Bruce Cohen
Bruce Cohen

Springtime in Auschwitz

I visit a death camp — at the wrong time of the year

They show a curtain-raiser video on the tour bus from Krakow to Auschwitz-Birkenau, a 50-minute documentary based on the work of Alexi Vorontsov, the first Red Army soldier with a movie camera to enter these gates of hell in January 1945.

Now I’m easily prone to car-sickness, and sitting on a swaying, heaving bus winding along narrow country roads only makes it worse. But watching the jerky, grainy images of what Vorontsov found propels my nausea to new depths and by the time we pull up outside the gates I am in just the right condition to visit a death camp: green and clammy with cold sweat.

This is my first experience of Holocaust tourism and I’m not sure how to deal with it, but my suspicions rise within minutes. Auschwitz, I discover, is shot through with small deceits.

It’s caused in the main by the dogged efforts of the Polish authorities to sanitise/de-Semitise the Holocaust. Our official tour guide had a seemingly inexhaustible supply of anecdotes about Polish (read non-Jewish) victims and heroism at the camp. None about Jews. Like the priest who volunteered to stand in for a Catholic countryman sentenced to the starvation cell; or the 12 Poles executed in the single biggest mass camp hanging; or the Polish officer who used his fingernails to carve a Madonna on his death cell wall, the image dimly spotlighted for our attention as we squeeze through the basement jail; and another basement across the way where Zyklon B gas was first tested — on Poles, not Jews. (For the record, at least 75% of the 1.5-million killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau were Jews). Seems there were Jewish heroes at Auschwitz, just sheep.

The walls of one block are lined with hundreds of framed mugshots of victims, their dates of arrival and departure (from life) meticulously recorded by the Nazis. The date-stamping shows how Auschwitz swallowed its victims with shocking randomness; some lasted just days, others weeks or months, a few even lingered a year or more. I join the throng shuffling silently down the grey corridor, a thousand pairs of doomed eyes follow us. What really shocks is the occasional smile radiating from these portraits of the damned. Midway, it dawns on me there are no Jews in these pictures. It turns out they weren’t worth photographing.

I can’t say I that wasn’t prepared for this somewhat twisted Holocaust narrative. Poles, I confess, had been on my shitlist since I first read Jerzy Kosin´ski’s book, The Painted Bird, which chronicles the journey of a Jewish child sent by his parents to the Polish countryside to escape the Nazis, only to experience even more sordid horrors of peasant life. The book left me with the same warm feeling towards Poles as the movie Midnight Express does for one’s generosity of spirit towards Turks. (Ironically, it turns out that The Painted Bird, too, is another small Holocaust deceit: the literary consensus is that it’s not autobiographical after all, rather a quasi-fictional broth of Kosin´ski’s own demons bubbling in a cauldron of Silesian perversion, superstition and venality).

There’s another deceit that permeates the Auschwitz story as it unfolds on our tour. Neither our guide nor the captions on the exhibits mention the G-word (Germany). The Nazis are revealed to us as an abstract evil disconnected from any Teutonic roots. The swarms of schoolkids visiting the camp could be forgiven for believing that the SS were some sort of alien death squad who, Darth Vader-like, came from outer space to torment puny earthlings.

Auschwitz’s rows of solidly-built, double-storied dormitories and neat, narrow pathways also deceive. It’s more like a boarding school than a death factory. Only the strands of electrified barbed wire hint of any sinister intent.

Crunching gravel underfoot, we move quietly through the hallways, block by block. Amid the exhibits of tons of grey-white hair bathed in a sickly yellow half-light, amid the mountains of worn-out shoes, mangled spectacles, battered suitcases and orphaned wooden legs, Auschwitz holds up a shattered mirror to one’s faith — or lack of it.

A pious person might stare into the murky depths of the gas chambers, the crumbling crematoria … and redouble his prayers. For him, the Holocaust is a punishment visited upon his people for its transgressions, the modern equivalent of the Biblical flood that wiped out all but Noah and his kin. Thanks to Hitler, there are now six million more reasons to uphold this blood-drenched covenant with a wrathful god.

But for those who share the collective history but not necessarily the faith or, even bleaker, a faith betrayed, Auschwitz is proof positive of the very opposite: how, now, after all this, could any god possibly exist? Author Elie Wiesel, an Auschwitz survivor, once put it this way:

“In the beginning was belief, foolish belief, and faith, empty faith, and illusion, the terrible illusion … we believed in God, had faith in man, and lived with the illusion … that each one carried in his eyes and in his soul the sign of God. This was the source — if not the cause — of all our misfortune.”

And the writer Amoz Oz, in his autobiography of a childhood in Palestine, A Tale of Love of Darkness, captures this deep, dark sense of betrayal in the words of his grandfather: “There really is a curse on us,” the old man tells him. “God really does hate us … so I hate him back.”

Can Auschwitz belong to the unbeliever in the same way as it belongs to the pious? Well, the Nazis were unambiguous: Jewness is a stain upon the blood, not the soul. Rabbis, atheists, capitalists, communists, Zionists, half-Jews, quarter Jews … they all wore the same yellow star, all choked on the same gas. Race, not religion, underpinned this slaughter.

As our group plods out of the gates of Auschwitz, we pass under the wrought iron arch emblazoned with that most outrageous of deceits, “Arbeit macht frei” (Work means freedom) and head back to the bus for the next leg of the tour.

It’s just a few minutes’ drive to Birkenau and the ruins of 300 precisely-spaced wooden barracks that held over 100 000 people when the crematoria were burning brightest. A human abattoir.

As I walk slowly along the railway tracks that slice through the camp, the Holocaust in my mind — built up carefully over the years, layer upon layer, in the works of Primo Levi, Wiesel, Kosin´ski and Martin Gray — struggles to reveal itself amid the bucolic meadow dotted with yellow wildflowers and framed by birch trees (that’s what Birkenau means — birch forest).

The rail siding where the Jews of Europe came crashing out of cattle cars is just a few meters wide and seems impossibly small to have been the gateway to such industrial-strength slaughter. Here Mengele, god-like, flicked a gloved finger. To the left, murder by bullet or gas. To the right, a half-life on the edge of hope, lived moment by moment, misery piled upon agony, but a life nonetheless. Levi, Wiesel and others remind us that even when there is no hope, life continues … by the skin of its teeth.

There is a sad visitor’s centre at Birkenau that sells small cups of bitter-sweet coffee and grim postcards. I choose instead to pocket a shard of grey stone from between the railway tracks as my keepsake. Holding it to my ear I expect to hear, like the roar of the ocean in a sea-shell, the sound of snarling dogs and terrified children, the crack of whips and the thud of bullets fired at point-blank. Instead I am drowned out by the nervous chatter and clumsy clatter of my racing mind as its gasps for some deeper meaning in this banal and evil place.

Just 50 metres from the barbed wire fences are neat, middle-class Polish houses with panoramic views over the camp. The bile rises as I try to digest this extraordinary insult.

Getting back on the bus, I realise I have made a terrible mistake. You cannot go to hell on a gorgeous spring day. Go instead in mid-winter. Go without coat or scarf or gloves; go when a freezing wind cuts you down and strips bare the truths about man’s inhumanity, about fragile identity and beggared belief.

Footnote: According to the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, the two camps claimed the lives of around 1.1million Jews, 140 000 Poles, 20 000 Gypsies, 10 000 Soviet POWs and 10 000 people of other nationalities.

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