifles, bullets, weak and insubstantial broth, dirty and undrinkable water, timber, bricks, jackbooted officers, criminals in uniform, German industries hungry for cost-free labour.
And how much willing compliance do you need to put your answers into actions?
A million visitors every year answer or consider some or all of these questions.This camp has always been busy.
They put their own questions to over 200 guides, most of whom now have no connection with the Poland of the War.
Some of the visitors have other agendas.
I wondered at the girls posing for selfies in front of the solitary railway wagon the museum affords to represent the thousands that were shunted onto the selection yard. They stood in front of the doors, with jokey fingers pointing to the lock, as their mobiles clicked.
And at the Israeli school children wrapped in their national flags at the crematoria, peering down into the space where once people took of their clothes, as unprepared for death they went. Their teacher leader addressed them and their nationalism. I did not listen.