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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.



  1. Richard Richard 14 April 2014

    I understand that it is necessary for these places to exist as reminders, but I have never felt the desire to visit them on my trips to the region. The idea of standing in the physical spot where so many died like that seems pointless and voyeuristic. It was like the film Schindler’s List: the idea of sitting in a cinema eating popcorn whilst watching such events as entertainment struck me as grotesque. However, aesthetic sensibilities aside, it is so that people manipulate history to suit themselves. We had it in South Africa with the National Party, and we now have it with the ANC. The Holocaust is politically a dead issue (in that there is no other side that has to be conquered through the manipulation) and so you would have thought less susceptible to such manipulation. I suppose it goes to show the extent to which people need to sanitise their ancestors’ involvement in nefarious events.

  2. Head light Head light 14 April 2014

    Uncomfortable questions to consider: can factory-farmed animals bear non-anthropomorphic witness to their daily holocaust or must witnessing necessarily be cultural or reason based (ever evolving genetic & hormonal scars are surely equally valid here)? Is man any less predatory & lacking in empathy when exterminating or tacitly choosing to consume his fellow mammals? Are not all biological hierarchies questionable & subjective and therefore both historically relative & subject to mutation? Can the victim of a holocaust ever become its eventual perpetrator – given the ‘right’ antipodal reincarnation of circumstances? Do Germans offer any historical difference or lesson other then the ability to do what any race, creed or culture can do – albeit more efficiently & less forgivingly given their level of so-called culture at the time? Is the holocaust more about the time, temperature & technology it takes for man to boil the frog and can any present economic ideology avoid this gastronomic fate? Such uncomfortable questions actually require spring time to even be considered as they are even too cold for a Polish winter.

  3. bernpm bernpm 14 April 2014

    You say: “I can’t say I that wasn’t prepared for this somewhat twisted Holocaust narrative.”

    You refer to the “twisted Holocaust narrative”. You were in Poland, listening to a Polish tour guide…what did you expect? Poland is a relatively small country with a relatively small population. The sacrifice of 140.000 people in one camp during WW2 , ad to that number the Polish people fallen in other German activities and camps. All of this might have a made a larger impact than the total number of Jews in this one camp. What you call “anecdotes” might have been real experiences for this tour-guide.

    If you speak in Holland with people who were active during WW2 you will also hear more about their personal experiences than about the Jews who were deported or the Jews that were hidden and safely transported to the UK at great risk for the people who did get involved in these operations. And I speak from experience!

    a few years ago, a Jewish mission came to visit Poland and requested from the Polish government to do some restoration to the Auschwitz camp. The Polish prime minister politely refused. For no other reason than that he might not be able to find any Polish citizen to do the work without loosing the support from his people.

    These events run deep!!!!

  4. Expatinvader Expatinvader 15 April 2014

    “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.”

    So would you prefer these houses be destroyed – like about 40% of Polish buildings were during the war?

    Also interesting that Poles get on your “shitlist” based on your reading of an entirely fictional novel…

  5. zoo keeper zoo keeper 15 April 2014

    Always wanted to visit these places.

    It does grip the imagination. Communist Russia and China murdered tens of millions more, but not with the same cold, mechanical efficiency.

    It is that cold, mechanical efficiency and treatment of fellow humans as if they were slaughter animals which revolts us, yet fascinates us.

    This did not happen a very long time ago. The massacres and induced famines in Russia, China, Cambodia and so on were also very recent. Survivors are still with us and it is still living memory at the moment, and not yet history.

    Humans are capable of doing this, always have been.

    We always have to be on our guard.

  6. The Praetor The Praetor 15 April 2014

    I find irony in the plaque that reads, “Arbeit macht frei” .
    If the intention of the Nazis were to exterminate (Jews, Poles, Homosexuals, and others), that plaque makes no sense. It sounds to me rather like an entrance to a work camp.

    There are also now a growing revisionist movement on the whole holocaust story, that rightly mentions an absence of proof that six million Jews were ‘exterminated’, besides the others who died in that period.

    i) That it was impossible to burn so many bodies, as this would have required enormous amounts of fuel, that the Germans could scarcely spare, and that the crematoria would never have been adequate, and also this would have meant burning bodies day and night, which have been obvious to Allied intelligence, rather than only finding out about it when the troops overran these camps

    ii) The ‘gas chambers’ very strangely do not appear to be gas chambers, as it was fitted with windows and doors, which had handles on the inside.

    iii) That some of the camps had recreational facilities such as swimming pools

    V) The numbers don’t add up according to statistics on Jewish population figures in Europe.

    Vi) Clear evidence that some of the witnesses were untruthful, and were coaxed.

    I also find it strange that you find Jewish Holocaust museums in so many countries in the world, that had no connection to any of it, yet there is an absence of such Holocaust museums to other people who suffered the same fate in those…

  7. MrK MrK 15 April 2014

    Auschwitz – an unsung episode in the history of capitalism.

    Auschwitz consisted of 3 camps:

    Auschwitz I – the main camp
    Auschwitz II – Birkenau
    Auschwitz III – Buna-Werke, also known as IG Auschwitz

    IG Auschwitz was 100% owned by IG Farben, the giant nazi era petro-chemical conglomerate that also owned Bayer, Afga and BASF, and was intended to become the largest chemical plant and plastics factory in Eastern Europe after the war.

    Thalidomide and Saren were invented there, under the supervision of IG Farben boss Otto Ambros, who only spent a few years in jail after the war.

  8. francois williams francois williams 15 April 2014

    What to expect form White Western culture?
    They even practised their techniques here in Africa first…and left a legacy that Africa find hard to live down…Hopefully after WW3 we would not have a Western problem in Africa any more…you an never civilize the uncivilized…

  9. francois williams francois williams 15 April 2014

    The Germans slaughtered 100 000 Hereros…in a sparsely populated place like Namibia…at lest the Jews got their Israel after WW2 and trillions in free money…what did the Hereros get??

  10. bernpm bernpm 16 April 2014

    @Francois……. Let’s not go there, please.

    As so many other nations on all continents have been slaughtering other nations. As the Jews use their Israel to keep the Palestinians under control with here and there a dead body.

    The one without sins may throw the first stone!
    The pot calling the kettle black!

  11. Richard Richard 18 April 2014

    @Francois, travel just a little way from the city in which I assume you live, and find yourself a few Bushman paintings. You will see images of black people moving in and dispossessing them of their land. Take a look, they’re not hard to find. Then, when you have some money, fly off to see how the pygmies live in Central Africa. Then, when you have more money, take a trip to Turkey, to see Asians who invaded and dispossessed the Greeks of their lands. And, of course, you might care to visit Rwanda…

  12. Rodney Rodney 19 April 2014

    Some people think that the Holocaust receives too much focus these days. To the suggestion that we just ‘move on’, renowned historian and Holocaust scholar, Professor Deborah Lipstadt counters with a question: “Could we ask African Americans to forget about slavery? Tell them it’s been long enough now, so get over it?” And what about the memories of persecuted South Africans? Do we ask them to forget and just move on?
    The course of Lipstadt’s own life changed when David Irving brought an unsuccessful libel case against her challenging her for naming him as prominent among deniers of the Holocaust. He did so in Britain where libel laws put the burden of proof on her as the defendant. The result of the case was that thousands of pages of irrefutable evidence proving the Holocaust occurred were produced and later published in several scholarly works.
    While remembering the Holocaust is important to the world, for Jews it is far more important that Jewish identity must not come from remembering the Holocaust, but from Jewish culture itself, its history, its tradition, and its spiritual longevity.

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