by Glyn Strong
Last year a record 1.5m people visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, in Oświęcim, Poland. In ‘dark tourism’ terms the former concentration camp is a success story. A Google search pulls up more websites advertising tours ahead of those relating to Holocaust history, but underlying this phenomenon there is a message.
“I don’t think he needs those” said the young boy’s mother as we approached the infamous Arbeit Macht Frei arch spanning the entrance to Auschwitz.
She was waving away a set of headphones, offered to amplify the audio commentary delivered by tour guides to the complex. Of course ‘complex’ hardly describes what remains of this notorious death camp and in the fading light of a September afternoon it resembles more a neglected school or hospital, with its institutional layout and designated departments.
Barbed wire and sections of once electrified fencing still serve to remind visitors that it was neither, but any sense of menace is dissipated by the theme park atmosphere as coaches disgorge tourists from all nations to queue for tickets.
Our small group is constantly reminded that we have a ‘slot’ and that we must move briskly. Cameras and smartphones click and flash constantly as we are herded up slippery stone staircases to rooms displaying shoes, artificial limbs, hair, clothing, spectacles and innocuous-looking pellets of Zyklon-B. Inert until activated by exposure to air, these latter are perhaps the most sinister of the Auschwitz artefacts.
This is my first visit to a former Nazi concentration camp. It is in Poland, just over an hour’s drive from Krakow and not far from the equally notorious extermination facility of Birkenau. I am numbed less than I expected to be by the apparatus of death, knowledge of which I’ve subconsciously assimilated over a lifetime of reading and learning. What does stun me is the scale of the visitor operation at this living museum.
The child deprived of headphones looks bewildered as his parents are nudged by the momentum of the crowd from room to room. Fading black and white photographs replicate families like his own; they peer down from the walls, frozen in time with their pitiful belongings and anxious expressions. They reach out over the years to remind us that, like the refugees moving across Europe today, they are just human flotsam with no assurance of safety or welcome ahead of them.
Following the child’s gaze my eyes are drawn to the image of a man. Tall and dignified he wears a dark overcoat not unlike one my father once owned. He and the well-dressed woman I assume to be his wife hold the hands of a little girl. In his other hand, a small suitcase. They are new arrivals, photographed at a point where they are uneasy but have no intimation of what is to come. Maybe they still have hope?
Later we move on to Birkenau for the last admission of the day. The threatened light shower has materialized as torrential rain and the temperature has dropped significantly.
Sometimes described as ‘Auschwitz 2’ Birkenau was the largest of more than 40 camps and sub-camps that made up the Auschwitz complex. It opened in 1942 and approximately 1m people died there – Jews, Poles, Gypsies Soviet POWs and many other nameless individuals considered undesirable by the Nazis.
As we walk into the wind and rain a bleak and empty vista unfolds; ghostly railway lines describe a path towards a stark memorial. To one side of it are the remains of a hastily destroyed elimination facility; beyond that, on the walk back we enter the barracks where women deemed of no further value were contained until they either died or were ready for disposal.
By this time I am soaked to the skin and numb with cold. The barracks we stand in are dark and the tiered wooden ‘bunks’ where sick and expendable women lay stacked like sardines represent the only furniture. “Two stoves would have been in here” observes our guide, “but there was rarely fuel – and no water or toilets. Death by disease or starvation was the only way out.”
In the warmth of our transport back to Krakow my fingers begin to tingle as life returns. The members of our small group are tired and quiet. An English newspaper shows images of refugees struggling under razor wire, huddling in the mud as they wait to be ‘processed’. Families stare bleakly into the lenses of strangers’ cameras.
I wonder if I am alone in seeing a terrible parallel?
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
Burnt Norton – T.S. Eliot