Thursday, September 18, 2008


Right, let's get this abomination over with.

Martin was set on going. I really knew enough about that hole to not warrant actually visiting that place, but visit we did, this afternoon. We took the cheap option there, forgoing a guided tour to take a local train from Krakow to Oświęcim, it's Polish name (Auschwitz being its German nomclemature.)

The train didn't help. It was slow and ponderous, and it would always leave stations with a sudden jerk that felt disturbingly 20th century. It added to a vibe I didn't want to experience. And when we got there, my worst fears were confirmed. Oświęcim is an ordinary, functioning Polish town with bus stops and locals and restaurants and car dealerships. Everyone seemed so very bored, and it had been raining. Part of me wanted the place condemned, with no-one having what could be described as an everyday life. I wanted at least a ten-mile exclusion zone around it, but then I guess the town came first, so tough.

I felt myself getting nervous. I wasn't scared as such, just apprehensive. It felt odd to be asking for a train ticket to Auschwitz when we were buying them at Krakow station, and even odder to have the lady behind the counter not blink an eyelid.

Once we were in the town itself, I wasn't sure what to ask the taxi driver, so I asked for Auschwitz Birkenau, as if that would be more specific, but there is more than one complex. He specified the destination more accurately by saying 'Auschwitz One?', to which we nodded. The taxi drivers seem to do a roaring trade in their home town, ferrying silent and fidgety tourists to the biggest mass-murder site on the planet. I didn't feel like haggling. I shouldn't imagine many people do.

I felt sick when we got to the site. Several tourist groups were already milling about, and it felt rather unpleasant to be yet another gawper. That said, it had to be better than just ignoring it and pretending it never happened. I tried to avoid looking at Martin. Tears were forming in the wells of my eyes just being stood there, and I wasn't looking forward to seeing what inevitably followed; the rows of red-bricked barracks, that fucking Arbeit Macht Frei gate, the barbed wire.

I calmed down once I went into one of the barracks that had now become an exhibition detailing the fall of Poland. It could've been anywhere on earth; The British War museum or somesuch, and I was genuinely shocked to walk past a window to see another barrack outside. I had forgotten where I was.

We made our way further into the camp and walked below ground, down some steps, and into a vast cellar. I squeaked a little when I spotted a small shrine with an Israeli flag on it. When I walked into a neighbouring anti chamber and spotted two ovens, I moaned and had to walk outside to chainsmoke. A member of staff spotted me and told me to put it out.

We had organised this badly and had to take a cab to Birkenau about 3k's away, so we'd make it for our connecting train back to the real world. Birkenau was the camp proper, where the large gate, since renamed the Gate of Death, with it's overgrown train track, resides. There wasn't much to see, just more barracks off into the distance, a cold, damp room with holes over a cement pit - the toilets, and a chance to walk into the guardhouse over that track to look over the fringes of the camp entire.

How anyone would want to extinguish millions of lives here at vast expense, men, women and children who had effectively done nothing to anyone, boggles the mind. And not just Jews, as if this was news to anyone, but other Poles, and gypsies, and POW's, and a myriad of other undesirables. As other lands were conquered and as Hungary gave the opportunity to ship in further units in their thousands to be processed on the spot, I left feeling sick. It was all about gathering as many people from as many far-flung lands as could be invaded, taking them from their homes, and killing them in this hell on earth.

I was overjoyed to be leaving. Martin and I took pictures on the train back to Krakow. We were jumping about and laughing. It seems macabre, but it was a totally natural reaction. We wanted to go home. Tomorrow, We're getting a ludicrously early train to Prague in something like 3 and a half hours, during which I'll try and sleep. And when we get to the Czech Republic, it'll be yet another country devoid of a certain segment of society, ditto Austria, and ditto Hungary, where we'll be in the next couple of days.

I'm finding it rather creepy seeing the physical evidence of genocide in these countries by its very absence of people who today would be eating chocolate cake in cafes with us, and wandering about minding their own business, and actually living in Krakow's Jewish district, which may as well be called the Martian district. And I could've done without the large group of bored German children laughing and shouting their way around Auschwitz in their own little bubble.


Angela-la-la said...

And I could've done without the large group of bored German children laughing and shouting their way around Auschwitz in their own little bubble.

Jeez, the world may think our children are yobs but even my most talkative son was silent, along with the rest of his group, when they did that tour.

You did good to get round. Apart from the smoking thing, obviously...

Trixie said...

I've visited the Dachau camp in Germany, that brought tears to my eyes.

Anonymous said...

similar reaction when i went to the killing fields/genocide museum in cambodia - we got to the Russian Marketplace for lunch? laughing, relief, joy, massive shopping...

very natural.

but what you saw? life goes on. in the face of the most tragic failing of humanity in modern history, people are resilient. they live.

you need to remember. keep writing. i'm still coming to terms with what i saw and learned in cambodia. haven't been able to post it yet... it was over a year ago...

Anonymous said...

I went to Kew Gardens once. It was lovely.

Z said...

I wonder about the German children - why they were there? Presumably because it was felt that they should know what their history was, but maybe they couldn't take it in, maybe they were embarrassed or just felt disengaged because the potential responsibility was too much. I can't imagine anyone reacting like that there, but was it the same reaction, albeit displayed in an inappropriate place and manner, as yours on the train - which was, as you say, a natural reaction after leaving that place?

And where on earth were their parents or teachers, not to pull them sharply into line and tell them to show some respect.

Shoshana said...

Thanks for pointing me to this post. I don't really have words except to say that I can't imagine walking through Auschwitz myself, I don't know that I could handle it. I teared up just reading your account. Glad you're leaving Poland.

fwengebola said...

Ang ~ We didn't do the place justice, if that's the right word. We planned it badly and crammed in what we could, but the site is vast. That said, I won't be going back.
Trix ~ I can imagine what that was like. I don't know if those goulish 'tourist' sites help anyone. After all, the people who should go visit those kinds of places (racists) tend not to care in the first place and thus don't bother.
Df ~ Yes, that was what struck me the most, how happy we were to leave. But I'd be interested to read your Cambodia stories. Have a go.
Anon ~ Jamie, I'll wager.
Z ~ I think it just felt like a field trip to the schoolkids. I think we, the Allies, feel those Germans, albeit modern-day child versions, should feel permanent remorse, but in the last decade or so, there's been a shift in the German psyche to not bear the burden of guilt so much. The teachers were there, but I guess they didn't see the laughing and chatting and general bonhomie as a bad thing. The fact that no other tourists were doing likewise clearly wasn't noticed by them.
Shosh ~ Poland's not that bad. My direct paternal line left Warsaw or thereabouts some 130-odd years ago, and it felt rather nice to be returning. As for that hell-hole, I didn't plan on going either, and I don't recommend it unless you're a complete idiot who has no idea of its existence.
Otherwise, you can pretty much guess what it would be like.