So another World Cup is over and yet again England have failed to make any real impression. At least they made the finals. I was reminded recently of England’s defeat in the southern Polish city of Katowice in June 1973, when Bobby Moore played in his last England game, having being caught in possession for one of Poland’s goals. Thus it was left to Norman Hunter to make the more famous mistake a few months later at Wembley, which condemned England to not being at the World Cup finals at all in West Germany in 1974.
I remember being at a first aid class in North Kenton with my mother the day of the defeat in Katowice. The mixture of memories of Katowice and people hurting came back to me last week as our plane flew over the undulating contours of southern Poland, into Krakow Airport. Krakow is, as some of you probably know, a beautiful city, but a certain sadness hangs over it, due to the terrible history of what happened there between 1939and 1945.
In Krakow you can see the factory run by Oskar Schindler, of Schindler’s List fame and the ghetto area where his workforce came from. A mile or so to the south is the site of the Plaszow Concentration, run so brutally by the infamous Amon Goeth. And about 40 miles to the west of Krakow lies the town of Oswiecim , a place we know better by its German name; Auschwitz. It was to that terrible place that I took a minibus from Krakow on the last day of July…
I got off the minibus from Krakow and as I walked towards the museum entrance, along a worn path in the grass outside, I had to just stop and stand in silence for a few seconds on catching my first glimpse of the blocks, seen so often on television and in pictures, but until you see it first-hand, you cannot really sense the horror of the place.
I entered and started to wander round. I looked around the blocks then made my way to the southern end of the camp, where a building seemed to come out the ground. It had begun its ‘life’ by being a munitions store, but was later converted into….a gas chamber and ovens. Again, I had seen images of these places so often before, but nothing quite prepares you for being there.
I was again transported back in time to 1973, this time to when I first saw the ovens, courtesy of the London Weekend Television series, A World At War. As a boy I couldn’t understand it. Now, I know a lot more about how the Germans were whipped into such hatred. They were manipulated by the press and by politicians.
But, I still don’t understand it…..
What I do understand, however, is that the way people were manipulated by the press and politicians in Nazi Germany, to hate the ‘other’ and blame them for all that is wrong, should also set alarm bells ringing in Britain today.
In Auschwitz I all of the original blocks are still standing and, whilst some of them were closed, others held exhibitions showing aspects of the history of the camp from 1939 to 1945. Block 13 held an exhibition about the suffering of the Roma people, whilst another block adjacent to it described the liberation of the camp by the Soviet Army on 27th January 1945, including terribly poignant film of children showing their tattoos on liberation. There was also a section on the Polish contribution to the defeat of the Nazis.
One of the most poignant sections of all was the block containing the possessions of those were sent to Auschwitz and were cruelly deceived into bringing suitcases along. There were shoes, tooth brushes, shaving brushes, combs, children’s clothes… The most moving were the suitcases, with the names of the poor souls carefully written on them, in expectation of their belongings beimng returned to them. The names and often their city of origin connected you with the victims on an individual basis; they were fellow humans. Like you and me.
Another exhibition recalled the terrible life in Auschwitz, especially the deliberate lack of enough calories to survive on. Many of the inmates at Auschwitz I died not in the gas chambers, but from starvation, linked to the hard physical work they had to do, within two months of entering. There was a sculpture in the block representing the suffering from starvation – it had one lonely flower and a white scarf placed on it.
At least two of the blocks had rows of photographs on the wall of inmates, taken presumably on their entry into the camp, in their horrible striped uniforms, showing when they entered Auschwitz and when they died. Most only survived about two months. I looked into the eyes of some of the victims, these poor doomed souls; it was harrowing.
Another block represented the sanitary and living conditions in the camp. It showed how there had been just straw on the floor in the early days, as if it was a stable – no doubt part of the dehumanising process inflicted on prisoners. Later there were tri-level bunks, about two feet wide, each level of the bunk being a bed for two people. Another room featured rough matting on the ground.
Meanwhile all the while, as I walked around, I could hear the lorries on the road just outside, just as in the days when the camp was open by the Nazis, people had gone about their daily business, just yards from the terrible suffering and in many, mostly German, cases profited from it.
Blocks 10 and 11 were also very harrowing and moving. In between the blocks was the Death Wall, where prisoners were shot dead. In Block 11, I saw the rooms where prisoners undressed before being murdered – one for men and one for women. There was also the cell where the Polish Catholic Conventual Franciscan friar Maximilian Kolbe, who had volunteered to die in the place of a stranger. Small floral tributes marked this extraordinary deed of selfishness in Cell 28, just as there were tributes at the Death Wall itself to the many victims who were executed there.
Sitting quietly on a bench outside Block 11, I heard a wood pigeon, a sound I remembered from my childhood, as we had them in our back garden. How many of the prisoners heard them 70 years ago?
The exhibtion in Block 20 was a little more modern than the others, describing how Belgian and French Jews suffered. There was the sound of a train engine in the background and on the wall at the back of the wall in a dimly lit room, words came up like Schnell and the other shouts the deportees would have heard. One fixed white light gave the appearance of the spotlight, which would have been fixed on those arriving on trains at Auschwitz.
In the last room of this block there were pictures of little children, not even born when war broke out on 1st September 1939, who were transported to their deaths at Auschwitz. It made me angry – it should make someone angry. I looked into the eyes of two young cousins about five years old…they were just young children, just starting out in life….what can you say?
The sun, which had been shining for a while, went behind the clouds as if in shame – I wondered how often it ever shone at this terrible place. Yet amazingly, there are still people who feel no shame for what happened there.
In Krakow I had seen anti-Semitic graffiti and on the way to Auschwitz, I had seen more anti-Semitic graffiti and even a spray-painted swastika. What has been learnt? Perhaps everyone should go to Auschwitz at least once in their lives, just to see where racism, hatred and prejudice can lead…
Indeed, if you think racist chants or jokes at the match are amusing in any way – go to Auschwitz.
If you think the crude, vicious racism of groups such as the BNP and the EDL are acceptable – go to Auschwitz.
If you think the casual racism of so many members of UKIP and their not-so-subtle election adverts are reasonable…..go to Auschwitz.
Since 1945 there have been more terrible genocidal acts in Cambodia in 1975-8, in East
Timor, in Rwanda, in Bosnia and the slow genocide of the Karens in Burma amongst others. However we surely all still have a responsibilty to prevent the prejudice and hatred which can cause such atrocities and we must learn the lessons of the Holocaust and remember what appalling cruelty humans are capable of while working to ensure that such hatred can be unleashed in such a way ever again.
Never forget. NEVER AGAIN.
© Peter Sagar August 2014