I’ve put off writing about my recent trip to Auschvitz and Birkenau camps because I know that whatever I say will not be enough; everyone has their own personal associations with that time and place and there are images burnt onto our memories that capture the evil of what occurred (although let’s be right about this, it didn’t just happen, it was a series of deliberate actions by a large group of incredibly ‘civilised’ people inflicted upon millions and millions of other people).
It’s difficult to conceive of what four million people looks like – the fact that it’s more than the population of Birmingham and Greater Manchester put together doesn’t really help me to imagine that number of living people being treated like insects, starved, beaten, humiliated, broken, killed and then burnt at the whim of others.
I guess, like most people, I have always associated myself with the survivor role, the hero who fights the odds and escapes. For the first time in my life, standing on the train platform at Birkenau in the exact spot where Nazi ‘soldiers’ and ‘doctors’ made the life and death decision with the flick of a thumb as to whether you should go left to the indescribably cruel conditions of the work camp for a prolonged existence of, on average, two months, or straight ahead to the smoking chimneys of the gas chambers and crematorium, I felt that there was absolutely no reason for me to have survived, to have been chosen to be kept alive.
I would almost certainly have been sent on the terrifying walk clutching my carefully selected belongings that I had meticulously packed up and kept close to me for the whole stinking, starving train journey from my home. Personal possessions taken, I’d have been stripped, shaven and sent to be gassed, where, if I was ‘lucky’ I would be positioned near to an outlet and die instantly rather than last the extra excruciating 20 minutes whilst my organs corroded and burnt within. Dependent on the back-log of bodies, I might then have been piled up with the other naked bodies and eventually my ashes and remnants of bones scattered across this vilest of places for eternity.
It’s impossible to think that would be the preferable option to being given the flick of the thumb left into the concentration camp. But perhaps it was?
It sucked the very life force out of me knowing this, like a pack of JK Rowling’s deatheaters was all around drawing all hope, happiness and positivity out of my brain, bones and consciousness.
The camp opened my eyes to a whole series of petty nastiness that I probably could have happily lived my whole life never knowing about. Tortures such as the standing cell: a 3mx3m square cell, cemented on all sides with a small low entrance to crawl through, where four people would, before and after their hard days labour, be made to stand up in all night.
Why? The vastness of the camp clearly shows there is no shortage of space, this was purely an additional invention of the sick mentality that pervades that whole area; an extra torture created to break the spirits and bodies of those most unfortunate of people to have been born in that time, in that place, with that heritage.
There are atrocities much worse that occurred and it’s a bleak experience of horrors that I am privileged enough to find difficult to even imagine but I would recommend that everybody goes to visit it at some point in their life: How else can we ensure that intolerance of others never gets to that uncontrollable state ever again?
Or perhaps in some corners of the earth it has…?