Living in such “Uncertain Times”, a visit to the camps at Auschwitz/Birkenau, about an hour from our hotel in Krakow, seemed strangely appropriate. So we rose at 6.30 am and took a taxi for the six-hour round trip. Why exactly? A sense of pilgrimage? An act of remembrance? A sense of duty? To honour? To feel? To comprehend the incomprehensible – man’s astonishing capacity for inhumanity to man?
The anticipation was almost the worst. You drive past McDonalds, tyre centres and other high spots of the 21st Century, becoming increasingly aware of the proximity of the gathering railway lines, already knowing where they inevitably lead.
I have no desire to write a comprehensive review. Much of Birkenau seemed strangely at peace, as if the earth has begun to rise up and heal the wounds, leaving just the ugly scar on top. While the transformation of Auschwitz into a museum shields you from the rawness – as does the number of visitors. It was bizarre enough to be queuing to get into, rather than out of, the “death hut” – without the juxtaposition of the “Don’t Forget to Smile” T-shirt being worn by the young woman in front. As I queued I was reminded of the ‘Jehovah’ sketch from Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’, “Worse?! I am at Auschwitz, How could it be worse?!” But however bad, it can always get worse, as the inside of the hut was to prove. One of the ways that Man manipulates Man.
Could it happen again? The ruthless, scientific industrialisation of death can, one prays, never be repeated – but genocides and ethnic cleansings sadly continue. Much of politics seems fated to repeat itself. Only this morning I was sent a spoof of those same gates with ”Make America Great Again” written across the top. Perhaps that is why we go. It is a warning about the consequences of encouraging fear and hatred of the “other”. “Let this place forever be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity”.