Posted: August 2010
Took the time to visit Auschwitz which is 4 hours drive NE from Vienna. Much to say about it although, like some art exhibitions, its most powerful and long-lasting impact is barely discernible in the immediate term - I knew so much of the history and horror already that very little was totally new information. There were some staggering questions from some visitors - and one in particular of an advanced age: "why the Jews?" Most of us address that at school. To ask the question reveals an absence of holocaust exploration which, in turn, suggests an absence of interest in the human condition. But, thoughts linger and its nightmare now has a taste and feel which are no longer at a remove forced by the agency of film, documentary, and the written word.
One moment that I found arresting: As you enter you see signs which tell you when you can take photographs, when you can use flash, what is prohibited (smoking, dogs etc). But these tourists are naturally respectful. The tour guides speak gently and quietly, with a hardly detectable cold fury, into small microphones which our earphone receivers pick up. It maintains dignity - so much better than trying to herd people by shouting over heads. I noticed that none of the guides tries to enforce the "rules" and tourists use flash constantly, so the scope for imposing discipline is there! But, no - it's as if this place has had enough of orders and the domination of one human being over another. And the photography, which could be intrusive and inappropriate, does not feel so. People are not expressing a morbid, ghoulish fascination with torture and death - they are recording their horror. Counter intuitively there are places like the gas chambers that you'd expect to be off limits to photography but are not.
Anyway, I wasn't using flash at all and in the punishment cells (where they discourage photography which interrupts the flow of visitors in a confined space) I discreetly and quickly took two exposures. As I turned I found myself facing a stocky female visitor, about 55 years old, hair shaped into a severe bob. In a guttural German or Austrian accent she snapped at me: "you are not allowed to take photograph here!". As much as I would have loved to reply quietly "Home from home, dear lady?", I didn't, but just thanked her and moved away.
I am so very glad I went. Auschwitz is so iconic it almost acquires a mythology but to have your feet on the ground there, walk amongst and into buildings, step across rail tracks where women and children were herded into gas chambers …. its awfulness is an abomination adumbrated by Hieronymus Bosch 500 years earlier. He could not have imagined that his fantasies would have been made concrete – or perhaps he lived in an age when he could. The SS tried mass killings with machine guns and lethal injections. They eventually settled on gas,which took 1/2 hour to 2 hours to kill its victims; unimaginable scenes inside those chambers which could be observed by the SS outside through glass peepholes - know why? Other methods were too traumatic for the killers, gas minimized upsetting their sensibilities.
You would be understandably suspicious of my comparison between Hieronymus Bosch and Auschwitz if your only experiences of that place were the superficial information and perceptions many of us have of the gas chambers.
The gas chambers supplied a horrific death both physically and emotionally. But there was much more horror. Firstly, connected to the chambers - able bodied women with children were sent to be gassed so as to minimize chaos during the selection and gassing procedures. Already there was ample distress as fathers were separated from families. The Germans recognized that tearing mothers from children would lead to chaos. So, able bodied or not, keep the mums with the kids to make the killing hassle free. Then there were hundreds who realized that this was not a disinfecting shower routine but death - so incipient chaos was always present. The Jews in the Sonderkommando, "Special Detachment", who organized the gassing would lull the victims into a false sense of calm (talking about the future etc) as they shepherded them into the concrete casements. Women who violently protested were quietly led out "round the back" and a pistol put to the napes of their necks. The Germans reviled the Sonderkommando as emotionless beasts without the remotest acceptance that they had created them. But there was so much more - gratuitous torture and killing with many varieties of method: prolonged stress positions (standing cells), gratuitous executions with firearms, death by starvation, rape, eyeball injections, medical experiments which defy the imagination - and one, ultimately, lucky little 6 year old girl who, just before the Soviets relieved the camp, was made to stand barefoot in the snow for 12 hours so she would get frostbite of the feet (to help Mengele et al work out how to treat cold injury). The next morning she was left behind with the diseased and crippled as the SS led the "fit" inmates off westwards on the Auschwitz death march. No, this camp was the living embodiment of total, unfettered, noisy cruelty and chaos - a sort of mad killing pornography. I probably shouldn’t use the word “Germans”. It is noticeable that the guides refer to the perpetrators as “Nazis”, but every so often my guide allowed the word “Germans” to slip out and there seemed little doubt that it was intentional.
Rudolf Hoess was the commandant of Auschwitz. After capture by the British, he was ordered to write his autobiography whilst in captivity awaiting execution (his entire life is best described as a devotion to following orders). His last paragraph, writing of himself in the third person, reads: "They could never understand that he too had a heart and that he was not evil." For reasons he would not have been able to fathom, this is the only poignant sentence in that whole obscenity of pseudo-remorse underpinning justification. That hubris is precisely why the man betrayed every last molecule of the humanity given to him at birth. In another life, lived at another time, Hoess would have been an unexceptional, petty bureaucrat just doing as he was told.
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