On The Road To Auschwitz

6th February 2020

Because it cost them everything, it will cost me nothing.

1.1 million people were murdered in Auschwitz-Birkenau between 1940-1945, the vast majority European Jews. Some were exterminated on arrival, others  tortured as slave labourers, before being selected for death. Approximately 200,000 are known to have left the camp alive, although how many survived the war is unclear.

The iconic site of Nazi genocide in southern Poland, west of Kraków (there were 1,200 Nazi concentration camps in all), has become a major visitor destination. Some 2.3 million walked through its grim portals in 2019.

I will go there myself, tomorrow. And the ticket cost me nothing. Because entry to Auschwitz is free.

This banal online detail caught my notice. I am schooled to expect that nothing in high demand comes gratis. But of course, Auschwitz is no facile tourist attraction; it solemnly preserves the memory of crime.

There are reasons this camp draws increasing numbers from around the world.

2020 is the 75th anniversary of its liberation, by Russian soldiers. The rise of 21st century populism in western democracies may affect interest too. Most compelling for me is the simple maths of longevity: we are in the twilight years of the last survivors’ lives. Those still with us. There is a collective urgency to grab the baton before the link is broken. Lest their stories be forgot.

Like the moment when Eva Schloss, a 14 year old Viennese Jewish girl, had human shit thrown at her face and body by an Auschwitz kapo, bent on punishing the whole barrack for a trivial infraction of one anonymous person. She was not permitted to wash for days after.

Or the moment, recounted in his gripping testimony, when Bill Gluck saw the snaking line of people stretched before him, awaiting Auschwitz’s Zyklon B gas chambers. He described how his 15-year-old self stared in stoic unbelief at the line, with the camp’s crematorium chimney stacks above, each “spuking smoke”.

Bill (an anglicised form of his Hungarian name, Bela) had misspoken, of course. ‘Spuking’ does not exist in the English language. But spewing and puking do. And in uniting them, his vile experience becomes more real.

Over the last months, I have been delving into hours of such survivor video testimony, available online through The Shoah Foundation. Recorded in the mid-1990s under the auspices of Steven Spielberg, the foundation has thousands of testimonies to camera, many lasting over three hours. The cumulative effect of watching it is, in some manner, surprising.

I am left to wonder at the power of human resilience, the value of quick-wittedness, the outrageous role of good fortune, alongside an acceptance of mankind’s willingness to codify depravity.

‘Shoah’, some assert, more accurately describes the calamity of The Final Solution than does the word ‘Holocaust’. The former is Hebrew, and speaks to utter devastation which is wrought by man. The latter, an English word of Latin / Greek origin, has an historical tie to god-sacrifice (it literally means ‘wholly burnt’). Thus, some criticise the word ‘Holocaust’ because it frames the liquidation of European Jewry as sacrificial, as if ordained from on high.

As the shock waves of decades settle on all that happened, a less urgent clarity and nuance comes to the framing of events. It seems the description ‘Shoah’ will be favoured, over time.

But this too may give way to other changes, other reframings, positive and negative.

History is not the accounting of facts, but rather the recounting of story and meaning. It is a wobbly vessel fashioned in our image, buoyant and porous in equal measure.

I am sitting on a Ryanair flight to Kraków, plonked in the middle of 44 students in a Transition Year class, from Mallow, County Cork. The kids, all boys, are between 15 and 16 years old, and are consequently full of energy and in-jokes.

I casually ask the chap next to me if they too are headed to Auschwitz.

‘I think so’, comes his hesitant reply. There is a time in our lives when such a visit is not the top thing to remember.

A bag of Mentos gets passed between them and across me. As in, an elbow across my chest. On its return, one of the kids offers me one. I smile and decline. As if in thanks, nonetheless, I offer to move places so they can chat without me in the middle.

This we do. It is a welcome moment of positive energy. Boarding had been less so.

A boorish Irish airline official was smarting for a fight at the gate. As usual, the subject was carry-on luggage. A Brazilian young man and his girlfriend, towards the end of the ‘non-priority’ Ryanair queue, protested that their bag dimensions conformed, and should not be stowed. Normal stuff.

The official started throwing his weight about, loudly threatening to off-load them while commanding, with fingers to his mouth, that the Brazilian shut up.

‘Don’t tell me to shut up!’ the young man protested, and the battle heated up some more, with explanations as to why Ryanair did not need the Brazilians’ money and how the young man should learn better English.

Passengers around the scene, mostly young adults, were visibly upset. I pressed ‘video record’ on my phone.

Being the last to board, I stepped towards the argument.

‘I’ve witnessed all of this’, I said, speaking to the official. ‘And you’re a bully’.

A brief argument followed, but the official had lost his heft. The three of us passengers disengaged, and walked to the plane. The Brazilians thanked me for intervening, though I knew I had done little. After all, I carried a tiny bag, had been cleared to board, and spoke with an Irish accent. With such cast-iron assurances of no personal consequence, it is easy to be a hero. They declined my offer of video footage, and we dispersed to our seats.

My decision to visit Auschwitz came with fever-certainty just five days ago. I had finally completed 5 hours of Eva Schloss’ video testimony. Something in her joy of life and her gentle-but-blunt manner of storytelling demanded action. It is a journey that loosely connects with other themes of my life.

After thirty years avoiding anything like god or spirituality, I have returned to a search for meaning.

At times I consider patching it up with Christianity. Then, I think that the Pagans were on to something in simply worshipping the sun. Still other times, I feel drawn to the Children of Israel. I may decide on all, or none. But it is an unexpectedly open subject, for which I am grateful.

Distracted in thought, I had lost track of the kids and their airplane antics, although there was evidence of Haribo being passed around too.

Each with our own story, we stepped off the aircraft and into the cold Polish night, on the road to discover more.

To the reader: this essay is written in conjunction with another, found here.

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