The Jewish Holocaust remains one of the most iconic of world events. Two things stand out - its magnitude and timescale. The events span a collapse of public service values in the mid-1930s to the erosion of the right to life that reached its peak from 1942 to 1944. It seems apposite that to mark the liberation of Auschwitz Concentration Camp, a Holocaust Express ended its journey at Auschwitz-Birkenau in 2008 after touring Germany. A reminder of the many Jewish transports this also symbolises the speed of events.
It was at Auschwitz-Birkenau that the notorious trackside 'selections' took place. Euphemisms frequently play a part in dark deeds. Women, children, the elderly and infirm were sent straight to the gas chambers. Men fit for work were led towards the endless rows of barrack huts. The luckier ones found their way to Auschwitz sub-camps as labour for IG Farbenindustrie, Siemens and other household names. This was later immortalised in the book and film Schindler's List. Life expectancy was measured in weeks. Jews were there to work or die. The edict applied regardless of rank, ability, intellect or status. Working was an interlude between incarceration and death.
A tiny proportion of prisoners survived: through stamina, bravery, an instinct for self-preservation or chance. Some managed to make themselves invisible, others turned to corruption or worse. There is an old adage that a condemned man will do or say anything to save his neck. With most of those killed in the Holocaust, men women or children, the majority seem not to have resisted fate-a notion that has proved highly controversial.
A sense of normality A first thought on arriving at the gates of Auschwitz I-over which is emblazoned the infamous lie, Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Makes You Free)-was that here might be a sense of evil. The gates seemed smaller than in the grainy news footage. What struck home was the ordinariness of the place. There was a mismatch between the location and its notorious past. Nestling in a charming corner of south-east Poland near Oswiecim (renamed Auschwitz during the years of Nazi occupation), Auschwitz I and Auschwitz-Birkenau (aka Auschwitz II built from 1942 onwards a few kilometres away) register more for their vastness and scale than intrinsic terror. Many of the buildings would grace any neighbourhood. What the place may have seemed like in the depths of a Polish winter is perhaps another matter. Normalisation often goes hand-in-hand with horrific behaviour.
In search of evil The modern-day quietness makes it hard to comprehend how such extreme and bustling events occurred at the same spot. Auschwitz I and II are not unlike any other largescale secure complex. Both enjoy an airiness. I would contrast it with a visit I once made to Plötzensee Prison on the outskirts of Berlin. This is where the Nazis sent 3,000 of their own people for execution, including judges and lawyers who would not toe the party line. Their sentences were carried out at random and without prior warning. The July bomb plotters of 1944 who came within an inch of ending the Third Reich were hanged at Plötzensee using piano wire. Plötzensee had a perceptibly dark aura.
You can't hold us to blame The agenda of those safeguarding Auschwitz as a memorial includes distancing the Polish people from the events of the 1940s. Whole populations were removed from the Auschwitz area which was made subject to special laws. It was ruled from Berlin and no questions could be asked. Poland is a big country and what became the Auschwitz exclusion zone tiny. In this remote area, secretive events unfolded. As with some German people, many Poles did learn what was going on. Others had their suspicions. It is hard to believe that such news did not travel fast indeed. There was a local resistance movement. Many of its members perished as a result of summary justice dispensed by Nazi officers in a small, bare, makeshift courtroom. Those convicted were taken outside immediately and shot in the head from behind.
Block 11, where this took place, contains a maze of below ground passageways. They are darker and danker than those of any ordinary prison. One cell was known as the 'airless cell'. It has restricted ventilation. It is where Polish political prisoners were held 20 to a cell to the point of suffocation: as punishment or torture as a prelude to interrogation. It adds terrible meaning to the throwaway line: 'We have ways of making you talk'. Along a further claustrophobic passageway are the remains of the standing cells-windowless, not a metre square but of standard height, in which prisoners stood for days. Others starved to death there. It is hard to believe that such methods were in use in the 20th century, more so to figure out how prison guards became complicit other than because of the ultimate dilemma that their own life was in peril if they resisted.