Notebook :: Sunday 27th February, 2011 :: Auschwitz

It’s been a very emotional day.

I got up at 7.15 to be sure of catching the 08:25 train to Auschwitz. On the way there, I wrote this…

The train to Auschwitz is on time. Actually, it’s early, and for 8.20 on a Sunday morning, it’s surprisingly busy. Everyday annoyances – a woman sending a long text message with her beeps switched on, a man listening to loud music on his iPod – seem, under the circumstances, particularly inappropriate. But of course, the circumstances are my own. This is an ordinary train going to an ordinary town that just happens to have been the venue for one of the greatest atrocities in human history. Maybe not such an ordinary town then. But life goes on.

The train is heated and comfortable, and it’s impossible not to make comparisons between this journey I’m making and the journey made by… you know. I feel bad even saying the words, like I’m so vastly underqualified to talk about this subject that mentioning it at all will appear to denigrate it.

As the train moves out of Krakow, the scenery becomes much more stark. The snow and ice which was stomped away by city life here dominates the landscape. Buildings give way to vast swathes of tall, naked trees. Stripped bare by the vicious winter, their branches stand out like dead veins against the milky white sky. Under different circumstances, I have no doubt I would be marvelling at the beauty of it all. But I’m not, and even when the sun comes out 20 minutes into the journey, it still isn’t beautiful. It’s bleak, apocalyptic, soulless. It feels like a Martin Amis novel.

The sun doesn’t hang about. When it goes back in, the sky turns to a smoky grey. The heat on the train, because it only comes out of the grill under the window at specific points and therefore only warms certain patches of the body, somehow makes you feel colder than you might if there was no heat at all.

I nod off for a while and when I wake up, I have an erection. Again, under the circumstances, this seemed highly inappropriate. I flinch from myself. I flinch from life and try hard to prepare myself for what is to come.

From the train station, which of course is called Oświęcim – I say ‘of course’, although I didn’t know till today that Auschwitz is merely the German version of the town’s name – I walked to the museum, the concentration camp, the death camp that was, which is just over a kilometre away. As I walked, I thought about what I know about the Holocaust, most of which, if not all of which, is informed by books and films, mostly films if I’m honest. I thought about that scene in The Pianist, for example, when the old man in the wheelchair is thrown from a second storey window for not standing up when the Nazis storm into his apartment. It’s a scene that each time I’ve seen the film – three times now – sends a shock through my system and brings tears to my eyes. I found myself getting a little emotional then, as I replayed it in my mind on the road to Auschwitz.

When I arrived, I bought a pamphlet guide to the museum in English for five zlotys (just over a pound), but I haven’t looked at it yet.

Then I walked around the camp, eavesdropped on a couple of tours and looked at things. I looked at the infamous gates. I looked at the fences and the barbed wire and the slogan: ‘Arbeit macht frei’. I looked at the blocks that housed the prisoners, the purpose-built gallows and the ovens where the corpses were burned. And I read the plaques. And I must admit, I felt strangely unmoved. It was like, they were just buildings. Ghastly, hideous, horrifyingly wicked buildings, but just buildings nonetheless. I felt disappointed that I’d felt more on the walk on the way here than I did in the camp itself. I felt disappointed in myself, but also slightly disappointed in Auschwitz. I wondered briefly if perhaps I was some kind of monster.

Then I went into one of the actual exhibitions. Many of the blocks in Auschwitz have been turned into permanent exhibitions dedicated to the different nationalities that suffered at the hands of the Nazis. It was in the Dutch room that I realised why I’d been unmoved, and really it’s rather obvious. It’s because buildings – no matter what happened in them – are still just bricks and mortar. What I respond to – what everyone responds to I guess – is people. As well as the facts and figures, the exhibitions are full of photographs and, most importantly, stories.

I was probably about a fifth of the way through the Dutch story – about 25 minutes in maybe, reading everything – when I began to lose it.

You know what they did. The Nazis’ total disregard for non-Aryan human life is very well-documented. I knew before today, for example, that they killed children, but it’s the stories, and the photographs, and the names that really brings home what it all actually means. Once you begin to absorb the stories, you begin to feel the pain of them intensely, and it’s impossible not to react to that.

What surprised me about Auschwitz was that there were not more people convulsed by great juddering sobs. It even annoyed me rather that people were walking about the place smiling and laughing. But that was unfair of me. Probably if I hadn’t been alone, I’d have been smiling and laughing occasionally too, if only to alleviate some of the overwhelming sorrow. (I maintain that I was right to feel angry, however, at the woman walking through the Polish exhibition chatting loudly on her mobile phone.)

In retrospect, I’m glad I was alone. It allowed me, forced me even, to immerse myself, and gave me nowhere else to turn for comfort. Which seemed right.

I was in Auschwitz for four hours and I probably saw about a tenth of the museum. Actually probably much less, considering all the words that are in there. There is a lot of information to absorb, and lots of stories. Although not all of the stories are of atrocities, they are all affecting, which is to say that the stories of heroism and resistance – and there are many of these – are the most affecting of all. After a while, however, it all becomes somewhat overwhelming. I had to leave an hour before it closed because I just couldn’t handle it anymore. It is incredibly harrowing. It has to be one of the saddest places on Earth.

After Auschwitz I caught the train back to Krakow. It was already full of people, having come from some other town, on their way somewhere else. They were all going about their lives, chattering away and laughing and having a good time. It was good. It felt right. It was what people were supposed to do, what life was supposed to be.

Before I went there, it felt like a duty, to go there, to learn more about one of humanity’s darkest chapters. Now that I’ve been, it feels like a duty to go back. To learn more. To feel more. You have to feel it. Because – although it’s still sometimes difficult to believe – it happened. So I hope to go back. One day. When I can.

About the Author

I am Karl Webster. I wrote these words. If you liked them, you'll be overjoyed to know that there are plenty more where they came from. So you should definitely sign up to my newsletter if you haven't already.

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