The pizza at Auschwitz is great.
I thought about the propriety of that sentence the moment it popped into my head, while sitting on a rubber block in the car park eating the aforementioned snack, which was a thin and crispy vegetarian slice cooked to perfection in a small booth to the right of the museum entrance. I tested it on my mother when I returned home and she curled her lip. I was admonished for saying it, as I expected.
It’s not what you go there for, is it?
Before leaving home to spend four days in Krakow – one walking around the ghetto, one visiting the three main camps that comprise Auschwitz – I would have agreed with my mum in the unlikely event someone was crass enough to make that statement in my vicinity. You make a decision to visit a place like Auschwitz, or anywhere that extremes of human behaviour have manifested themselves, to pay your respects to those who suffered. Perhaps to immerse yourself in the locus of suffering, even to try to feel something of what they felt to better understand the human condition.
A noble enterprise. But while I was eating my pizza it occurred to me that perhaps we’re so fixed on the past, we’re not paying the slightest attention to what’s unfolding in front of our eyes. Was I the only person who felt the clouds of impropriety gathering above my head as I sated my hunger and thirst having just emerged from a room in which thousands of people had been murdered? To feel that laughing while walking along the train tracks of Birkenau towards the site of the gas chambers was disrespectful? I wasn’t the only person who pulled their coat around them to thwart the wind, which, although not cold, was certainly uncomfortable. Better than the -20°c the prisoners lived in during the winter, but still.
I can’t have been. Perhaps the lesson here is that I myself should be more tolerant.
There were around thirty people on the tour I took. I knew none of them and while most were silent and respectful of the circumstances and the tour leader (who it later transpired had family members imprisoned at the camp), a minority scuttled around the pack like paparazzi, desperate to collect a well framed, nicely composed shot of the trench that housed one of Birkenau’s gas chambers, or the restored cattle truck used to transport up to eighty people to the camp from all over Europe.
In the main, these were the same people who shook their heads and gasped when they saw the conditions people were forced to live in or walked past glass cabinets filled with vestiges of human life in quantities quite beyond imagination.
I don’t know what those people were looking for. Or if they found it. But evil isn’t tangible at Auschwitz, no matter how much we want it to be. It’s not a horrifying place. It’s just a place, like a grave, that we visit to feel proximity to something we don’t have or don’t understand. There’s nothing there but stone, barbed wire, darkness, mud and tiny rooms that might retain some memory of what unfolded under their auspices, but not in any form we can interpret.
What I did learn is that acknowledging it isn’t enough. It’s not even close.
As the tour guide wrapped up, his dignity in thanking us for visiting provoking many a wobbly chinned thousand yard stare, I watched one of the people who’d been taking photos examining the bottom of her shoe for mud. The paths are mostly stone but towards the end of our tour we’d deviated onto a mud track to enter one of the women’s barrack buildings and murmurs of mild discontent were audible at the time, but who complains about dirty shoes when you’re walking into a place that apparently housed up to eight hundred women at a time, despite being no bigger than a modest Tesco Metro?
“Thank you for coming here.” the guide said. “We do this because no one should ever forget what happened here, what’s happened since and even what’s happening now in the world.”
If I was perfect, or even a slightly better person, I would have been listening to him intently, paying him the respect he deserves. Instead I was watching a middle aged woman scrape mud from the sole of her walking boot with a stick and planning my own atrocity.
That’s the thing with evil. And more importantly, with good. They’re utterly transient. Neither exist in any form we can understand, until they’ve been fed and nurtured, grown fat and powerful enough to manifest itself in our world. Through our actions. By the time we see what it’s done, it’s left, following the trail of sustenance like any living thing.
I’ll tell you how Rudolf Hess lived comfortably on the perimeter of Auschwitz with his wife and young family while mere yards away, phenol injections were being administered to babies and those deemed useless to the cause.
He created a disconnect. Those people behind the fence were different to the people in his house. His wife was different to the women who slept, sometimes eight to a bunk, in their own filth. His children were special; to be nurtured and cared for, not experimented on and discarded as trash.
It doesn’t matter how. But when you stop to think about it, it’s obvious why.
We’re pack animals who evolved living in small groups. We’re probably not psychologically equipped to grapple with concepts as complex and vast as industrialised murder and so we protect ourselves by building walls and placing inconvenient truths on the other side of them, out of sight. That’s how we end up wandering around taking photos of concentration camps with mobile phones made of metal mined by kids in DRC, wearing clothes sewn by people living in conditions not unlike the brick rooms of Birkenau while gasping in horror at what the Nazis did, all the time utterly oblivious to the irony.
The lesson I learned from Auschwitz is that we must look. We live our lives behind a series of walls, some built by us, most not. It’s easy to wander around believing that the atrocities of Auschwitz were particular to that time and place and go there to pay our respects, while remaining utterly oblivious to similarly repugnant acts taking place every minute of every day.
And how else are we supposed to survive? Who am I to say those people, who perhaps were so affected by what they were seeing that they couldn’t help but laugh, couldn’t look but through a lens, that they’re doing it wrong? Life is complicated enough, without having to deal with images of carnage, pain, abuse, suffering and hatred. If that’s how they survive, good for them.
Unfortunately though, that’s when it breeds. When we’re not looking. And suddenly, hundreds, maybe thousands of people are dead, and we shake our heads while swearing that it will never happen again, especially on our watch. Forgetting that Darfur did. Rwanda did. Bosnia, Cambodia, the Partition of India.
In his 1986 movie “Hannah & Her Sisters”, Max von Sydow’s Frederick asked this question (above). I love that film, saw it when I was quite young, and it’s always framed my attempts to understand Auschwitz.
Having visited, I think I know the answer. It’s because most of the time, human beings are more naturally inclined towards love and tolerance. Occasionally, hate and ignorance coalesce to a point where they develop a unified voice and, if humanity is really in deep shit, a plan. It’s a cop out to call Hitler, Mengele, Hess and their coterie of opportunistic colleagues evil. They were merely riding the crest of a wave that had been fomenting for a while, fortunate enough to be in the right place, with sufficient power and intellect to exploit that wave for their own ends, until it no longer mattered who drowned or was crushed on the journey there.
Don’t be frightened of who’s riding the wave. Be afraid of the wave.