My wife’s phone rings. It’s her hairdressers.
She doesn’t take the call.
Well, we are in Auschwitz.
We have just finished our guided tour of the original death camp and the adjacent Auschwitz 11-Birkenau, a major endpoint of the Nazis’ Final Solution to the Jewish Question – the desired genocide of all the Jews they could reach.
We are here with our two teenage children.
My wife shows me the phone ID. We just look at each other: minutes ago we were looking through a glass window in a darkened room, beyond which lay an enormous tangled drift of human hair, some two tons of it, we learned, cut from over 40,000 people here.
Sheared from the Jews, the criminals, the Gypsies, the Poles, the Soviet POWs, and all those considered degenerates by Hitler and the Nazis, and who had stepped down here from their wretched, overcrowded cattle wagons, with a few suitcases containing all they could carry with them of their former lives.
In other camps, these braids, curls and pigtails were taken from living prisoners, for hygienic reasons, and for reasons of abasement and dehumanisation too, but here in Auschwitz, they were fleeced from corpses still warm after succumbing to the Zyklon-B cyanide released into the infamous gas chambers.
The hair obtained was disinfected, sacked and sold to German companies as raw material for everything from rope, cloth, carpets, and mattress stuffing to lining stiffeners for uniforms, socks for submarine crews, and felt insulators for the boots of railroad workers.
That’s how practical and efficient these officers and minions of the Third Reich were.
Dry-throated, bleary-eyed, and not yet capable of coherent speech, I am adding my headphones and radio mic pack to those already collected on the rail provided.
Reminding me of those other collections we have seen inside, room fulls of spectacles, of suitcases, of shoes, and of hairbrushes, saucepans, and other symbols of the myriad lives left behind when their owners entered the complex we have just left.
At first, all I could see was the mound of eye-glasses, the hillock of footwear, but lingering closer, differences in shape, size and design revealed themselves. Each pair of spectacles, each crafted sandal, different and individual.
Not, of course, how most of the Wagner-loving commandants and guards, right from their halcyon days with the Hitler Youth, were trained to see the wearers of these same spectacles and shoes.
So they took their clothes, heirlooms and shaving mugs from them, cut their hair, and gave them flimsy, filthy striped uniforms designed to strip them of all dignity.
Each uniform bore a different coloured badge, depending on the category each prisoner was put into: Jew, of course; political; convict and criminal; homosexual, vagrant, mentally ill, and so on, and so on.
The uniforms were not designed, however, for either the stench and sweat of sweltering summer or the howl and chill of sub-zero winter.
The officers, especially, cultured and educated men, organised atrocities on a daily basis, overseeing the executions and the punishments drawn up by their superiors and their experts, and refined and refined again, and carried out by themselves and their underlings. Embellished by their own peculiarities and propensities.
Through our headphone sets our marvellous guide related mind-blowing anecdotes and chilling facts of daily life for the inmates in the rooms, cells and living quarters we had walked in.
Under glass cases we could peruse the obsessively maintained records of everything these prisoners owned, and which their captors had plundered and purloined, listing them in beautiful copper-plate hand-writing or on the printed pages they did not succeed in destroying even as the liberators marched upon their gates.
The facts and the statistics, and the sheer scale and precision of this operation are recorded, for all to read, but nothing prepares you for actual entry into this infernal place.
Even if we came by an air-conditioned coach with free wi-fi, as part of a carefully choreographed tour party with identifying badges, and would soon be back in our neat Airbnb apartment off the Main Square in beautiful Krakow.
Those facts and the statistics could be piled twice as high as the stacks of hair, spectacles, and suitcases with their names painted on them … and all the testimonies, the books, the documentaries, and the movies read and watched, but it’s almost too big to contemplate.
Or at least that’s what I am feeling now.
I am left with thoughts and images in my head of what I have seen inside or been told about … the silent yet echoing corridors, the death-row holding cells, the three-rows-high bunk blocks once crammed tight with people, their numbers tattoed on an arm … the hopelessly inadequate latrines … the place where the camp orchestras organised by the SS played their forced music …
The smiling couple chatting airily in the foreground of one photograph of prisoners being rounded up after arriving on their train … cadaverous bodies hanging from the gallows lining the rubbled paths where emaciated workers, barely able to stand, passed on their way to long hours of forced labour in factories or building extensions to the sub-camps springing up to cope with the sheer numbers …
The heroic priest who took the place of a man condemned to be shot because the man had a family … the book by the doctor forced to work with Mengele on his human lab rat experiments … the survivor who could only endure his time by abandoning all thoughts of a future, and living minute to minute, plotting how he would survive the next hour …
The head-shot photographs of prisoners lining a long corridor — evidence again of how the Nazis organised and recorded everything so meticulously — taken when the prisoners arrived in the camp, and who had been chosen for work detail rather than being sent for immediate execution.
Here they were now, in their uniforms, and the information pithily recorded beneath each photograph, of when they had arrived, and when they had died — usually a matter of months later — my daughter pointing to the faces of two girls who looked around 10, and indicating they were twins …
The gold teeth and fillings extracted from the teeth of the dead …
The wasted, physically and spiritually spent people who could not take any more and threw themselves against the electric fences …
The kapos, those prisoners chosen for their cruelty and compliance and who brutalised their fellow prisoners for a few cigarettes and better living conditions …
The increasing range of “crimes”, all dutifully received, for which prisoners would be tortured and executed … including trying to escape …
The sun is out now over this former army barracks that was taken over by the Nazi invaders, and you look at it all now: the gleaming rail tracks running to and by these red-brick buildings, huts, and sentry posts, all nestled among the swaying trees and fertile fields.
The irony in iron: I look again at the wrought metal legend over the main gate to the original Auschwitz itself: Arbeit macht frei (Work sets you free).
Auschwitz was only the first of over 40 concentration camps, and sub-camps, which expanded as more and more people stepped off the train here with the leather suitcases we had just seen, as the regime found better and quicker ways of gassing those deemed unfit for work, and disposing of their worn-out bodies in the adjacent crematoriums.
It looks as innocent as a holiday camp, a Butlins for the mid-20th century masses, when history knows what kind of camp it was.
An extermination camp. A torture camp. An end-of-days, hell-on-earth camp.
The arrivals would be immediately sorted, a crook of the finger from the officer on duty determining who would be put to immediate death, and who would live.
Live, if you call it that, a life of deprivation, fear, torture, and brutal humiliation.
Treated like animals.
But who would treat even animals like this?
I pause as I write now as our beloved Lily clambers up my leg for a cuddle, looking up all doe-eyed, sturdy and eager.
A well-treated animal.
A final thought … the last part of our visit was the International Monument and memorial in Birkenau. Just across from the ruins of one of the crematoriums, a small gathering of Jews, the men wearing yarmulke skullcaps, were praying and remembering the Holocaust, and all that had happened in this place.
So sad, so poignant …
But I could not help either thinking of what is happening in Israel, the occupied Gaza strip, and the stories of the mistreatment of Palestinian people …
I know it’s a bit of a leap, but I cannot help thinking about that, and the lessons actually learned from a terrible history.
I’m thinking it is comforting to think of the demon Nazis and say their ideologies and actions have been consigned to history.
To say they are not like us, and we are not like them.
And then you witness that “Send them home” chanting at a recent Donald Trump rally, and some of the unsavoury stuff voiced online and elsewhere.
And those appalling border detention camps the leader of the free world has defended …
And you just have to wonder.
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