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