I’ve left the quote bit blank. I’ve no comment to make on the following. I’m simply trying to write it down as honestly and as clearly as I can.
I knew I was going to Auschwitz before I even booked my ticket here. It was/is an
inevitable part of coming to Krakow. It should be. There’s no getting around it. It’s something you need to do. However, that said, I’ll admit that even the idea made me nervous. Every time I started thinking about it, I started imagining those corridors, imagining the people that had walked down them, what they had done and what they had thought. I’ll admit it; the prospect of seeing the reality of it all had me scared. But there it was.
Look, whilst we’re on the subject of confessions, I’ll throw another into the ring; I’m an abject coward. I’ve spent a lifetime running away from anything approaching the profound. You see – and maybe this is just in my mind – to me, the profound has always been bound up in the experience of pain. Let me turn that around; those that have never experienced pain are incapable of expressing the profound. That’s not me claiming membership of some kind of weird masochistic elite. No, far from it. That’s me sat on the sidelines, commentating upon the action. And, to return to the point, there’s simply too much profundity and pain tied up with even the thought of Auschwitz to leave me with any other reaction than abject terror.
I’ve even been putting off writing this section for well over a week. I want to get it right. Some things are important. In this case, 1.5 million people; husbands’, wives’, mothers’, fathers’ and children’s deaths contributed to you sitting there and reading this. So, believe me, I’m sincere when I say that I really want to get it right. Stalin once said that an individual death was a tragedy, a million deaths were a statistic. If you’ve ever given that suggestion more than a moment’s consideration, go to Auschwitz. Stalin can kiss my arse.
I’ll start with the journey there. Partly because it’s a necessary way of setting the scene, mainly because I want to write whilst I put my thoughts in order. Bear with me.
There are things that you don’t expect. Sights that, on the bus leaving Krakow, just seem incongruous. In the age of WiFi cafes and Twitter some things just don’t seem to make sense. However, no one ever told the things in question to slink back to the shadows of history for finding themselves at odds with the technological white heat of the 21st Century. Irrespective of us, our preconceptions and our prejudices about how life is/should be, there they are; persistent, stubborn and utterly oblivious to the passing of the years. Here were the old women in print dresses and shawls, stacking hay with their long wooden pikes into small, neat and uniform mountains. The houses looked almost Germanic, neat, rectangular and entirely at home within that landscape. A landscape, at the time, seemingly crushed under the weight of a heavy brooding sky. Small goblets of rain occasionally bounced off the side of the window, which, in tandem with that leaden sky, seemed to lend the blandest and most innocuous of objects an ominous feel. But then, I knew where we were going.
There are other things you don’t expect; Auschwitz is one. For instance, you don’t expect it to be pretty. You don’t expect wide open tree lined boulevards, bordered by neat red 19th Century brick buildings. That’s the thing with Auschwitz; it’s neat. That’s the sick bloody
joke. It’s nice and it’s ordered and it’s tidy. The contrast between that and the disease, the blood, the lice, the venality and the cold systematic destruction of a people couldn’t be clearer. But no, what we’re left with is the neatness. There was no rage here. No one lost their temper and built the gallows. No one, in a fit of blind fury, constructed those awful fucking showers. No. Someone sat down, took their time and thought it through. Thought of the best way of exterminating an entire nation and then just went about making it happen. That’s where the terror lies, in the coolness, the deliberateness and, again, in the neatness.
I’m not going to list the horrors piece by piece. This is not an itinerary of genocide. But I’ll give you two details.
Detail Number One: I was in the shower block, when the American girl I was with asked if the giant steel door had been there from when the place had been in use. It was perfectly clear that it had, but, somehow, the cold black steel of that heavy door which led into the shower block was even scarier than what lay beyond it. Maybe it was just the thickness of the thing, maybe it was the absoluteness – the finality – of a giant black door, but I think it was the reality of it being nothing more complicated than a door. Something as simple as that. However, what you just couldn’t get away from, no matter how hard you tried to rationalise it, was that this was no normal door. This was the door that people would have clawed at, screaming for all they were worth as they were carried into that place. Looking at it, there in that terrible place, you could almost imagine the fingernails being torn out as people struggled to grip this last, in every sense of the word, handhold on life. As I said before, we’re in confessional mode; the skin on my hand seemed to slink away from the bone as I touched it.
As promised, here is your second detail, and this one errs ever further towards the confessional. I had never considered any kind of intimate relationship with the girl I was visiting Auschwitz with. However, the cold reality of that place filled me with an overwhelming urge to grab her and cling to her for dear life. I don’t think this marks me out as especially sick, I hope not. Neither am I imbuing sex with the kind of life affirming and joyous character you find in second rate novels. Really, I just wanted to know that love, warmth and tenderness were still possible, even within that place. It’s an odd reaction, I’ll admit, but I think if you try and give yourself over to a place like that, to a place – or concept – so awful it nags at the very definition of your idea of humanity, then wishing for a little love is pretty understandable.
Actually, let me stay on Auschwitz for a little longer then we’ll move on. You see, I mentioned humanity and I think maybe that’s the key to this. It’s too easy to say that sometime, a while ago, some people went mad and did some awful things, but that was then and this is now. It’s OK, because We’re Not Like That Now, (capitals intended). That’s a lie. Let’s be clear, the holocaust wasn’t a crime against humanity, it was humanity’s crime. No German, then or now, is any more evil than any of us are; and that’s the point. It’s in realising that that the real horror lies. That seed, that vile, nasty, evil seed is there in all of us. Never pretend to yourself that it isn’t.
I still don’t know what to do with Auschwitz. I still can’t find a place for it in my thoughts. There’s no neat emotional compartment that it’ll fit into. Perhaps that’s how it should be. Perhaps it should stay raw for a while. Perhaps that’s the only way to deal with it.
As promised, I’ll move on.
Two days later.
This is coming to you from a cafe in Krakow airport. It’s time to leave and, for now, call an end to this blog. There’s no point in continuing it ‘till there’s something worthwhile to continue with. I’ll start again once I get a new job. However, for now, it’s time Zebedee went to bed. But I’ll leave you with this; cities are more than the sum of their parts. They live, breath and think. Being part of that is what this is all about. If you work in a place you, by default, become part of it. These great living organisms are, ultimately, the collective consciousness of all those that labour within them, rendered permanent and set into brick and concrete. All these people, all these industrious – and not so industrious – individuals; each providing for their own and, by default, their city’s future, play their role in forging its character, of helping it to grow and change. Now factor in history. Imagine all those people, working away day after day, year after year, decade after decade, century after century. Slowly shaping and forming their city, defining its nature, forming its character. Maybe this is a little grandiose, it probably is, but to my mind, if you can live and work somewhere for any length of time, you can claim a stake to it. You can claim that part of that termite mound is, and will forever, remain yours. Yours, because you worked there and, for all the reasons outlined above, because you contributed to making it what it is now and what it will be in future. Maybe it’s just the difference between being on the inside and looking out, and being on the outside looking in.
Alternatively, maybe I’m just talking out of my arse.