On 28th January 1945, the Russian army on its westwards march, came across Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. The pictures which ensued have become the most seminal of the 20th century, embedded in our memories, forever challenging the thin line which separates human civilisation from human barbarity.
It was a place I never wanted to see, but four years ago, on a visit to the beautiful city of Krakow in Poland, I felt it was a place I had to visit. Unwillingly! It became a moral compulsion.
The bus, filled with people on the same journey, drove under dark skies through the flat countryside. It took its place in a large car-park alongside several other buses. Auschwitz has become a place of pilgrimage. We, the English-speaking group, joined other groups and walked the short distance to the infamous gates, underneath the cynical inscription “Arbeit macht Frei.” Looking around, while we waited for our guide (English-speaking), there was the initial feeling of deja vu - “I have been here before,” such was the power of inherited images. There, was the site of an auxilary gas-chamber, hastily constructed to deal with “overflow” and abandoned because it was inefficient. And surely, the place where we assembled, was the location of the orchestra composed of gifted Jewish musicians, playing classical music to give the air of welcome and normalcy. The guide arrived and confirmed the locations.
We followed our guide, up steps, in and out of “specimen” buildings. Auschwitz had been a Polish Miltary Barracks and still had the characteristics of its original function: solid, well-built grey institutions, set in a series of widely spaced squares. It has always seemed to me that there are certain places which retain a special atmosphere reflecting joys and sorrows, pain and celebrations, hopes and fears - places which have been cherished and visited by generations and generations of people.
There are sites on the borders of Tipperary and Waterford which have a “feeling” of wistful nostalgia: St. Patrick’s Well in Clonmel, Tooreen Pecaun in the Galtees, St. Declan’s little church in Ardmore, the Bronze Age sites on the heathery lower slopes of the Moanavullaghs. Places where there is a good feeling. Auschwitz, on the other hand, is haunted. It is possessed. It is a place where the industrialised killing of people reached its climax, and the inhumanity of what happened there is suspended in the air.
By now, it was raining, a thick misty rain so familiar to us in Ireland. On our journey, we were re-tracing a grim itinerary. We came to a store-room which retained specimen exhibits of what people left behind them, when they were divested of the last vestiges of their dignity on the way to the gas-chamber. There was a mound of human hair, crumbled clothes and a pile of footwear. Funny, I thought, forgetting momentarily where I was, how little fashions have changed in footwear!
There were boots and shoes of all makes and sizes: high-heels, flatties, sling-backs, open-toes, some scuffed, some down-at-heel, some worn-at-the-side, all a minimum of 70 years-old; all, like so many pathetic things, surviving their owners and wearers. And a little pair of tiny red shoes, with buttoned straps, the pride and joy of some tiny child, was the final tug at the heartstrings.
Following our guide, we eventually reached the Birkenau area of the camp. This was a sort of annexe, a series of wooden huts, built initially to accommodate Russian prisoners-of-war. Replicas of these huts have now been built, and show the type of shelving upon which dying people were accommodated. The pictures taken in these huts at the time of liberation still have the power to confront us, and future generations, with the unanswered question: How could this have happened in a 20th century Europe? Why did the German people, distinguished in the world for the quality of their writers, composers, scientists, philosophers, psychologists, allow these obscenities to be committed in their name? Did anybody shout: Stop?
Indeed, many people did publicly express their fears during the rapid rise of Nazism: intellectuals, professors, thinkers, scientists, writers and these became the first inhabitants, with gypsies and the mentally ill and handicapped, of the camps.
Standing up and being counted is a risky exercise. The whistleblower has not yet been afforded any protection in Ireland. One has only to recall the midwife in the Drogheda hospital, who questioned the frequency of disabling operations carried out on women. She experienced twenty years of isolation, during which many of her colleagues avoided her company. There are times when it is far more comfortable to look the other way.
I confess I looked the other way as I re-passed the gas chamber on my route out of Auschwitz. By now, the thick mist had turned into a heavy downpour of rain, reinforcing the permanent gloom that hung over this place in the Polish countryside. I realised that, during the two hours or so that I had spent there, I had not spoken a single word to my companions, nor they to each other. It seemed as if we had been locked into an imposed silence.
That silence stayed with us in the bus as we drove to our comfortable hotel and the prospect of a nice meal, both of which seemed indecently out of context in the circumstances of the awful place through which we had walked.
In the last week of January, a modest but poignant ceremony was held in Dublin, to mark the 68th anniversary of the discovery of the notorious concentration camp.
A visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau is compelling, but it presents too many challengingly disturbing questions. What does it mean to be human and why and how do we lose our humanity.
That day, in the rain, and in the bus, I decided that I never again wanted to go back to Auschwitz.