Tuesday 16 January 2018

Author & columnist Michele Hanson writes on her experiences on UAF’s trip to Krakow & Auschwitz

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I wasn’t sure, in the beginning, why I wanted to make this trip – probably for a mixture of reasons: wanting to understand why humans could behave in such a monstrous way, and as I’m Jewish, wanting to be there to feel even the tiniest fraction of what the inmates had been through – not to get off scot-free myself, and wanting to keep the memory alive. Because people are already forgetting.

 

 

Shortly before I left I met a young couple walking their dog in the park. I’m acquainted with them, they’re friendly, with two bright, children, but when I told them where I was going they barely knew what it was. Auschwitz? Where’s that?  Isn’t it in Austria asked the wife?  I told her where it was and what had happened there.

‘But the Jews are all rich, aren’t they?’ Said the husband.  So I knew why I was going.

 

I was more nervous of being in Germany or Poland than going to Auschwitz itself. On the coach journey from to Krakow, the driver took a detour to avoid a traffic jam, through some small Polish villages. The countryside seemed bleak, the small, dilapidated houses, often had plaster missing, brickwork showing through, and uniform square gardens made up only of scrubby grass, scattered with bits of old machinery and rubbish. They looked as if they still hadn’t recovered from the war. It was a great relief to arrive in Krakow and be surrounded by UAF people and friends.

 

 

Touring Krakow I still felt uncomfortable. We were warned that there might be Nazi memorabilia on market stalls. Someone had photos of tiny souvenir Jewish dolls – were they anti-Semitic, or just relatively harmless cartoons? Later, going out to dinner in the Jewish quarter, we passed what I thought to be anti-Semitic graffiti (I found out later that it wasn’t), just before coming across the surprising and evocative memorial  to a composer of Yiddish songs. Through an open, semi-basement window, we could see a model of him seated at his desk in a replica of what would have been his own room and were warned to approach quietly, so that we could hear the faint sound of one of his songs.

 

 

The people I was with knew this song. They joined in and started singing it, in the Krakow street. Shamefully, I was scared. I felt we might still be attacked for singing in Yiddish. For being Jewish. I want to get away from there, into the safety of the restaurant. And if I felt like that, when really I was completely safe, I can barely imagine how terrifying it must have felt to be Jewish when it really was dangerous.  It showed me how easy it must have been not to fight back – to prefer to hide and keep your mouth shut, and how brave it was to stand up against fascism. 

 

AUSCHWITZ-BIRKENAU

The next day we went to Auschwitz. We had a wonderful young Polish woman as our guide. She smashed all my fears and stereotypical opinions of the Poles. I am as bad, I realised, as the young couple in the London park who thought all Jews were rich. As we arrived, she warned us that our bags must be no larger than A5. ‘Do not try and squeeze them smaller,’ she said. ‘And do not ask the guards for help. They will not help you. They are not nice.’ As we stood in front of the sign Arbeit Mach Frei, her anger was even clearer.

 

 

‘This sign is a lie,’ she said fiercely. ‘Work here does not make you free.  Work here kills you.’

 

 

In we went, amid crowds of visitors, group after group, shuffling through the turnstiles, past the guards, along the rows of huts, which I have seen endless times on television series – World at War, Annihilation, The Nazi, a Warning from History, which I have been watching obsessively for years, wondering how anyone could treat fellow human beings so barbarously. Now here I was, in the place where they had done it.

 

 

At first, among the crowds of visitors, the horror didn’t really sink in. I got through the first couple of huts feeling rather blank. I can’t even remember what was in them. But then we got to the hut full of hair. A mountain of dead-looking, dull, matted hair, and in the  middle of it, the spinning wheel from which the Germans spun the hair into the cloth, with a length of cloth on display. And then the unbearable wickedness of  it suddenly hit me like a punch in the guts. A member of our group kindly (PS) appeared at my side with a nice clean tissue.

 

 

Throughout our visit here, I noticed people supporting each other, as we were individually overwhelmed by different exhibits, places, photos, bits of information. In one room was a large archive photo of a gyspy woman with five or six children, carrying her baby, on her way to the gas chamber. That was too much for one woman in our group. Our guide told us that the nazis would tell the people entering the gas chambers to hang their clothes on a hook and remember the number, so they’d know where to come back to. Which, of course, they never would; this cold, calculated, manipulative planning which made the Nazis’ actions so uniquely horrifying.

 

 

Then came the room with prosthetics taken from inmates. Why take these? Who would they fit?  It was more insane acquisitiveness than purposeful. The more I saw, the less I understood. Then a room of archive photographs, including one of starving, skeletal children. I couldn’t look, but my group was disappearing out of the other end of it, I had to follow, so I walked through quickly looking at the floor.

 

 

And then the mountain of shoes, and another shock. There, at the very front of the pile, was a smart red shoe. I have an almost identical pair at home, dating from the forties.  Nothing made the horror of this place more real to me than this shoe.

 

A woman arrived here, perhaps wearing it – a smart shoe, probably with a lovely dress to match, who had had a life, choosing clothes that she loved, shopping, dancing, from a home that she looked after, full of family – husband, children, with a job, friends – everything that we have, and then these lunatics come along, and for no comprehensible reason, take her away from her life, torture her, gas, starve, work her to death, try to dehumanise her and then murder her, for no comprehensible reason, only for plain, baseless hatred. I start crying again.

http://students.sras.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/ShoesAuschwitz.jpgWatching television programmes on this is not the same. I have stared at countless hours of them, unable to cry, not quite knowing what I feel, other than numb and empty, but here I am full of rage, disgust and despair, but also aware of the kindness and distress of the people around me, which helps me to remember that most people are not wicked. That this period of history was a grotesque aberration.

 

 

We saw more proof of the suffering it caused in the photos, along the corridors of these museum-huts, head and shoulders of hundreds of inmates, all in their striped uniforms, shaven-headed, with sick, sunken faces. Suddenly our guide pointed at one of them, Tadeusz Szantroch, below.

 

‘That’s my grandfather,’ she said, and we knew then why she felt so strongly about this place. He had died here. How courageous of her to come here time and time again, to guide people around and make sure they would never forget it.  It must have been so painful for her, to take us, and hundreds like us, repeatedly, past that photo and on through the gas chambers, barracks, and to see another small section of this place that I found particularly horrifying – a row of small brick cells, each about the size of a telephone box, which had to be entered through a knee high door.

 

 

Four men would be made to crawl in through the low door, and stand up all night, then go to work in the morning. It wasn’t enough for the Nazis to starve and work them to death. They had to add an extra torture like this, to their victims. Why? I can’t forget these cells. The pointless cruelty of them, and that  someone must have thought this idea up. What for? Fun?  Incomprehensible.  Together with the red shoes and the woven hair, these cells shocked me the most, and then the vast size of the camp.

 

 

I had thought Auschwitz itself huge enough, but then we drove to Auschwitz-Birkenau – rows of the ruins of huts as far as I could see, ruins because the Nazi did not have enough material for foundations – on a scale that dwarfed Auschwitz and truly brought home the vastness and enormity of this enterprise. Among these ruins were the remains of Mengele’s laboratory. This was where he started, said our guide, among the gypsies, and he was never punished.  And the last thing we saw, as the sun went down, was what our guide called the death barracks.

 

Here people were left to die, in dirt, cold, pain and misery. It looked bad enough to us, but then, said our guide, the place was not clean as it is now, the grass not swept tidy. People lay on the cold, filthy ground, or in the boiling, stinking, summer heat. And then off we went to our warm coach, and comfortable hotel and delicious meal…

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I still don’t understand the Holocaust. I still cannot express the enormity of it. But after this trip I feel even more strongly that we must never allow it to be forgotten, in the hope that remembering will help us to prevent anything like it ever happening again.  I also realise how important the work of UAF is, and would like to thank them, and everyone on the trip for their solidarity and support.

They prove that there are many good people in the world, the fascists and evil-doers are in the minority  and to unite is the only way, because no one can survive or defeat fascism alone.

 


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