The vast Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, which I have just visited, is almost beyond words, but in the end words are all we are left with, however inadequate.
Hannah Arendt wrote of ‘the banality of evil’. Try as I might, there is little that I can add to that.
Pictures can tell a story, too, but I for one did not take any. Not here. Anyway, there are countless thousands of them already – so many, in fact, that walking into the camp under that bitterly ironic ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ sign, everything looked instantly and eerily familiar – and not just because I had been there before, nearly forty years earlier. We have all seen the images, over and over again, the most notorious of them seared into our consciousness. And in case we had forgotten them, Mr Spielberg’s jolting celluloid memorial, Schindler’s List, reminded us.
Even so, some of my fellow visitors to the camp had no compunction about taking snapshots, including those wretched ubiquitous selfies. Sacrilege is not a word I use readily, but to me the objects and scenes of such a place should be retained in memory alone. What on earth do these people do with the selfies they have taken, feigning sadness, in front of an oven once used to incinerate human remains, or a beam used as a gallows, or a display of confiscated spectacles? Put them up on Facebook, I suppose, captioned, “Hi, folks, this is me at Auschwitz. It’s a terrible place but we’re having a great time.”
Arendt’s banality sometimes falls short of evil. There is, unbelievably, litter in Auschwitz. While some visitors shed unashamed tears, perhaps remembering murdered ancestors, others consume sweets and smoke cigarettes and throw the wrappers and dog-ends away.
I have to ask myself why such people want to go to a place like this. Is it, to them, no more than just one more venue on the tourist trail?
In nearby Cracow, a beautiful city, which had a thriving Jewish community until the Nazis arrived, I saw something else – a very minor thing in the greater realm of things – that rather took me aback. Everywhere one looks, in souvenir shops and on market stalls, there are amusing hand-carved wooden figurines of rabbis. I was even tempted to buy one. But then, on closer inspection, my Jewish wife pointed out that nearly all of them were holding a gold coin in each hand. The stereotype of the grasping Jewish money-lender survives, in this city, of all places, in this sorrowful country of all places.
Later, I happened upon similar figurines in a Jewish bookshop in Kazimierz, the city’s old Jewish quarter, now almost denuded of Jews, but a popular haunt for tourists. (There are only about two hundred Jews left in residence, our guide had mentioned earlier, down from a population of 65,000 before the Holocaust.) Here, though, none of the rabbis held coins. I remarked on this to the owner. She knew exactly what I was talking about.
“Yes, I’ve seen them,” she said, “and I’m disgusted. Old attitudes are ingrained. Society here in Poland may be relatively liberal now but I’m afraid many people still don’t get it. They think it was just the Nazis who despised us. They are wrong.” She had a great deal more to say on the subject, much of which I found as shocking as it was saddening.
On reflection, I think I found those little wooden rabbis with the coins more startling than anything else I saw during our visit.