There is no “normal” reaction to Auschwitz

27th January, 2012 12:26 pm

Last November I took a trip with two hundred school kids, a few politicians and a selection of journalists and writers. I’ve resisted writing anything about it until now, because it was one of the most moving experiences I imagine I’ll ever have, and I didn’t have the confidence to put it into words.

But today is Holocaust Memorial Day, and the visit was to Auschwitz.

Now seems as good a time as any.

My main concern about writing this was that anything I came out with would be cliched. After a few months of reading countless other records of visits to Auschwitz, I’ve realised that cliches are both inevitable and essential. It really is one of the most silent places on earth, with each crunching gravelly step echoing through the headphones each visitor wears, accentuating that silence. The gas chamber seems an almost innocuous room, until you step through a small doorway and see the body burning ovens, rigged with metal stretchers for the more efficient incineration of the mass murdered.

The mounds of possessions were especially troubling. I look around my flat now and see what I’ve accumulated over nearly three decades. Not much but more than enough. Compare that to the suitcases, glasses, kitchenware and shoes piled high in glass cases. This tiny fraction of what was taken from Auschwitz’s victims is still an enormous haul, made up of what millions were able to carry across a continent in horrifically cramped train “carriages”.

The significance of each item is somehow too great to take in.

For many it’s the stolen hair that is particularly affecting – piled impossibly high behind a glass screen. For me, it was the tiny shoes. We’ve all at some point helped a child lace up their shoes. Each one different. Each one significant. To see them cast aside and know what happened to the children who wore them would ordinarily have been too much to bear.

But at Auschwitz, it’s just another layer of horror. Utterly numbing horror.

Returning home afterwards everything seemed inadequate. Taxi home. Late night burger. Try to read a book. Fail. Try to sleep. Fail.

Yet it wasn’t until three weeks later that the enormity of that visit to that place really hit me. Flicking through the TV channels one night, I stumbled across a documentary about the holocaust. Standing where I had stood in bitterly cold Southern Poland less than a month earlier, were these ghosts from the past, their ghostly nature accentuated by their thin frames, black and white clothes worn in black and white film. The memory of that cold harsh wind struck me like a hammer blow. And I wept.

There is no “normal” reaction to Auschwitz. That was mine.

Mark would like to thank the Holocaust Educational Trust for organising the trip, and the valuable work that they do

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  • Anonymous

    I’m glad you decided to comment.  Your piece is very succinct, straight to the point and effortlessly moving.

  • Peter Barnard

    Powerful writing, Mark.

  • Anonymous

    My father came from the old East Germany, a place called Gera.

    In the summer of 1933 the Jewish community in Gera counted 378 men, women and children. On October 28th, 1938 at 3:00 in the
    morning the forced eviction of the so called “East Jewish” was started. From all districts of Gera families were picked up
    and gathered in the “Ostvorstädtische” Gymnasium. Towards the evening the people who were forced to deport were sent to Poland
    by train.
    In the early morning of November 9th, 1938 SA-Troopers stormed Jewish facilities and burned down many cult objects as well
    as furniture and equipment. In addition SA and SS-members as well as NSDAP-members searched all apartments where Jews were
    living. All Jewish men age 16 and up were arrested. Some were sent to the investigative custody institution Amthordurchgang
    and other to a special camp in Gera-Leumnitz. Many of them were carried off to concentration camps. Until 1938 the
    “Aryanisation”
    of the still existing Jewish businesses followed. The city council began with the establishment of “Jewish Houses” before
    the beginning of the war.
    In 1942 only 64 Jewish people who had to carry the “Jewish Star” lived in Gera. After the war ended only six women and two
    children returned back to Gera.

    I have a photo of my father in his school on holiday camp, he once toward the end of his life pointed out his friends and said they are all dead, and I asked in the war and he said nope they just died, on my trip back to Germany to see my relative I asked my eighty eight year old aunty about his friends and she said oh no they were Jewish, none of them came home.

    When the Prince once wore the Nazi Uniform at his party, my father said if only people knew….

  • Anonymous

    I’ve been thinking about going to Auschwitz for some time but I’ve not been sure how I would react or how my children would cope.
    Thanks Mark for your account, I think we should all go.

    Paul Hillyard

  • Daniel Speight

    Thanks Mark. I doubt I will ever visit Auschwitz as my travelling days are long gone, yet to forget the horrors of what occurred there would be so wrong. Many years ago having flown into Athens with a ship’s crew to join a boat I was second in the queue at the immigration desk behind a middle aged woman. As the woman handed over her passport I saw the numbers tattooed on the inside of her arm. I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck rising and a panic rising. It has stuck in mind all these years. I think she must have been a child when she received that tattoo.

    • Anonymous

      And how easy it is for it to happen again, Iraq Afghanistan, Libya, Syrian the Gulf states, it only takes for people to say it’s nothing to do with me.

      It can start with a comedian saying Paki, work shy, scroungers, it did not actually take much for the Germans to learn to hate Jewish people for nothing else then being a faith and the idea they made the recession the down turn hoarding money.

      But do we learn nope.

      • Anonymous

        I believe that when we think of the halocaust as a solely jewish tragedy we do a great disservice to the many other millions who died in the camps or instutions. We should remember that the Nazis hatred towards those who did not fit their ideal extended beyond anti-semetism. The romani and sinti populations of europe were completely decimated in camps like Auschwitz. Political prisoners, Soviet PoWs, Homosexuals, the disabled, the mentally ill the list is endless. Wilipedia says using this definition the total victims of the halocaust was between 11 and 17 million. The halocaust was a human tragedy of unimaginable horror, and I just can’t bring myself to imagine a mindset that would allow it to happen and justify it as the Nazis did.

        • Anonymous

          Then again in the UK just before the war the poor laws and the mentally insane laws in this country were unbelievable, lock them up to stop them breeding, one labour MP stated they crawl in the streets they are like rats they are a illness on the people of this country, who was he talking about what he saw as the problem, the poor.

          It does not take much for  countries to end up like Germany it only takes a Hitler and the people to believe him.

  • Anonymous

    Excellent writing on a topic as important now as ever.

    Thank you.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for sharing Mark- we all need to be reminded of this.

    Many years ago I was staying in Israel, and visited the Yad Vashem
    Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem.As I moved through the exhibits
    it got more and more harrowing; what struck me the most were the photographs
    of piles of personal possessions and such ordinary everyday objects
    which we normally take for granted.But they were imbued with a powerful
    intensity- as you say, ghostly- but for me, also lost- as if time had stood still
    like a frozen frame.

    Also there were  pillars dedicated to different countries, with the higher
    for those who suffered the most losses.I was surprised to see Hungary,
    for example- was very high.It had a particular resonance for me,
    as many of my grandmother’s family there were Jewish, although
    I’ve never heard directly about anyone affected.
    Probably most families wouldn’t want to talk about it.

    The people who moved though that exhibition that I saw
    were all deeply moved and many tearful, including myself.
    It certainly wasn’t the usual tourist trail…and not something
    I’ll ever forget.

    I think we all need to witness what “humanity” is capable of,
    and what can happen during wars; some of it may become quite routine.

    I also remember Alex Smith sharing his experiences on LL Mark,
    so it’s good to to be reminded on this anniversary.

    Thankyou, Jo.

  • А кто начал войну,кто натравил Гитлера на СССР? У нас говорят так:” а кому это выгодно?
    Яльмар Шахт до 1938 года профинансировал через еврейские банки США и Англии Гитлера.Результат построено 228 военных объекта.
    В армии Гитлера воевало и много евреев.
    Вот с чего надо начинать и не последствия разглядывать.”

  • Thank you. 

    I’ve never been able to face a visit to Auschwitz as my own reaction to Yad Vashem was so overpowering – and nobody actually died at Yad Vashem.

    But leaving I found one rather odd ray of hope. 

    Yad Vashem has  (or had in the late 90s when I was there) a large cafe by the gates where overwhelmed visitors tend to stop on their way out – and when I went in there was a small group of Israeli teenagers hanging out with one of the waitresses and  just goofing around as teenagers everywhere do completely oblivious to the handful of depressed tourists huddled silently over their coffees.  

    And there were the ultimate answer to Hitler and Himmler and every antisemite: young Jews not just alive but flirting and laughing and listening to terrible pop music in Hebrew on the radio.

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