Last week I went to hell and back. Well, close enough to get a glimpse. With a class of Pioneering and Leadership Development students, I drove out from Krakow to visit Auschwitz for the first time.
I had been to Dachau many times on the Heritage Tour, and couldn’t imagine a worse place. But Dachau was purgatory compared to the hell of Auschwitz.
The story of this infamous death-camp has of course been told and retold many times. The recent best-seller, The boy in striped pyjamas, now also a film, is a fresh and touching (albeit implausible) narration of the tragedy through the eyes of an innocent German boy. The story can never be told enough.
The quote attributed to George Santayana greeting visitors in one of the barrack buildings tells us why: ‘The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again.’
(Although many versions circulate of this quote, the original actually is: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’)
It was heartening therefore to see crowds of school pupils queueing to visit the camp, brought by buses from all over Europe.
The day before, I had visited the enamel factory in Krakow taken over by Oskar Schindler early in the German occupation. Recently opened as a museum, the factory now helps visitors relive the years of occupation when Poland, ‘crucified between two thieves’, had been carved up by Germany and the Soviet Union.
Made famous through Spielberg’s 1993 film, Schindler’s story of his brave rescue of 1200 of his Jewish workers from certain death in Auschwitz is a rare point of light in this dark chapter of Germany’s history.
Schindler himself was a womanising wheeler-dealer, first sent to Poland to help create a ‘Polish’ attack on a German radio-station, giving the Nazis a reason to invade their neighbour. His radical change of heart, and his use of his shady contacts and past reputation to cover for his clandestine activities saving ‘non-Aryans’, was a triumph of human spirit against the merciless Nazi machine.
Auschwitz was a complex of death camps spread over several kilometres, Birkenau being the largest. While Jews were the majority of those annihilated there, initial victims were the Poles, joined by Soviets, Gypsies, Czechs, Yugoslavs, French and Austrians as well as Germans.
All were greeted at the gate by the cynical slogan: Arbeit macht frei – ‘work brings freedom’. Ruthless design brought trains right into the heart of the complex, to disgorge their human cargo almost directly into the mouth of the gas chambers. Those not selected for work as they stepped off the train walked unawares immediately to their deaths, forced to strip before being herded into the Cyclon B-filled chambers.
Huge piles of thousands of shoes, glasses, suitcases and clothing articles, and literally tons of human hair, remain as silent witnesses to this deed of cold, calculated evil. Of the 1.3 million sent to Auschwitz, only 200,000 survived.
Scanning a wall map of Europe showing the many points of embarkation for the hapless victims, I felt the name ‘Apeldoorn’ jump out at me. I had to think of the hundreds, if not thousands of aged, women, children and mental patients forced onto cattle wagons from the very same platform I catch my train to Schiphol!
For many the holocaust is the reason to reject a God who, if omnipotent, was obviously not loving, or if loving, was clearly not omnipotent. But such a rejection leads to a greater dilemma. If no such God exists, and we conclude that humans are merely accidents of time and space, why not resort simply to the survival of the fittest?
Which is the direct route to hell.
Till next week,