Sunday, 27 January 2019

Holocaust Memorial Day 2019 - Reflections

Holocaust Memorial Day 2019

Okay, so this is usually a bookish blog. Rarely do I depart from that remit. But I’m a great believer in following your instinct or intuition. And something within me is demanding that I write a piece for Holocaust Memorial Day 2019. 

I was very pleased last year when the town close to where I live chose to plant a tree to commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day 2018 and it’s along the route I often walk. 
But in keeping with the intent behind the blog as a whole here is a list of Holocaust themed books that have been reviewed on this blog since I began it.

Testament - Kim Sherwood and also an interview with her
Mischling - Affinity Konar
The Tattooist of Auschwitz - Heather Morris
The Good Doctor of Warsaw - Elizabeth Gifford
The Deaths Head Chess Club - John Donghue
The Red Ribbon - Lucy Adlington

I  commend them all to you.

In truth I don’t know exactly how to describe my relationship with the Holocaust. Interested sounds too casual, fascinated doesn’t sound right. Perplexed maybe? I am perplexed by the Holocaust.  Whatever the word is I can’t seem to leave the Holocaust alone. But when did it start? This perplexing of mine?

My father was twenty when war broke out and my mother was a girl on the cusp of womanhood, probably around Anne Frank’s age. The war destroyed many of their hopes and dreams, not to mention the lives of several close to them. I think my mother maintained a bitterness her whole life. I think my father, as a soldier, was grateful just to have escaped intact. But throughout my childhood there were mutterings and murmurings about the war. There were hushed whisperings of words like Belsen and Dachau. But it was whilst watching the 1973 ITV series, The World at War with my father, that the impact hit me. It was the footage of the liberation of Belsen. At this point in my life I knew nothing of dead bodies and I struggled to comprehend the images before me. I believe that was the point at which I decided I needed to know exactly what had happened. I didn’t know why. I just felt that it was important. Also because it meant something was very wrong. I was still in my teens then but I have continued to read and investigate this most heinous atrocity ever since.

The first time I openly sobbed in public was in January 2000. I visited the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park, NYC. It was relatively new having been opened in 1997. Two exhibits strongly remain in my head. One filled me with disbelief and disgust. It was a German board game ‘Out With the Jews’. I felt sick. The second exhibit was one of the striped uniforms standing upright in a glass display case. The poignancy of that tipped me over the edge and I left, tears streaming down my face. 

The second time I cried publicly because of the Holocaust was at Auschwitz. To say I wanted to visit the camps is not accurate. I felt I must, I felt I should, I felt I had to.  And so in April 2008 a couple of friends and I travelled to Poland. We stayed in Krakow and following the advice of the hotel personnel decided, rather than visit under our own steam, to take advantage of one of the coach tours to Oswiecim, which is the Polish name for the town. It was April 19th. It was a grey, drizzly day, most appropriate. On the coach we were shown a documentary about the Russians who filmed the liberation of the camps. 

There were three camps at Auschwitz; Monowitz where Primo Levi was a prisoner and which was primarily a labour camp where the IG Farben factory, who manufactured the Zyklon B gas canisters, was located, Auschwitz, the main camp which was formerly a Polish army barracks and - Birkenau a killing factory, you can’t call it a camp. Although you can visit the main camp and Birkenau there’s very little left of Monowitz now and I’m not sure if it is possible to visit what remains of the site. 

When we arrived we were told that as the main camp was ‘crowded’ we would go to Birkenau first. I got off the coach and saw barbed wire and guard boxes as far as the eye could see. The long gatehouse with that formidable, single rail track running underneath that chilling arch was attracting Japanese tourists who were taking photographs of each other standing on the track. I’m not joking. After the journey I was actually requiring the facilities at that point. They were located in the guard house. But I simply couldn’t countenance the idea of setting foot in that damned building so I hung on. It seemed minimal discomfort given my location. So I stood and waited for those who were less bothered than I. You’ve probably heard it said that birds don’t fly over Auschwitz. It’s absolutely true. They perch on the perimeter fence and warble but they do not fly across that bleak, barren wasteland. 

Our tour guide led us up the central reservation alongside the train track, grassy now. The evil is palpable. The ghosts of those selection queues were standing alongside me. I don’t blame him, he was doing his job, but the guide’s script was basic and general. As I listened I wanted everyone to be outraged and to be questioning but they just politely attended to all that was being said. We were allowed into one of the huts. You could see the daylight streaming through the poor, wooden construction and the thought of a Polish winter chill on undernourished, broken spirited, inadequately clothed, barefoot people was sobering to put it mildly. The indignity of the latrines dissipated my own bladder concerns. We were allowed some time to wander before returning to the coach. Because of the drizzly mist you couldn’t see where the huts ended.They seemed to stretch forever in uniform rows.  The crematoria were in ruins where the Nazis had made a half hearted effort to try and obliterate the evidence of what they had done. There was a tasteful memorial acknowledging the many groups and origins of people who perished. But as I looked around I went beyond the mere physical remains of the place. There are few words to describe the emptiness, the futility, the palpable sense of evil and the sheer heart break. It started to drizzle a little harder and it was if the tears of the six million were gently falling on my head pleading with me to never forget them. 

I don’t remember the trip to the main camp. It was as if one moment we were at Birkenau and the next we were at the main camp. Fortunately the public convenience is outside the ‘campus’ so I was able to make myself comfortable without insulting my conscience. But the relief was short lived. The ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ sign is synonymous for so many peoples’ vision of the concentration camps. But oh! To step underneath it is like walking into the jaws of hell. It is horrible.

I felt I had to take this photo......

Paradoxically though, the main camp is constructed of several warm, red brick buildings and as we were led through the first one, down a corridor whose walls were adorned with photos of the numbered inmates we were shown where they slept on pallets of straw it seemed somehow less brutal than the huts at Birkenau. If we’d visited here first I think the impact at Birkenau would have been even greater. 

We were led into another building and invited into one of the rooms. My friend and I went in and then came straight back out again we were so horrified by what we thought we’d seen. My friend’s partner went into the room and when he came out he said, ‘It’s okay it’s not real.’ Trustingly we went back. But it was real. It was so real. It was so soul crushingly real. Along the length of one wall of the room was a huge glass case full of human hair. That sight will never leave me. 

We continued numbly through a labyrinth of glass cased rooms containing, spectacles, false limbs, suitcases and finally - shoes. Here’s where I broke. The poignancy is unimaginable. The sheer volume and the implications are devastating. The result of that is that now all of my shoes have to be in boxes in the cupboard so I can’t see them or allow them to be out of place !! I don’t care if that seems weird and unbalanced, so be it. That’s what it did to me.

My friends and I somehow got split up at that point. I think we were so shell shocked and numbed that we were walking blindly anywhere. In fact I can barely remember what I saw next my head was so full of those glass cases. But I do remember the infamous Block 11,  the detention block, the punishment cells, the portable gallows and the yard where prisoners were shot. The sense of death was almost overwhelming. You could almost smell the blood still. 

And if that was harrowing what we saw next is hard to write about. Behind the main administrative building is an obviously man made kind of grassy mound with a chimney seeming to rise from it. The theory was that this ‘facility’ was behind the administration offices so prisoners would not realise what was actually happening. The first thing that hits you when you stand in the gas chambers at Auschwitz is the cold, then the relentless emptiness and the inviolable hopelessness. The desire to leave immediately is hard to resist but I made myself stand there for several seconds. To leave the chamber you have to pass by the furnaces, two of them, grey, the insides showing they had been well used. 

That was the second time I sobbed in a public place. 

I don’t remember the journey back or the rest of the evening.But I wrote in my journal at that time, ‘Whatever you’ve read, seen or think you’ve understood about Auschwitz nothing prepares you for the reality. I will never be the same again.’ On our following day in Krakow we tried to redress the balance by visiting Oskar Schindler’s factory but that was emotional in a converse way. 

There were renovations going on but you can just see the original gates.
Genocides occur periodically through history. Is it the sheer numbers that render the Holocaust more horrifying for me? It disturbs me that I don't feel the same intensity about  Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and so on. And I should. Maybe I see the Holocaust as a symbol for all genocide? But can we ever escape it? And what we can say of prejudice and discrimination? Are we, have we learnt any lessons? 

I’m no less perplexed about the Holocaust and Auschwitz. I won’t return there again. But it was important for me to go. But why? To pay my respects?  To not let the memories of those who perished fade? To understand that by perpetuating knowledge about the Holocaust we can somehow avoid it happening again? To try and understand? To comprehend and question. To cry. To weep for mans’ inhumanity to man. But, maybe. Just maybe. To hope? 

At the going down of the sun
And in the morning.
We will remember them.
Laurence Binyon

Thank you for reading. x

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