Thursday, October 02, 2008

I've sent my husband to Poland

Some years ago I went to Poland for a summer to teach English. It was during the time of Lech Wałęsa and Solidarność, a very eventful time in a very beautiful country.

It was a summer of many superb experiences, excitement and fantastic sights, but the one unforgettable experience was a trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps.

I thought I understood the horrors of what happened during the war, but I very quickly learnt on a sunny day in August in a quiet corner of Poland that I knew nothing.

Several memories from Auschwitz are as clear today as if I had been there yesterday. Like watching in sadness the film that was shown of the Russian army 'liberating' the Poles at the end of the war. How particularly poignant that was in those early days of political change.
Like the smell of the hair cut from the Jews that was housed behind a glass wall in a display that stretched the length of one of the huts. Or the tiniest of little white baby dresses, simply pinned out in a glass-topped wooden display case.

The mountain of dumped suitcases, most with labels still attached, hand written by those who thought they were going to work, not to death. The sound of an old Jewish man sitting playing a violin outside one of the many, many huts.

And the rows and rows and rows of photographs of people who had passed through the camps. From ceiling to floor along both walls in every hut. Black and white images of men, women and children, shaved and robed in striped overalls. It all started to look the same, until the third or fourth hut we went into, where in the distance something red caught the eye.

As we got closer we saw it was a single red rose, tucked behind a photograph of an old man. And that's when you realise, this was someones father, brother, son, grandfather, uncle, cousin, husband. A real person, not just a photograph on a wall.

If the sights, sounds and smells of Auschwitz stunned us into silence, nothing prepared us for the trip across to Birkenau.

Here we saw the true extent of the deception that was carried out as Jews got off the train. Work camp to the left, death to the right.

I will never forget the size, scale and number of gas chambers, the mass communal graves and more than anything else, the eerie silence all around. I remember standing at the end of the train track, looking to my right and seeing row after row of huts. And beyond the rows of decrepit huts, where the worse buildings had been demolished, the chimney stacks remained, as far as the eye could physically see.

I know from hearing other peoples accounts from recent visits that Auschwitz-Birkenau has changed quite a bit since I was there. You can no longer wander round freely as we did, for example, and at Birkenau they have cordoned off the original huts and built replicas housing displays instead.

However, the impact that a visit to this place has on you will never change.

I recommend The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, The Silver Sword and The Book Thief as three pieces of fiction which cover the events of the holocaust and the plight of the Jews in three very different ways; read all three - it's worth taking the time to do that.

But I strongly believe everyone should see Auschwitz-Birkenau firsthand, that's why I've sent my other half to Krakow this weekend, and urge you if at all possible to go too.


Dana said...

With the overwhelming (in more ways than one) amount of tangible evidence it amazes me there are some who still deny the Holocaust.

I remember watching Schindler's List and crying so much I had a headache.

We must never forget.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful city but what a contrast just an hour's drive away. My wife is right. Everyone should go. It's funny, but what impacted me was so different to what struck her. I knew about the gas chambers, which were undoubtedly unbelievably cruel and inhuman, but it was the other barbaric things that went on in the name of punishment that seemed in some way to be even worse to me. And all so close to my lifetime. It really wasn't that long ago. Lest we forget...

Ali said...

wives, especially yours, are seldom if ever wrong!

RJ said...

I went there in 1984 (interesting, yes?) and with our US group 2 young men from what was then West Germany joined us because they had been told all their lives that it didn't happen. Seeing the encased hair, shoes, suitcases and all - ovens and showers - left them (and all of us) quietly weeping in stunned horror. I bought tons of flowers for everyone in our group when we returned to Krakow later that afternoon as a way of saying this vicious and ugly place did not blot out all the beauty - but it could have. Thanks.

Ali said...

rj, welcome to my blog and thanks for leaving a message