(Inside a gas chamber).
I thought I would wait a few days before blogging final reflections of my visit to Auschwitz and Birkenau, the ‘death camp’.
It is very difficult to explain to anyone who hasn’t made the visit how deep the impact can be.
I rehearsed this blog over Mother’s Day lunch with my daughters - for days they have been asking me “how was your visit?” and for days I had been answering, “read the blog!”
Over lunch there was no escape; a light hearted occasion quickly moved into an in-depth discussion focused on death and destruction: the legacy of Hitler and Nazism.
Before I went to Auschwitz, I had attended a dinner at which the guest speaker was Laurence Rees, the academic producer/director of the BBC TV series, Auschwitz.
He was the after dinner speaker and I had the good fortune to be sat next to him throughout the dinner.
In making the series Auschwitz, Laurence had undertaken extensive research and had become absorbed in his subject over a number of years.
His stories, that growing Holocaust denial was becoming ever more accepted at a high academic level across the world, were alarming.
It was with his words in my ears that I took the photograph below from an SS watchtower, and understood for the first time how such a theory could, in reality, take root.
(View from a watch tower).
When looking out at the stark plain wooden barracks, with absolutely no other infrastructure around, it is very hard indeed to understand how so many people were processed, through such a cold unwelcoming place.
Birkenau is vast, and is comprised of a small number of wooden barracks, open flat spaces, a railway track, gas chambers and the crematoria.
It was a processing plant, a slaughter house, for the mass destruction of human beings, who were treated worse than animals, and denied any shred of dignity.
This is hard, very hard to absorb; and when standing in Birkenau, your mind, which only understands basic human needs, screams out in protest against what your eyes see, and what are so obviously the facts laid before you.
It is natural in this situation to think, how would I feel if this were me? If I were a mother getting off the train with my children.
Your mind doesn’t want to go there. You force yourself, stood alone in the biting wind, wearing a ski jacket and Canadian Pajar boots having just eaten lunch on a warm coach; and you force your mind, force it to imagine, and still it won’t.
For a second you can see and hear thousands of sepia ghosts, people half dressed and half starved milling around you. You can imagine the moaning and the praying.
You can hear the dogs barking, SS officers shouting, and smell the flesh burning in the ovens. You can see train doors opening as people fall out; and watch the children and women being herded one way, men the other.
You see a baby being ripped out of a mother’s arms, one of the milder things which happened and try to imagine that mother’s thoughts, to feel her pain. It is completely impossible.
For just a few seconds the ether of dead despair, which hangs around Auschwitz like a rolling fog, begins to drift towards you. Your mind blocks it out before it reaches you.
Why was it so hard?
Having spent twenty minutes or so in deep discussion with my girls yesterday, the youngest began to trip out and had obviously had enough.
Suddenly, at a very inappropriate juncture she announced “How do you make chocolate mousse?”
Thinking she had seen this on the menu, and slightly shocked and bemused at the change of mood in the conversation, from the destruction of human life to chocolate mousse, we all chorused - we don’t know.
Truth be known, I was slightly irritated. But not for long, only hours before she had brought me breakfast in bed, two hard boiled eggs with funny faces painted on the shells and flowers cut from the bulbs I have been growing for months in a tub.
Take a bowl and put chocolate in it, said she. Bring it up to room temperature and slowly whisk as the chocolate begins to melt.
Stir and stir until the chocolate comes away from the side of the bowl, you may need to add a bit of butter to make this happen.
Then add a Moose!
As everyone began to laugh, the reason why I had found it so hard at Birkenau, dawned on me.
I live in a world of laughing daughters and chocolate Moose!
Of mobile phones and computers. Of highly intelligent media and constant communication. Of restaurants and Mother’s Days, nice cars and holidays. Of accountability and democracy, and revolt over MPs’ expenses. Of ski jackets and Pajar boots.
I have a passport, a nation, and an identity which is built upon the security afforded following two world wars. I have smiley faces painted on egg shells.
As society develops and becomes ever more sophisticated, the stark realism of what happened at Birkenau will become ever more removed from 21st century daily life, and almost impossible to comprehend.
I realised at Birkenau that being told the facts in a classroom is in no way the same as seeing and really truly believing the reality, in such a way that you would be motivated or moved to go the extra mile, in order to ensure that such atrocities never occur again.
In Berlin, there is a commemoration to the Jewish book burning events, and inscribed in the ground is a quote by Heinrich Heine – a man Hitler hated.
‘Dort wo man Bucher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen.’
‘Those that begin by burning books will end by burning men.’
It was written almost a hundred years before the Holocaust.
If the Holocaust could be predicted by a scholar a hundred years before it occurred, we owe it, for the sake of all mankind, to remember it well 60 years after it took place.
(Photo of candles on the train tracks from ceremony at the end of the visit).