Back in 1984 I visited Dachau. I took my mother and sister. And it was true what they said: the birds really didn't sing there. It was a profoundly moving experience. My mother couldn't wait to leave and hated it. In 1990, just after the reunification of Germany, I drove to Buchenwald in the former East Germany. It was a very different experience. I was on my own and wasn't sure what to expect. While Dachau had been a bit of a tourist trap, with many of the buildings and ovens rebuilt, Buchenwald was more of a clearing in a forest. There was indeed a building with an exhibition, but the only sign of what had once been there were the foundations of each of the huts. I remember seeing a commemorative stone to the British men who had died there and finding it all very emotional. Walking around on my own I founbd myself trying to imagine what had occured there a mere fifty years previously.
My first knowledge of anything to do with the holocaust came back in 1978 when I remember watching an American TV mini series called HOLOCAUST. It followed the travails of various members of the Weiss family. I remember it being very schmalzy, but it sparked a desire in me to learn more about what happened during those terrible years. I make no pretence of being an expert, but I have read reasonably widely ont he subject. I even published a holocause memoir called the Children's House of Belsen.
So when I got an invitation from the Holocaust Educational Trust to accompany them on a student trip to Auschwitz I accepted with thanks. They receive government funding to take British sixth formers to Auschwitz to educate them about what happened. On this trip they took 220 students from Norfolk. I assume they invited me because of my Eastern Daily Press column, and they also invited Chloe Smith to go too.
So we all arrived at Stansted Airport this morning at 5am for the flight to Krakow a couple of hours later. We imlmediately headed to the local Jewish cemetery in Auschwitz, or Oswiecim, as it is called in Polish. I describe that experience HERE.
At midday we arrived at Auschwitz 1 and were immediately greeted by the famous Arbeit Macht Frei sign. We spent a couple of hours touring the place, looking at the different barracks, learning about what exactly went on there and having the opportunity to view many of the belongings left behind by those who were murdered. Perhaps the most disturbing point was when were led into the underground gas chamber and looked up at the holes in the ceiling where the Zyklon B was poured in. Standing on the spot where thousands of innocent people breathed their last breath took some contemplation. But frankly, there was little time to take it in as there were so many other people there that we had to move on far too quickly. Indeed, the proximity of housing, shops, car parks and traffic made it all very difficult to really 'get' the atmosphere of the place. We were all provided with headphones to listen to the guide. To me it seemed less like a concentration camp than a theme park.
Having become quite emotional at Dachau and Buchenwald I fully expected to repeat the experience here. But I didn't. Was it the fact that modern day life was intruding, or is that that I am twenty years older and harder in outlook? I'd like to think it is the former, as one or two others said they felt the same.
At 2.30 we moved onto Auschwitz-Birkenau, which is where the majority of the killings happened. I had imagined it to be in the middle of nowhere, with a long train track leading up to it. But again, modern housing had intruded. Yes, the famous guard tower was still there, and we were able to view the whole site from it. But again, other groups wanted to have a look too, so we were shushed out of the guard tower after what seemed like only a few seconds. Viewing the wooden barracks was quite harrowing. It was almost impossible to imagine how 1,000 or more people lived in such surroundings, especially in winter. It came as little surprise to learn that inmates had a life expectancy of only a couple of months. We then moved on to see the point where new arrivals disembarked the trains, and then ended up viewing the ruins of the ovens and gas chambers which saw more than 1 million people meet their deaths.
One thing I had been warned about was that if we encountered Israelis during the visit, we shouldn't be shocked at their behaviour. But I was. They went around brandishing Israeli flags and chanting and cheering, almost as if they were trying to say "Look, we're still here". It was most odd. We all trudged round maintaining a respectful silence, but the Israelis approached it all in a very different way. It made me feel very uncomfortable.
Throughout all of this we enjoyed the services of a Polish guide, and a representative from the HET put everything in context for the students from Norfolk. At the end, a Rabbi, who accompanied us from London conducted a short commemorative service, which included 5 readings from the students. We were all then invited to light a candle and place it on the railway track.
The HET clearly does an excellent job. It gets £1.5 million from the government to fund trips like this, and they clearly have a deep effect on the students. As we went round the camp it was great to listen in on the conversations they were having about the issues raised. I remember especially one 17 year old speculating what he would have done if he had been a German soldier operating in one of the camps. He had clearly given it a great deal of thought.
My only complaint, and it is more of a suggestion, rather than complaint I suppose, is that I would like to have heard more about the non Jewish victims of the holocaust. The fact that the disabled, trade unionists, homosexuals and gypsies were also victims in their hundreds of thousands rated hardly a mention. Of course everyone knows that the overwhelming majority of those killed in the holocaust were Jewish (90% of those killed at Auschwitz were Jews), but that shouldn't hide the fact that thousands of others were killed in Auschwitz and the other extermination camps. I raised this with one of the HET people, who maintained that the word Holocaust referred exclusively to Jewish victims. I was surprised at this interpretation, as it has certainly never been mine. If you look up the word Holocaust on Wikipedia you can interpret it both ways. And I would like to think that if taxpayers'money is being used to fund these trips (something I agree with) they would be rather more all-encompassing and make more of an effort to explain why other minorities were also targeted by the Nazis. But perhaps that is a minor quiblle compared to the undoubted excellence of the service provided by the HET. I hope this is taken as constructive criticism, as it is meant to be.
It was a very tiring day for everyone, and one which ended with a range of emotions coming to the fore. Horror about what had happened only 70 years ago on the very ground we had trodden, sadness at how human beings could ever inflict such suffering and a slight sense of disappointment that neither I nor, from what I could see, any of my travelling companions, were openly emotionally affected by what we saw.
Eyes didn't moisten, no tears were shed. I still find that hard to explain.