“Human presence is a creative and turbulent sacrament, a visible sign of invisible grace”. John O'Donohue

Sunday, 18 May 2014


We have just this morning returned from a short trip to Krakow to meet some friends.

For me the run up to the trip was full of trepidation and soul searching. Krakow is about 40 km from the Nazi death camps at Auschwitz and Birkenauan almost obligatory visit on the tourist itinerary. My immediate reaction when the trip was suggested was that I didn't want to go. There were a number of discomforts. I questioned if there was anything about the unspeakable history of the place that I felt I needed to witness. If I did need/want to witness it, what need was I fulfilling? Voyeuristic curiosity? Morbid fascination?  What? Having never visited, I was concerned that it would be some kind of tasteless death related theme park.

I was also worried about the spiritual and energetic burden - on someone so "sensitive" - of simply being in that place where so many suffered and died. I confess this was probably my biggest concern, that I would leave the place troubled and carrying a burden of grief that I would find difficult to shake off. Even on the morning of the trip, I was determined I simply didn't want or need to witness it. And then one of our friends, a historian, said to me directly, gently, matter of factly "But you have to go. It is the most important thing that has ever happened in Europe." 

The most important thing that has ever happened. 

I couldn't argue with the truth of that. And it turns out I couldn't actually justify to myself not going simply to protect my own sensitivities.  We took the local bus in torrential rain. On the way, I prepared myself energetically, encasing myself in protective light. "Armouring" up. We arrived at the museum at Auschwitz I, fortifying ourselves with hot chocolate while we awaited the mandatory guided tour (a million + people visit the site every year, they need a "system") donned headsets and radio packs (so that we could all hear the guide) and marched through the puddles, via  the gates in the barbed wire fences to a tour of the Polish ex-military buildings that were commandeered by the Nazis to form the Auschwitz I complex. 

The two hour long tour of Auschwitz I  incorporates the buildings where the museum exhibits are held. Photographs, examples of accommodation (difficult to imagine in its scrubbed hygienic state) Personal belongings: shoes, glasses, tins of shoe polish. A whole room full of brushes (hair brushes, tooth brushes, shaving brushes). The room full of girls' and womens' long hair was the hardest to witness. I had a wobble at this point and could barely look (Their hair was exported to Germany and woven into the linings of Nazi uniforms) but I made myself look. I knew by this point that witnessing this, and continuing to bear witness, is much much more important than my individual sense of comfort or discomfort. 

Never in my life did I think I would walk into a gas chamber. Not even right up until the point that I did. And I did, and there are flowers and candles and  reverence and a strange kind of peace. It is a graveyard. 

And on to a further hour's tour of the site of Auschwitz II Birkenau. The place that most people will recognise from its iconic watchtowers and concentration camp buildings. And the railway that transported over 1.1 million Jewish people  over 200,000 Polish people, gypsies, disabled people, gay people and prisoners of war to their deaths.  At the far end of the camp lie the remains of the gas chambers and crematoria that the Nazis attempted to destroy when the realised their reign of terror was over, and the strangely Soviet style memorial to the dead. 

We toured some of the remaining accommodation buildings that each housed 700 + prisoners, crammed - 10 shrunken stinking bodies  to a bed - in triple height bunks. In that empty place, scrubbed of all its dirt and blood and human pain, we heard of  the fight to secure the top bunk to benefit from the rising body heat and to avoid the rain of piss. 

And the whole way round this tastefully and sensitively preserved  museum, as the torrential rain soaked me through to the skin and I shivered in the cold and rain and wind, I was  reminded by my discomfort, that nothing I was feeling and nothing I am ever likely to feel will  come even moderately close to the sickening reality of how it was to be in this place in 1941. 

I was also reminded of why it is important to witness and to continue to witness the past, even in its sickening wickedness. 


A curtain corner raised,
I witnessed Jews,
enlightened since their passage
through the Auschwitz ovens,
rescuing former camp guards
from the stinking pits
remorse had dug for them.

I bring it to your attention
you bombers, you famine makers,
you adjusters of populations.
These children you kill
might learn, by this light,
a love which, brought to bear,
could drive you screaming mad.
                        William Oliphant

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