Wednesday, March 03, 2010

A Day At Auschwitz-Birkenau

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.


miko said...


Thanks for your report,I particularly found your personal reaction very interesting.

It is humbling to think that 100 years ago,these dreadful acts were still to happen,indeed the First World War was still 4 years away.

Why is it that so little is learned from history,to prevent the same things,albeit on smaller scales,happening again and again?
So much money is being spent on "climate change" - so little on keeping peace.

kinglear said...

When I went I was literally unable to breathe properly, and the weight oif all the souls crying out was crushing

Jeremy Jacobs said...

Miko, Human Nature?

Anonymous said...

What a genuinely interesting post. I haven't visited Auschwitz, but I do know that at a certain sort of historic site there can be a real pressure to feel what one is somehow 'supposed' to feel, whether one genuinely does so or not - a kind of normalised piety that saves one the effort of actual experience. Anyway, I admire you for writing about what you really did feel, on this and earlier occasions, rather than just going through the motions. Heaven knows, the need to think for yourself, rather than simply going along with everyone else, really ought to be one of the lessons we all take away from this unimaginably horrific period of our recent history.

jbw said...

Iain said:

"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"

If you feel that Wikipedia is incorrect you could always change it or add to the entry.

Mind you, someone else could come along and change your entry!

Unsworth said...


Well maybe your grief and emotion is now turning to cold anger. As a boy I read much of the Nuremberg trials reports. That was salutary.

But your point about Israeli reactions is well made.

Paddy Briggs said...

The Holocaust museum in Washington DC is very much worth a visit and you will find that the murder and persecution of minorities is properly covered there. Sadly the more that we visit these historical memorials and museums the more we are likely to conclude that the only thing that we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.

Genocide didn't begin with Hitler - ask an Armenian or a Boer - and it didn't end with him either. Ask a former Youoslav or a Kurd - or a Palestinian...

Old Holborn said...

The Holocaust Trust paid this time? No, the taxpayer did.

"Influences Parliament and the media"

Why exactly do I want a taxpayer funded pseudo charity with Political Officers inside Parliament sending prospective MPs on away days Iain?

£3M in taxpayers money went to them last year whilst they advertise for Political Officers at £26K

Come on mate, don't be the useful idiot.

Matthew Dear said...


I fully understand that Israeli behaviour there might seem very odd and discomfiting, but it makes some sort of sense in the context of Purim:

They would see that failure of the Nazis to wipe out the Jews as equivalent to Haman's, I suspect, and commemorate it in the same way.

Lazy Student said...

Fascinating post.

Just out of interest, how many comments have you had to delete from anti-Semitic nutters on this post?

Iain Dale said...

None. Yet.

p smith said...

A thought provoking report Iain, thank you. The closest experience I have had is visiting Oradour su Glane in France where the Nazis rounded up the entire village (where resistance support was suspected) into a church and exterminated them all by machine gun.

Like you, I initially didn't feel the emotion that one might expect. However, as a father, the mere sight of an abandoned pram was enough to put a huge frog in my throat. You only have to allow yourself to think for one second of the thousands of innocent children no different to one's own that died without comfort and in fear, to know what such places represent.

As to the actions of Israelis that you witnessed, while I understand your discomfort, I tend to the view that they have earned the right to remember in whatever way they think fit. When push came to shove throughout, they have been left to fend for themselves. While I strongly disprove of many of their government's actions over the past 20 years, I have no difficulty understanding why they have done what they have done.

Adrian said...

Interesting post. I had exactly the same feelings at Buchenwald in 1990.

To answer a previous poster, I think that Holocaust education is an excellent use of taxpayers' money; there is no more important lesson in modern history than how a civilised, modern, cultured country was able to let such insanity happen.

Alongside camp visits, however, there is so much to learn from contemporary accounts. Take Victor Klemperer's diaries - the day by day account of a Jew who avoided deportation is harrowing, but you see how over 8 or 9 years a point was reached where deporations to Auschwitz could happen. He describes the level of goodwill and support he had from the non-Jewish population (of which he had considered himself part, having converted and married a Christian); one can't help feeling that had just a few people spoken out against what was happening, the extermination would never have taken place. That is surely the lesson of the holocaust; it wasn't inevitable, it could have been stopped, public opinion was able to be manipulated, and decent people were scared to speak out.

Reading some nazi writings from the early 1930s, if you replace the word "jews" with the appropriate minority, the result is not so different from some relatively mainstream political comment in many European countries. Not too much in the UK for the time being, but things can change rapidly.

DespairingLiberal said...

An excellent piece Iain, my congratulations on such considered writing.

I also had the experience of the Israeli young people, but I kind of felt they had the right to do as they pleased there - to me it looked like a celebration of a victory - the survival of a people against the most determined efforts of Messrs Hitler, Himmler and their odious mates.

I am glad that you mentioned some of the other victims. It's well worth reading Primo Levi and other survivors who have much to say about the way Nazism operated in Europe. One of the common themes is the way that people who "combined" characteristics were the most severely oppressed - a socialist Jew, a gay trade unionist, a young Jewish person with a disability.

I note that you did not mention the tens of thousands of social democrats, socialists and communists from many countries and backgrounds who perished there, many in the execution yard, one of the most moving places to visit - do you still subscribe to your previously stated opinion that the NSDAP was a socialist party? Not to be nasty about it, as you are obviously sincere, but I feel we need to discuss this deep confusion that some on the right have about such an important point.

DespairingLiberal said...

Adrian said "one can't help feeling that had just a few people spoken out against what was happening" - very true and one immediately thinks of Denmark, where the King led protests and the deportations were halted.

There are many examples of times when people stood up to Nazi thuggery and were successful at stopping some of it. In fact, the Nazi Party and the SS went to considerable lengths to hide the worse things they were doing, as they worried constantly that the public would turn against them, right to the end.

Andy said...

I'm a uni student now, and went on a similar trip when a sixth former. As well as Auschwitz, we also visited the Majdanek camp and the memorial at Treblinka. From what I remember Majdanek had much more of a focus on its non-Jewish victims that Auschwitz.

Also, I think Treblinka lacked the 'theme park' element to Auschwitz and was a more fundamentally depressing place to visit, given how little of it was left. Rather than an air of defiance, Israelis tended to be much more sombre at Treblinka

Paul Burgin said...

My sister is a schoolteacher and she recently went with some students to Sachsenhausen. What shocked her and the students was the sight of some Spanish teenagers making snowmen and chucking snowballs at each other. Talk about disrespectful!

Zefrog said...

Last night I attended the AGM of the Southwark LGBT Network, with which I have some involvement.

One of the speakers there was Clare Dimyon who spend a summer "pride hoping" in eartern Europe.

She was telling us about his trip, each week-end attending a different gay pride event in a different place.

She started her talk by musing on the choice by the EU of yellow stars for its flag. She made links with the star of David given to the Jews by the Nazis and made a very interesting point, that I have never come across or thought about: more than a series of genocides, the Holocaust was, in fact, an attempt (unique in the history of mankind) at destroying diversity.

Viewed in this light, which I think it completely valid, HEP, despite their good work in general, could be seen as perpetuating this attack on diversity.

Thank you for sharing your experience with us.

Lauchlan McLean said...

I would request you to add to your list of non Jewish victims that of Freemasons many of whom were German citizens born and bred,along with other nationalities who were considered to be against Nazism and its prinicipals.

bear of little brain said...

the way concentration and extermination camps are open to visitors is one of my bug bears. i think the way these camps have been turned into tourist attractions is very disrespectful to those who died there.

i think the camps should be left in peace as a memorial and closed to all except survivors, close relatives of survivors, historians and educational trips for holocaust deniers.

i can't understand why anyone else would want to visit the camps. there are certainly plenty of other more effective ways to be educated about the holocaust.

i do sympathize with your disappointment in the exclusion of victims other than jews from the programme, but i think it is fair comment that the jewish holocaust should be considered a separate crime to the other crimes against humanity committed by the nazis, rather than lumping them all together. and even tho the jewish holocaust was far greater in scope and intent than the other crimes, that is not to say there was no room in the trip for education about all aspects of nazi brutality.

i am very uneasy about the behaviour of israeli school groups at auschwitz, but also conscious that it is one manifestation of the very deep imprint the holocaust has moulded on the israeli pysche. the flag waving and chanting is a way of flipping the bird at the nazis, drawn from a feeling of impotence at being unable to prevent or confront the nazi genocide against the jewish people.

Anonymous said...

At March 03, 2010 9:58 AM , Paddy Briggs said...

"Genocide didn't begin with Hitler - ask an Armenian or a Boer - and it didn't end with him either. Ask a former Youoslav or a Kurd - or a Palestinian..."

Why don't you look up the meaning of genocide before you start making such outrageous comments?

sgcook said...

We should also remember that there were shining examples of courage and nobility of spirit amongst the victims of the Holocaust. I think for example of Ilse Weber who voluntarily accompanied the children from the Theresienstadt camp to their deaths in Auschwitz and was heard singing her own lullaby to them in the gas chamber. Anne Sofie von Otter's recording of that and other songs composed in Theresienstadt is an almost unbearably moving reminder of those terrible days which we in this country knew nothing about until the war was almost over.

DiscoveredJoys said...

I suspect that if one sixth former started to show openly that they had been emotionally affected then the mood of the whole group would have been affected.

Groups of people often hold back their emotions until someone or something triggers the flood of emotions. On the plus side this results in huge public response to tsunami appeals or Children in Need. On the down side it leads to Princess Diana mania, lynch mobs, or the Holocaust. What a deep pity that the attempts to thwart the Holocaust couldn't gain more traction.

Of course such a holocaust couldn't happen here - could it?

Anonymous said...

I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau myself last year with a group of pupils from the school I teach. To some extent I can echo your experiences. The experience that made my trip memorable was not so much the visit to the camp, which was moving and horrific, but the chance to meet a survivor of the Holocaust. Not a Jew but a Pole whose family had been wiped out and himself flung into the camps as a result of the Warsaw uprising. That gentleman made me feel so humble. His forgiveness and his character were an example to any human being alive. The HET should combine these trips with a talk with a survivor whilst they are still here - only then do you get a proper picture of what it was like.

Kathy said...

Last year my daughter and I spent a day each at Auschwitz 1 and Auschwitz Birkenau. Whilst the Main Camp is profoundly moving, my main reaction was when wandering around Birkenau due in part to its sheer immensity in size. I had no idea it was SO huge. We were lucky I think that on that day there were not many visitors to intrude on our thoughts and we were not overwhelmed with other people as we wandered around lost in our own thoughts.

As a wife and mother I could only imagine the distress in that place of being separated from my loved ones.

I am so glad that at the age of 65 I have, finally, visited Auschwitz and, before that, Dachau.

Quiet contemplation was the order of the day for us both. It was a beautiful sunny day when we visited but it was relatively easy, having researched literature quite considerably before our visit, to imagine the horrors of the events that took place there. In the snow and ice it must have been unimaginable.

Ben said...

I'll never forget going to the ash pits behind the crematoria at Birkenau. If you dig with your fingers you can still sometimes find bone chips in the soil.

On returning to Auschwitz, I was heartened to see a teenager go up to a group of tourists and berate them for taking pictures of themselves in front of the death wall - cheesy tourist grins and thumbs aloft.

Unsworth said...

We should not forget that 'genocide' is a legal construct which first appeared in 1948 - some time after the cessation of hostilities. 'Massacre', by contrast, has been recognised for centuries.

In reality it has proved impossible - despite the efforts of some - to carry out (a) true genocide.

jd said...

I commend your point about the scope of the definition of the term Holocaust - an emotive topic. However there is another aspect to this - thousands of people from the UK travel to Poland with the chief aim of visiting the death camp. I recall one day talking to a 14-year old about his trip. I asked him about what he thought of Poland and what he knew about Polish history. It is a savage irony that all these visitors go to Poland to visit the site of genocide perpetrated by foreigners, and little is communicated about the rich history of Poland (they don't even talk about why there was such a big Jewish population in Poland in 1939). The other irony is that if oyu asked someone who's visited Auschwitz about other incidents of genocide, especially since 1945, few would be able to tell you of any - so what is the point exactly of the HET?

neil craig said...

I assume you won't be visiting Jasenovic since it is retractively deniable. It is the camp in Yugoslavia where 650,000 people, Serbs, Gypsies & Jews, were murdered. But since those Nazis are now representatives of the best of western civilisation whom we helped in the genocide of 600,000 people from from what is now Croatia those particular victims of the Holocaust have become unpersons.

Anybody saying how dreadful Auschwitz was while ignoring Jasenovic & our government's role in subsequent genocides in Yugoslavia is showing total hypocrisy.

Compare this with the BNP who are the only party willing to condemn British "police" in Kosovo cutting up people while alive to steal their body organs. When it comes to real opposition to genocide how can any menmer of tha Lab/Lib/Con party hold up their head facing any member of the BNP.

DespairingLiberal said...

Iain, would it be possible to bar Neil Craig from posting his revolting and utterly unfounded allegations against the British military and police in former Yugoslavia? I find them fantastically disgusting to hear, as I'm sure others do - he is like a revolting record stuck in a groove. There is NO EVIDENCE to back up his malice and he appears to be quite bonkers. A shame, as this was a very good and intelligent, thoughtful discussion from every other contributor. Please please delete his filth.

Guppy said...

Most of the homosexuals were in German concentration camps like Sachsenhausen and Mauthausen. These were not extermination locations but places where the gay inmates in particular were worked to death.

Anonymous said...

As a child of the cold war, what gave me chills was the off-handed comment about flying Stanstead to Krakow. No kafka-esque procedure for a visa. No Intourist types giving you the hairy eye ball. No intrigue or drama - just "I'm off to Poland today".

The Holocaust can (rightly) bring one down on humanity. But that one sentence should remind one that it hasn't all been down hill in the past 50 years.