Sunday, September 6, 2015

Dealing with ghosts - Visiting Auschwitz

It is 3.13 am in the morning.  I have wrestled with my bedclothes and I have chased after (and lost) any hope of sleep. I have given up. Tonight, it will not happen. I have resigned myself to that bald and simple fact.

There is nothing - absolutely nothing - which can prepare one for the kind of emotions one will encounter when visiting Auschwitz. Absolutely nothing.  No amount of pain.  No amount of horror.  No experience, no thought, no imagining, no sound, no silence. There is nothing. There is nothing.  There is nothing.

The vastness of it all - the sheer size and magnitude - defies any depiction or any human words.  Put them together how you may. Pile up epithet upon epithet, image upon image, horror upon horror, metaphor upon metaphor - and still you will never be prepared. Take everything you know about war, splice all your slivers of knowledge together, pack them as high as you can - to the ceiling, to the rafters, to the roof, to the chimney - and still ... still you will not be able to prepare yourself for what you will find there. 

The arrival to this place is unemotional and unimpressive.  There are no theme park banners.  There are no pointers or flyers, no garish advertising. The building itself, from  where the visitor encounters it, is uninspiring and even a bit ugly. The signs directing you to the toilet or the modest shops are vaguely amateur.

You will be struck by the coaches, parked and waiting for the people they are transporting.  How many of them there are.  How many people want to come here.  You will notice that the entrance is free.  (You pay for your guide, only). There is a line of people going into the camp.  They come from Australia and India and England and America.  Others have travelled here from every corner of Europe.  There is a party of Germans, behind us.  How, asked a member of our party, do Germans deal with this, when they come to visit here?  Like everyone else, said our guide, they are quiet.  Maybe they are a bit more quiet, he reflected. 

At the entrance to this place, there are pictures of prisoners.  Front and side.  Some of them have information.  Some have none.  I met this man, across the years and the boundaries of distance and language.  His name was Brak Danych.  He had been given a number 604.  And beyond that, there is no data available.  He was Polish.  They started with the Poles.  He is a young man of maybe 18 or 19 - 20 at the most. And he was murdered. The picture was his last.  There is no hope in his eyes.

Everything he might have been.  His children that he never had.  His family, his endeavours, his bravery (or perhaps his lack), his loves, his likes, his hopes, his dreams and his fears are all there.  They crowd into this one picture.  He is alone as he faces his captors and his fate. Only his name and his scared - his sad, resigned eyes stare across the years to us now.

And then it starts. 

As you pass through the iron gates, with the famously cynical statement, that "Work brings Freedom", you are gripped as if by a whirlwind.  Or, as I would imagine, a Tsunami. You are ill-prepared for what you will see. You have come wearing the thinest of cotton, in a mighty snowstorm.  You are covered in the thickest of overcoats, when the mercury is pushing beyond 45 degrees. 

You will walk the corridors, not as a prisoner - (for you will walk out again).  You will walk as a perpetrator.  You will begin to understand, with the luxury of freedom as your guiding light, how far we can go, when we want to, into that valley of hate. When we choose to go there and when no-one is at hand to stop us.

The ghosts of Auschwitz do not scream or yell. They make no sound at all. They throw nothing. They leave no footprints, they rustle no leaves. They are not violent, or angry.  They make no attempt at communication. They are silent.

It is the silence of utter and complete despair. Disbelief. Incomprehension. It is the silence of the piles upon piles - upon yet more piles of their belongings.  Shoes, enamel basins, spectacles, prostheses, combs and piles of human hair.  Piles that lie desolate and forever.  

These are the silent places of our world, where there is nothing that can be said.  No words.  No philosophy, no religion, no god. No song, no chant, no music of any sort or kind. There is nothing to soothe the brain thrown into turmoil. There can be no solace. No balm at all. That silence - that silence of the closed and the open mouths of those millions whose commercial worth would be assessed on their arrival and would seal their fate - that is what we are confronted with here. There is nothing to say.  There is nothing that can be said. There is nothing to be said. Nothing.

And as you start to stagger a little, as you start to limp into the next corridor.  As your settled world starts to unravel and undo.  As your brain tries in vain to filter and to file what you are seeing, you start to meet those ghosts of Auschwitz.  You see them in the man Mengele is selecting for death, because he would be too old to work. You see them in the mother and her children, walking to their inevitable deaths.  In the confused young man. In the child with his suitcase. In the footfall of torture and death.

They are still silent, but they are starting to take form and shape.  They carry with them their suitcases.  Their stay will not be forever - they think. They will be needing a basin to wash themselves. A brush for their hair. They have just had a terrible journey and they need to get themselves stripped for a shower, these silent ghosts of our collective past. 

And they pass us on their journey. We meet them in their delusion and in their hell. We pass them by as we go our way. And, most probably, next week and next month, we will meet them again.  But we will not nod at them or make any eye contact with them or show them any sympathy. Our tears will all be dry.  Our lives will be being lived again.  Our work and our comfortable families will take up our interest and our time. 

You see, these silent ghosts do not leave us, when  we leave this place. They do not need gas chambers to be real. They move amongst us still.  We meet them at the traffic light, dressed in rags.  We see them in the children we have neglected and ignored.  We pass them by in the drug dens of the Cape Flats and the makeshift houses thrown together out of wood and steel sheets in Orange Farm.

They are there, drinking the dirty water of our rivers.  They are looking in the dustbins of our cities. They are sleeping night after night, under a cardboard sheet. They are with us still.  

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