When I was a young man in the late 80s, for reasons to convoluted to go into, I was a regular drinker at a local social club for Polish people who’d come over to the UK in the war. I got to know several colourful characters; one was Jan, an old man with highly idiosyncratic English and smile lines etched deep into his face, who carried in his wallet a photograph of his handsome younger self in Polish millitary uniform and who had stabbed several SS officers to death. Another was an elderly lady whose name was Marta who had her Auschwitz number tattooed on her arm.
Both of them are almost certainly dead now, but I was thinking of them as I’m in Krakow, Poland with a free day before a meet-up tonight, I decided to visit Aushwitz. (I went with Krakow Shuttle, who picked me up and dropped me at my hotel for 120PLN (about £25), including all admission fees, a very knowledgeable English-speaking guide and a simple packed lunch).
As a site, Auschwitz 1 is unremarkable – almost banal. It was built originally by the Poles as a military barracks, and that’s what it looks like: nothing sinister except for the famous Arbeit Macht Frei sign over the entrance, the electrified barbed wire and the gas chamber.
The banality of the exterior makes exhibits in the blocks even more shocking. The mountain of human hair (7000 tonnes were found, apparently) that the SS were selling to industry for 50 pfennigs a kilo for stuffing sofas and making socks made several of our party cry. The mountain of prosthetic limbs, shoes, cooking pots, toothbrushes and childrens’ toys are almost too hard to look at.
Even after that, nothing prepares you for the gas chamber – much larger than I’d expected – and the crematoria. To stand in a place where hundreds of thousands were murdered, to look up at daylight coming through the vents through which the Zyklon B was poured is …. well, I don’t know what it is. Such unimaginable horror took place in that room, and you can feel it.
Auschwitz 2, Birkenau, is a 5 minute drive away. It must be the bleakest place on Earth – flat, featureless, cold, muddy, windswept, just a train track through the middle where the cattle trucks rolled in, surrounded by barracks. We stood where the selections took place, and then walked the same route that countless disabled, elderly, sick people, children and pregnant women walked, directly from selection to destruction.
There’s a bleak monument in between the ruins of the two gas chambers and crematoria (the Germans blew them up to try to hide their crimes as the Red Army advanced). Surrounding the monument are plaques, with a central message translated into multiple languages: “For ever let this place be a cry of despair and warning to humanity, where the nazis murdered about one and a half million men women and children, mainly Jews, from various countries of Europe”.
That’s the terrible thing – “a warning to humanity”. As we drove around Krakow, I saw at least three crossed-out stars of David sprayed on to walls. And, in my lifetime, we’ve seen the killing fields of Cambodia, ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, the genocide in Rwanda and Darfur.
It’s a warning that continues to go unheeded.