Auschwitz: Beyond Hope
Beyond belief, but not beyond understanding
The bus to Auschwitz was playing Christmas songs. An hour and a quarter out of Krakow the driver switched from Perry Como to Cliff Richard just as we passed the dark birch forest surrounding the site of the camps. It appeared like an image from old war films; the prisoner running through trees, men with alsations following. Much of what was to follow felt like a film, until it felt suddenly, brutally real.
It was below zero and struggling to snow. The earth was black and hard, the land flat and weather-exposed when we pulled into the site. There were a few visitors, mostly British and Chinese. One man had an Israeli flag draped across his back. The atmosphere was not sombre, merely muted and neutral, and I came to understand why after visiting this and Birkenau concentration camp.
Only guided tours of Auschwitz are encouraged now, after a recent outrage involving unaccompanied tourists and a selfie. I was lucky enough to have a guide who spoke with angry passion, so that the overwhelming facts and figures had context. The main Auschwitz camp consists of substantial brick houses; the first sense is of a Peabody Estate property, but for the barbed-wire electric fences and the first lie, the entrance sign, ‘Work Makes You Free’. Passing beneath it can only place you on one side, that of the arriving prisoner.
As the day’s horrors meticulously unfold you decline along with the Nazi dream and Jewish hopes, moving from buildings that appear to be built solely for accommodation, to a wooden-shack factory designed with only one purpose; liquidating people as efficiently as possible.
So, a gradual descent. The rooms into which you are ushered tell the story of the emptying of the ghettos, the arrests of Jews that extended from Norway to Greece, the arbitrary process of dividing the new arrivals into those will live and those who will die. It’s done with a glance of mere seconds and a flick of the hand; join Column 1, join Column 2.
If you’re placed in the column with the pregnant or infirm you have 3-5 minutes left of your life. Get picked for the other column and you’ll be starved, beaten and worked to death – the stories are everywhere, of a little girl left to stand naked in sub-zero temperatures for twelve hours, of 40 prisoners crushed into a room that at most could hold 10.
Then, when the pretence that there is anything the Nazis consider remotely salvageable in the Jews is torn aside, the real horror begins. For now Birkenau, the largest concentration camp, is built and here all becomes clear.
The sheer utilitarianism of the enterprise cuts into you. The sheds are wooden, freezing in winter, stinking and typhus-ridden in summer. Here are the wooden battery cages where people are kept, there is the bunker where they go to be gassed, covered in the grey pebble-dashed plaster of a post-war council house. Mortar and cement is of the poorest quality, a handful of latrines are communal and can only be used for up to 50 seconds. Nothing is ornamental or decorous, all is so basic that only human hope – the last thing to die – must have kept arrivals from trying to run away screaming on first sight of the place. The only lightness is a handful of drawings of children at play on the washroom walls – hope kept alive by the captive.
Now there is no more pretending that the prisoners, Jews, Romany, gay, intellectual, doctors, lawyers, are there for any other purpose than to be used as a finite resource. First throw away their belongings, then sell them lies that they’ll give you all their money for; fake deeds to non-existent houses are popular with officers. Shave their heads and sell the hair, tear out their teeth for gold, work them to death, fry the remains, render them down to nothing. Some you can experiment with by pouring bleach in their eyes, trying to make their pupils blue and Aryan. Inject them with acid or air bubbles, or cut them apart while still alive, like children tearing the wings from flies. Most senior officials at the camp were formerly butchers and farmers. The people who do this job are not intelligent.
The most horrific and haunting images that will stay with me forever are not the vast piles of human hair, or spectacles, or combs or shoes, but the addressed suitcases, many hand-lettered with fine penmanship, which were the first items to be stolen away, usually within seconds of arrival. The confluence of railway lines that lead only to the camp. A single red railway car built to hold cattle, that was once packed with prisoners. A small round hole in a ceiling, down which Zyklon B pesticide was dropped and left for 20 minutes while the captives begged for release.
Through it all comes one simple message that perhaps I had not fully appreciated before, despite reading so much literature on the subject – that the Nazis knew, and had always known, where the final solution would lead, because they regarded the Jews as non-humans. There is not an atom of doubt that every last one of them would only leave as chimney smoke. In the years the Auschwitz camps ran only 190 ever escaped.
Upon liberation of the camps, those who were first in saw the success of the Nazi scheme; there was no jubilation, no joy, because the prisoners were far past any human emotion; they had died already, even though they still stood at the fences. One man, aged 42, looks 90. Footage of prisoners waving and running upon release was shot later, restaged for the newsreels. It wasn’t like that; there was nothing to celebrate. But there is much to remember. It is beyond belief, but not beyond understanding.