Auschwitz: There is no “normal” reaction – this was mine

January 27, 2013 2:51 pm

As today is Holocaust Memorial Day, I’ve decided to re-post this piece from last year, reflecting on a trip I made to Auschwitz with the Holocaust Educational Trust.

—————

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

Latest

  • News Watson criticises changes to parliamentary selections, as making it “more likely special advisers will be selected”

    Watson criticises changes to parliamentary selections, as making it “more likely special advisers will be selected”

    Tom Watson has criticised Ed Miliband’s decision to take responsibility for choosing the shortlists for Labour parliamentary selections as of 11th December. The reform  was signed off by the Labour national executive committee (NEC) earlier in the week – and it gives an NEC selection panel the power to choose the shortlist that is then put to the local party in question. Watson, who was previously Labour’s campaign co-ordinator said: “It is remarkably early for the leader’s office to take […]

    Read more →
  • News Commons pass vote on Clive Efford’s NHS bill

    Commons pass vote on Clive Efford’s NHS bill

    The Private Member’s Bill brought forward by backbencher Clive Efford passed its first vote in the Commons today, by 241 votes to 18. While the opposition benches were almost full, there were a distinct lack of Government MPs in Westminster for the debate: The Labour MPs who turned out in force were joined by ex-Conservatives UKIP MPs Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless, who were both voted in favour of the bill – which would repeal aspects of the 2012 Health […]

    Read more →
  • Comment Scotland Here’s our opportunity: the policies people want are real Labour policies

    Here’s our opportunity: the policies people want are real Labour policies

    There are a couple of very basic facts that underpin Scottish politics at the moment. Simply put, people are fed up and they’re angry. They’re fed up of business as usual in politics and of a system that means they work hard for very little while those who already have the most get more. They’re angry with a political establishment that’s seen as out of touch and just not listening as people on the ground struggle. The question we have […]

    Read more →
  • Comment Carswell, Farage and Reckless – stock brokers and merchant bankers, not champions of the working class

    Carswell, Farage and Reckless – stock brokers and merchant bankers, not champions of the working class

    We knew Mark Reckless had a brass neck. You’d have to have one to show your face again after you fell over blind drunk in the Commons on practically your first week in the job. Which, by the way, doesn’t bode well for him when it comes to keeping up with Nige in the pub after work. But I didn’t think even the Rochester rebel would have the nerve to claim the Chartists (and the Levellers, and the Suffragettes) for […]

    Read more →
  • News Scotland Gordon Brown outlines proposals for a stronger Scottish Parliament

    Gordon Brown outlines proposals for a stronger Scottish Parliament

    Today Gordon Brown will give a speech to the 17th State Of The City Economy Conference in Glasgow where he will propose his plans for a stronger Scottish Parliament Brown, who was widely heralded as one of the strongest voices in the Scottish referendum campaign, will say that this plans will not just mimic the SNP’s one-dimensional focus on constitutional change but will unite the people of Scotland. He will propose using 17 new powers to the Scottish Parliament, which […]

    Read more →