Today is Holocaust Memorial Day. This post would not seem to fit easily into the main business of HelpGov’s helpful blog but I have nowhere else to publish it. Our awareness of the holocaust is at least reflected in the many acts of commemoration of it by local authorities and government in the United Kingdom.
In Krakow I met a student from the GDR.
‘You should go there,’ he said. ‘You know, work parties from the GDR helped to restore it. We had a crazy professor who took us to do that. At the end when the Poles gave a dinner to thank us he said how lucky they were to have this wonderful anti-fascist memorial.’
I had already decided to go.
By the standards of its day, the train from Krakow was modern, electrified and busy. I changed at a suburban station before Katowice. There was a silence, broken only by the wheeze of a small steam locomotive at a far platform, the branch line for Oświęcim. There were two, maybe three, wooden carriages, old enough to have separate compartments. I was alone in mine. A whistle blew and the engine groaned into action to the hiss of steam and sulphuric reek of coal smoke. The carriage creaked as it rocked gently sideways, the rails below sounding a slow clickety-click, clickety-click. A flat featureless plain passed slowly outside.
Oświęcim was the end of the line. No more than four or five locals got off the train, slamming carriage doors behind them. A small town with a modern concrete station, larger than such a sleepy place needed, anticipating visitors who were not here today. In the forecourt, an arrow helpfully directed me in Polish and German to ‘Oświęcim/Auschwitz.’
Even in 1970 photographs had made me familiar with the main entrance gate, the curved ironwork overhead spelling out the famous lie, ‘Arbeit macht frei.’ Rows of two-storey red brick barrack blocks receded beyond the gate, administrative buildings for an industrial operation – the efficient murder of millions of people.
Beyond them again lay the foundations of demolished huts, the cramped quarters of prisoners kept alive, at least for a time, until they could work no longer in adjoining factories.
And further over, the long railway sidings where other trains had arrived, victims offloaded from cattle trucks from all over Nazi-occupied Europe once the mass murder started. Some siphoned off for slave labour, some for the gas chambers.
Back in the barracks, whole floors had been arranged to show the brute scale of the operation. A room with a mountain of suitcases. Another with a hill of shoes. A tumbling glacier of spectacles. Prosthetic limbs piled high. On the long walls, thousands of photos of prisoners in rows, each with a simple black frame enclosing a blank-eyed man woman or child in striped uniform staring at the camera, a name and prisoner number underneath. Occasionally, maybe no more than every thousand photos, a small posy of dried flowers, a ribbon or note pushed between frame and wall. In a separate building a crematorium, steel ovens side by side as if in some hellish bakery, doors left open, each with a metal stretcher visible inside. No personal mementos here but large bouquets and wreaths of flowers and shiny green leaves, a brightly-coloured commemorative sash around each proclaiming which delegation, which fraternal group of socialist visitors, had left their temporary mark.
The whole place was silent. If there were other visitors I failed to see them in my introspection.
At the entrance there was a small shop, a limited range of books, most in Polish, some translated into other languages. I bought a small paperback – FROM THE HISTORY OF KL – AUSCHWITZ Vol. 1, published in Poland in 1967. For years I scarcely looked at it, eventually lending it to my daughters when they studied the history of Nazi Germany and themselves visited Auschwitz with their school. The book is in front of me now. Its flimsy pages and cramped text suggest meticulous research. It sets Auschwitz in the context of what it calls ‘Hitler’s programme of the extermination of the Nations.’ It lists ‘Poles, Russians, Czechs, Frenchmen,’ and many others. It details how Soviet army prisoners held in the camp were treated. ‘Prisoners in Auschwitz,’ it says, ‘belonged to various race groups … arrested regardless of religious denomination.’ It mentions Jewish prisoners but not the peculiar cruelty that attended the attempts of the Nazis to exterminate the Jews. It is as if there were no holocaust. It is a small reminder of how history can be written to tell lies and of the importance of remembering the truth.