Monday, 27 January 2020
Auschwitz-Birkenau, November 2018
There is no poetry in Auschwitz-Birkenau. When we arrived, it was cold. Standing outside the camp in winter clothing, there was a nervous anticipation in the group as we considered what lay before us: as if we would soon encounter a formidable enemy, or hear a stern but life-affirming lesson. Instead we met only stark and comfortless truths: boring, bare stone walls, grey watchtowers and the banal methodology of extinction. The guides related the details with clinical and ruthless clarity. The bricked-up isolation cells in which prisoners were left to stand until they suffocated or starved to death; the ‘selections’ where doctors made decisions about the fate of human beings according to their utility as slaves rather than their intrinsic worth as individuals; the cynical betrayal of Jewish families who were told to bring their most valuable possessions for a journey to a new life and were then robbed and murdered on arrival at the camp. We saw pictures of small children clutching at bags they would no longer need. As we stood at the end of the tracks at Birkenau, where some went left and some went right, we were reminded that this was only the culmination of a longer process, in which one group of people came to believe that, because of their innate superiority to those who were once neighbours and colleagues, the normal moral rules no longer applied. In the words of the camp guard who Primo Levi witnessed beating a prisoner on arrival at the camp: ‘there is no why here’. We did not learn lessons in Auschwitz-Birkenau; we trod in footsteps that we would not wish to walk in, and bore witness to those who had to walk that way nevertheless.
When it got too cold, we left.