Tuesday, November 24, 2009

There was a picture on the ticket of trees in the sunshine.
Small knots of leisurely visitors passing under an ornamented gateway.
The lettering above the gateway read: "Arbeit mach frei".
Because this was ou ticket for Auschwitz.
And i wasn't prepared for this at all: extermination as part of the tourist industry, which was absurd of me, because this excursion is one of the sights of Cracow.
And on the way out our coachload was appropriately subdued. And we were shown a film with crackly sound, a film of staggering incompetence, featuring footage shot by a Russian cameraman who spoke about it all, his chest heavy with medals.
we'd had to get up early to catch the bus, and I kept falling asleep and feeling vaguely guilty about it. I didn't properly wake up until we had reached the coach park, with the pizza restaurants opposite, and we'd filed in to pick up our headphones which allowed our guide to speak softly and gently into our ears.
And so introduce us to horrors...
The heaps of shoes, forty thousand shoes, she said, ever so gently, and asked us to imagine that each shoe represented a life, and still this enormous heap only represented a tiny proportion of the utterly monstrous numbers of deaths.
And the massive heap of human hair, which sold for fifty copecks a bag, and was then, I imagine with a certain difficulty processed into the lining of men's suits, and was it also made into blankets? i was distracted at the thought of the work of the entrepreneurs who engaged themselves into developing the processes that would turn this unaccustomed material into something that could be turned into a profitable enterprise.
And the kitchen implements - the pots and pans and cheese graters.
And the heaps of clothes that were all stored in the warehouses called 'Canada' because Canada, at the time was considered a place of immense richness..
and it was this, i suppose, that struck me above all: that evil should wear such a banal face.
And the evidence of the routine... even the faces in the photographs staring at us along the corridor, with the dates bearing witness to the curelly short itme people were in general able to survive in that place... the photographs until at least partly the sheer numbers of the people being processed in that place overwhelmed the photographers and they took to tattooing the prisoners instead.
And there was the prison block, with the cells in the basement where they starved prisoners to death, or suffocated them, or made them stand without rest... and the same basement, too, where they carried out the experiemnts with the gas, to try to find the right substance, and then presumably the right dosage, and filled out evaluation forms until they were satisfied and were able to build the gas chamber and crematorium that our guie saved up to the very end.
And there we were in this horrible horrible place, staring up at the holes in the ceiling they dropped the gas canisters down, and trying to imagine, most inadequately, the horror of the place, with the ovens next door, and if I understood the guide correctly the ovens were clearly inadequate because it took two days to dispose of just one single killing.
And besides, it must have taken a while to check the corpses mouths and extract the gold teeth.
And no doubt forms were filled out, and committees met to discuss the matter, and the appropriate lessons were learnt and put into practice in the second, so much huger camp just down the road.
And there she showed us the barracks, that were originally designed for horses, and the bunks, and had us imagine the overcrowding and the stench and the cold, and then showed us the 'sanitation' hut where the latrines were, and up in the guard tower you could see the vastness of the samp...
And there was the really quite pleasant looking house in the first camp where the commandant lived, and his wife apparently grow the most beautiful flowers... and i would do the same, in her place. The guards drank a lot, I think i read somewhere, to try to numb their distress, which I can also easily believe, as i am drinking a big mug of cherry vodka and hot water just now to try to numb the horror of all i have seen today.
because how can we live with ourselves? How can we live knowing what we are all capable of? Quite easily, perhaps to judge from the couple laughing as they posed for photographs in front of the famous guardhouse and gate, or the guys talking football on the bus on the way back to the city.

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