What do we owe the past?

On the site of one of the greatest crimes of human history, Stephen Orr tries to discern our generation’s responsibility to one that suffered so greatly and should never be forgotten.

Aug 17, 2020, updated Aug 17, 2020

What right do I have to talk about this place? What do I know about it? How much can I feel, can I see and smell and hear the suffering?

The questions I’d been asking myself as I and my wife and sons travelled through the Czech Republic on a Flix bus, the petrol station food stops, the highways and hotels, a winter world of neon signs and warehouses, power stations and the skies of middle Europe. Auschwitz: this place that lives in our consciousness, sticks there; these images of trains and ramps and dynamited crematoria. The guards and dogs and tragedy of lives, millions, destroyed.

When the late Eva Mozes Kor (who, along with her twin sister, Miriam, survived Josef Mengele’s medical experiments) first returned to Auschwitz in 1984, she walked into Birkenau (Auschwitz II) holding a tape recorder, fighting back tears: “I see them taking mother and father directly, and she held her arms stretched out and … where did she vanish?”

I have no right, but as I grow older, as I see the power of populist politics, I think, perhaps, I have some responsibility. Not in the same sense as Eva, Primo Levi, Eli Wiesel or the hundreds of survivors who have spoken and written about Ha-Shoah, but nonetheless, in some small way.

In uncertain times – immigration, globalisation, jobs – people return to the familiar. How it used to be.

Recent elections in Europe have seen the rise of nationalist parties such as Hungary’s Fidesz, Austria’s Freedom Party, Danish People’s Party, Spain’s Vox and Germany’s Alternative for Deutschland (AfD). A year after the Charlie Hebdo shooting in Paris, I witnessed a demonstration by Germany’s far-right Pegida in Munich. The blaring PA, the lights, the singing, the salutes. And to suggest history doesn’t repeat.

Kraków. Probably the most beautiful city in Europe. St Mary’s Basilica, Christmas markets in the old square, horse-drawn carriages full of rugged-up tourists, Wawel Castle and Cathedral. But history hangs heavily over the city. The capital of Nazi Germany’s General Government under Hans Frank. Stalin shutting down printing presses, building steel mills, smothering religion and free speech. These layers, dating back to Kraków’s Stone Age origins. Hints of this now, although I have the feeling (as with so many places in Europe) that people just want to get on with their lives. That history persists, and never really bridges the gap between the living and dead. Here is a city aware of its past, and future. Even buying a train ticket, discounts for Teacher (33%), Big Family (37%), Anti-Communistic Opposition Activists/Victimised (100%) and Combatant (51%).

The next morning, Kraków (Główny) Station, an amalgam of platforms, shopping mall (Galeria Krakowska), car park, tram line, Starbucks (of course), food hall and three levels of American Dreams. A shiny, new vote of confidence in the future of this reawakening city. To the bus station, and two dozen people waiting for the shuttle to Auschwitz, rugged up against the cold we’ve been warned about.

And even now, a strange feeling. Not that we expect to enjoy the day; or become more enlightened, better, wiser people. No. That we might grasp what happened between 1941-1945. That we might, somehow, understand the capacity of our species to hate, and love. To destroy and, as with Eva, forgive.

No fighting for a seat this time. We all sit, quietly – American retirees, Chinese twenty-somethings, Australians, a sprinkling of European accents. Looking out the window, wondering what our day will bring. The first time (I guess) for all of us. The Orrs have been to Sachsenhausen-Oranienburg (outside Berlin), Dachau (Munich), but somehow, this feels different. The bus pulling out, no words, no explanations, as we drive through the city, the suburbs, the Soviet-era apartment blocks, glimpses of nineteenth-century gentility. A grey, drizzly day; a few kids on skateboards, an old woman heading for her local Lidl; a small park with birch trees, and see-saw. Ordinary. A highway heading west, the usual doof-doof from headphones, diesel vapours (it’s an old bus) and my sons, searching for missing Wi-Fi.

I’m just thinking about Auschwitz. Having taught (six, seven times) John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (and having felt something wasn’t quite right). Eli Wiesel’s Night. Even Peter Padfield’s biography of Himmler, thinking, perhaps, it might give me some idea how these things start. Although it didn’t. Just the voice of Eva on a scratchy tape, standing on the ramp at Auschwitz in 1984: “Mum, I will tell our story. I will tell our story because the world must know.”

A road running beside and through small towns, carefully-manicured gardens, a hardware shop, a bakery, the locals watching this daily stream of interlopers. A turn into a small carpark, the reception block for new prisoners, rows of buses, hundreds, a thousand or more people, tour guides with little flags raised in mute tribute, as groups tussle for a spot in the long lines. As we get off, as I think: it wasn’t meant to be like this. I’d imagined Auschwitz in the middle of the country, not in a town. I thought it had been a secret.

Then it dawned on me: this place has become a tourist destination. The taxis and cars, the souvenir shop, the struggle to find the right line, another wait for the toilets (everyone running from the unequipped buses), and the woman at the door with coin tray, EFTPOS machine. Was this what I imagined? So I pay, we regroup, present our bags, get our tickets and headphones and wait. Looking for clues in the terrazzo floor, the walls, glimpses of the red brick buildings outside. Watching a guard get angry with an Italian nonna.

All the history seems superfluous. Heinrich Himmler telling camp commandant Rudolf Höss: “It is a hard, tough task which demands the commitment of the whole person without regard to any difficulties … If we do not succeed in destroying the biological basis of Jewry, some day the Jews will annihilate the German Volk.”

The SS converting a Polish army barracks at Oświȩcim (Auschwitz) into a camp for political prisoners. The first gassing of Polish and Soviet prisoners in August 1941. Weeks later, construction starts on the nearby Auschwitz II (Birkenau). Killing on an industrial scale. Freight trains bringing Jews from all over German-occupied Europe. The horror of the numbers (1.1 million dead) masking the horror of each death. Each man, woman and child. Eva’s mother and father and two older sisters killed in the gas chamber at Birkenau. “But here the stink was over-powering … It was everywhere and inescapable. I did not find out right away what the smell really was.”

Eventually, our group gathers in the yard between the reception centre and camp. We stand, looking over at the sign on the gate: ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (‘Work Sets You free’). We’ve all seen it before, but now the words have new meaning.

A few people take photos, but I can’t. Not from any moral high ground, but just how it feels. As we’re given the introduction. Like thousands, every day. Facts, stand here, don’t do this, can everyone hear me? History stripped back to its basics. A sense of disorientation, of not believing I’m here, of the ghosts, waiting, like us, under very different circumstances. We cross to the gate, beside the SS guardhouse (and office of camp supervisor). I’m not sure I hear the guide. She keeps fading in and out.

We continue. Again, it all makes sense. This isn’t the Auschwitz I know from documentaries. That’s Auschwitz II-Birkenau, a mile and a half away. Then there was Auschwitz III-Monowitz (now gone), a labour camp for prisoners working in the IG-Farben factory. And dozens of smaller sub-camps. Auschwitz I was a dry-run, a trial, a collection of two-storey, red-brick blocks lined up with regimental efficiency. Connective tissues of dirt roads, and beyond the fence – trees, the Sola River, factories and train lines.

Our group moves slowly. We patiently wait for each other as a tourist gridlock forms. All the time, faces searching for clues.

Block 5: Material Evidence of Crimes. We’re warned. But this is what we’ve come for. What is necessary. After all, nothing could approach what happened here 70 years before.

As Eva explains: “After we found out that the Nazis had made soap out of Jewish fat, I dreamed that soap bars spoke to me in the voices of my parents and sisters, asking me, ‘Why are you washing with us?’”

Cabinets full of hair, glasses, shoes. I try to read the names on the cases: ‘L. Bermann 26.12.1886 Hamburg’. People stripped of identity in a killing machine that ran efficiently, day in, day out, for years.

Block 6: Everyday Life of the Prisoners. Rough mattresses laid on the floor, the image of hundreds of prisoners crammed into each small area.

Block 11: the ‘death block’. A room where some semblance of a trial (with its inevitable outcome) took place, then the to the basement, the small cells, as prisoners sat (or stood in the standing cells – Stehzellen – no light, cooling or heating) listening to the executions, waiting their turn. Back upstairs, and out into a courtyard, and the executioner’s ‘Death Wall’, the windows of Block 10 (medical experiments) boarded over so no one could see what was happening.

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Continuing around this honeycomb of buildings: a storeroom for poison gas (Zyklon B) and prisoners’ stolen property; an assembly square and gallows; political section (Gestapo Camp) and, in the distance, the commandant’s house. No Bruno and Gretel here. No chats through the wire (‘Vorsicht Hochspannung Lebensgefahr’). And between Höss’s house and the original gas chamber and crematorium, the gallows where the commandant was hanged in April 1947. Some sense of justice, but not enough, considering how few staff ever stood trial.

Either way, we are led into the gas chamber. Small, cold, dark. We look up at the vents. But there is no way to imagine, to understand. Surely this is what Eva meant when she promised her mother: “I will tell our story because the world must know.” When she described the daily hell: “At Auschwitz dying is so easy.” Past the crematoria. Outside into the light.

Because we have the choice.

Auschwitz I. The feeling these words are inadequate, as I feared. We return our headphones, exit the camp, the reception building, and wait for the shuttle bus to take us to Birkenau. I notice a few people from this morning. No one says much. Just long, vacant stares out of the window. Something perfunctory, perhaps. Lunch. The sun coming out. What’s for dinner? The bus pulls out, past more factories and warehouses, neat homes, people out gardening. And soon we arrive, the unmistakable arch, the entrance to some greater hell.

We walk through the main gate. The railway tracks intact, the selection platform extending into the distance, nearby forests, homes.

German efficiency: 744 people per building, each structure colonising the grey landscape in Schindler-like rows and columns. The maths: 174 barracks (35 x 11 metres), 62 bays (or ‘roosts’) holding four inmates. An exercise in numbers, dreamt up at the Wannsee Conference in January 1942, designed by SS architect Karl Bischoff, logistics courtesy of Adolf Eichmann.

Birkenau had a capacity of 125,000 prisoners, and it felt like this. A city of death. And that morning, a freezing, horizontal gale as we walk the length of the platform, past one of the ‘cattle cars’ used to transport prisoners from all over Europe, as far as the gas chambers and crematoria II and II, hastily destroyed in the last weeks of war, before prisoners were returned to Germany in ‘death marches’.

It occurs to me that the end came in many forms – if not the gas chamber, worked to death (prisoners building their own barracks), starvation, disease, or hypothermia. Our tour group just stands, listening, huddling into each other, grasping umbrellas that do nothing to stop the rain. Eventually, we arrive at the women’s camp, find shelter inside a single barracks, contemplate the days, weeks, perhaps, someone could survive without adequate clothing, food. Eva explaining “… the bread we ate each evening … contained not only sawdust but a powder called bromide that made us forget memories of home.”

The bunks, still waiting for the women who were due to be sent to the gas chamber. The ammonia-clouded windows with a view of more barracks, guard towers, wire. “People were yelling. There were screams. Confusion. Desperation. Barking Orders.”

Later, we return to Auschwitz I. By now, the crowds are thinning out, and it’s growing dark. We cross the road and eat cheap hamburgers in an empty café. An empty mall, too, built, I guess, in anticipation of tourists. A sad, lonely place with tables and chairs lined up like huts. Postcards. As I watch the shop assistants waiting.

So what do we owe the past? What can we learn? For a start: human life, human dignity, should be above laws, rules, the whims of leaders. The way German soldiers, today, need not follow orders (“According to German law an order is not binding if … it violates the human dignity of the third party concerned”: Practice Relating to Rule 154: Obedience to Superior Orders).

Second, that history keeps changing clothes, pretending it’s something else. This is what I saw in Munich in 2016. The sounds, the colour and movement, the visceral attraction of Pegida. The museum director at Buchenwald Concentration camp recently explained: “[Guestbook] messages glorifying Nazism or demanding the camps be re-opened for foreigners have become more common.” Smiling selfies in front of gas chambers, provoking arguments with tour guides. All becoming somehow okay. As the AfD keep chanting: “Wir sind das Volk!” (“We are the people!”).

Thirdly, that we are obliged to speak (however imperfectly) on behalf of those who can’t. A strange idea in a country that has little history, few reference points, an ethos of unfettered progress, individual prosperity.

Finally, that we make some attempt to forgive. As Eva Kor points out: “Getting even has never healed a single person.”

We return to the camp, miss a bus, and by now it’s dark.

The car park empties and my family and another dozen people wait in the cold, and misty rain. The camp is locked up. The lights off.

I wonder about the hundreds of thousands. This place where they last saw sky, smelt grass, perhaps. I still don’t know any more than I did eight hours ago. I don’t understand. How this place was built, staffed, people brought in, slaughtered. I just don’t get it. And when the bus finally arrives, and we climb aboard, I feel like I’ve left something unfinished.

Stephen Orr is an Adelaide-based writer of both fiction and non-fiction.

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