I’ve spent weeks thinking about writing this article…
It’s the toughest article I’ve ever written.
Not only because it’s on a massively serious subject.
Not only because it’s a subject which impacted and continues to impacts millions of families.
The main reason I’ve found writing this so tough is because…
…I didn’t want to let her down.
As she guided us round it was her intensity was palpable.
The look in her eyes as she looked around the group in front of here and said…
“Never Forget. This is the place that over a million people were killed.”
On this particular day I, along with my dad, were visiting Auschwitz.
We’d been in Poland for a couple of days, staying in Krakow.
We’d already spent some time at Oskar Schindler’s factory and the square celebrating the work of Tadeusz Pankiewicz, the pharmacist who, along with his team, risked their lives in the Krakow ghetto by supplying much needed medicine and getting involved in clandestine operations help the people trapped in the ghetto.
However whilst the stories of Schindler and Pankiewicz contain cruelty, the process of dehumanisation of thousands of people and brutality beyond belief at their core are stories of men trying to do the right thing at a time when it would have been easier to tolerate the sickening behaviour of the Nazi regime.
At their core visiting these places are a tiny sliver of light in a time and place where darkness reigned.
The Schindler and Pankiewicz stories illustrate not only how cruel but also how compassionate man can be.
However Auschwitz was different.
Visiting Auschwitz isn’t about hope over adversity. It’s a place where a Facist regime systematically killed over a million people.
It’s a haunting place where the ability to find meaning is incredibly difficult.
Our guide continued showing us around. Past the thousands of shoes, the fillings extracted from teeth, the hundreds of suitcases all still marked with names,written because many of the people on the way to the camp were lied to.
Inside the only remaining gas chamber. A dark foreboding place illuminated by a single candle in memory of the lost.
Standing at the gates of Auschwitz II where the train arrived and people were sorted.
The ‘lucky’ ones remained alive to work, but living in inhumane conditions, sick, starving and treated like animals.
The ones who didn’t get selected included most of the women, all of the children and anyone considered unfit, were killed almost immediately.
All the way through our visit being guided by her.
The woman with the intensity in her eyes.
The woman who didn’t want us to forget.
On the drive back from Auschwitz to Krakow my Dad and I didn’t speak much. Every now and again I looked over and wondered what he was thinking about. Whether like me he was trying to process what we’d seen. I wondered if, like me, he was trying to find meaning in such a desolate place.
However, about ten minutes into the drive back I remembered that I’d brought along a book.
A book which seemed appropriate to read…
Man’s search for meaning by Victor Frankl.
You see Victor was held in these camps in World War 2. He’d been in Auschwitz. He’d seen the brutality first hand.
However even in the worst times he had hope for the future. He believed in the positivity of man. He believed in the importance of finding meaning even in a life too terrible to imaging by using his imagination instead of the reality around him
In all my trip to Auschwitz was both fascinating and disturbing in equal parts and as I’ve already said, trying to find lessons from such a desolate place is difficult.
The intensity in that Woman’s eyes and the brutal reminder of the number of deaths stays as a continuous reminder.
A reminder that hatred may be a powerful force but overwhelmingly it’s a force which is ultimately destructive to most involved.
A reminder that whilst genocide isn’t linked to a particular country (whist not on the same scale it’s happened in Cambodia, Rwanda and Bosnia more recently) it’s the same actions which result in such atrocities. Label certain people “differently”. Then treat these people as a threat. Then polarise and dehumanise.
A reminder that by remembering what happened in our past helps us make sure that the way we look beyond race, or colour, or creed and just simply treat people decently.
Reading Mans search for meaning by Victor Frankl book taught me a number of equally important lessons…
That even in the darkest time there can be hope.
That the power of our hopes, dreams, aspirations and goals can help us look to the future and not be caught in the present.
That most of us will face challenges and feel overwhelmed but are incredibly lucky, and should be incredibly grateful, that we live in a place with a relative abundance of opportunity.
Whilst your surroundings can be controlled by oppression…the one thing the oppressors cannot control is your attitude.
As I’ve already said I’ve found writing this to be quite tough.
But hopefully, and for sharing what I learned from the experience, I haven’t let her down.
What do you think?