We’re on the road to Auschwitz-Birkenau. We leave behind Krakow, the most wonderful of cornucopias, with more treasures than the Vatican and whole squares and streets which seem to have been conjured up by the fairies for the tourists. Yet everything on the road to Auschwitz is suddenly deeply banal. Perhaps I should be dressed in black and carrying a bunch of lilies. Instead, I am wearing jeans that are practically weeping for the washing machine. I bought some smoked cheese back in Krakow and the smell of the crumbs is rising from my jacket pockets.
I have been living in hostels for a week without a minute to myself. Seriously, I have not masturbated for four days. Everything has happened too quickly and I need to sit down and remember all of the things that I have seen and done, else they begin to peel away from my memory. My mind is now groaning with information, just as my wallet is growing steadily heavier with tiny, unspendable Polish coins.
What do I want to feel? Why I am going to Auschwitz in the first place? I am vaguely conscious that I must go, but I sense that this instinct may be not wholly sound. Do I just want to feel my flesh creep? Do I want to be thrilled or spooked, like a child setting out to explore the attic? Increasingly, however, on the road to Auschwitz, I feel apprehensive but determined, as if ready to endure a trip to the dentist.
The entrance to the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum is like a busy railway station, with drab marble counters on the ticket offices and everybody hurrying in different directions. There is even a large notice on the wall warning about pickpockets. I buy a sandwich and feel automatically guilty. Fast food at Auschwitz! How banal! Perhaps it would have been inhuman to enjoy the sandwich. We wait half an hour for an English guide and meanwhile a door opens and we all flow into a hot little cinema, to watch a presentational film.
They have established an odd system at Auschwitz: neither the personable tour guide with stories up her sleeves nor an MP3 which you stick in your ears to hear a very slow, clear commentary. Instead, the tour guide has apparently learned her commentary by rote and she recites it into a microphone, whilst you listen on headphones. Our guide has perfected a completely emotionless and entirely descriptive commentary. Her voice bears more than a passing resemblence to that of a Tesco self-service machine. The facts come one after the other, precisely and insistently. All that we can do is listen.
We enter under “Arbeit Macht Frei” and we are led around a series of exhibitions about the camp. Perhaps it is a lesson in the banality of our own minds. We are told that 1,300000 people had been exterminated in the camp. My God, that is a lot, I agree. We are shown an ocean of human hair, which the Nazis had shaved off everybody within the camp, living and dead. They had some deranged idea that it could be used in German industry. Surveying the hair, I try to imagine it all reattached to thousands of human heads, but it is impossible, like trying to touch the sky with your fingertips. We are shown a tank full of old shoes which had been harvested from the corpses. I notice a clothes moth buzzing against the glass of the tank and I think that they should put down mothballs.
And so we are led around Auschwitz in this stunned state. Everybody looks as blank as a freshly-painted wall and there seems to be a consensus that it would be truly desperate if somebody other than the guide spoke. My mind feels like a hot tub in which all the bubbles have been switched off. If one of us had broken down, then there would have been general relief. We could have all said kind and helpful things, and organised assistance. But in the absence of this mercy, we seem to have negotiated a sort of protective insensitivity, a strategic banality.
I sense the light flashing around the steel at certain points. One corridor is dedicated to framed profile portraits of the victims of the labour camps, with notes upon how many months they had each survived. I eye one poor devil who had held out for three months, and I am suddenly at a loss as to whether it would have been better to last longer or die as soon as possible. I weaken at all of these faces, which still glow with life. The eyes glint. Many of these people still have some fight in them. They should not have showed their faces.
Approaching the gallows, where they had hanged groups of people in various lunatic ceremonies, something excruciating happens. There is quite a walk to the gallows and one of our party begins to chat with the tour guide. Is he right in thinking that she is Lithuanian? He had recently visited Trakai and Vilnius. Because he is walking beside her, both of their voices are played back in everybody’s headphones. This is too much banality, a disastrous miscalculation. Yet the guide smoothly moves the subject back to the exterminations.
In the suburbs of the death camp, we pass Rudolf Hoess’ villa, where the commander had brought his wife and five children to live. This strikes me as being possibly the maddest thing at Auschwitz.
We are supposed to regard Auschwitz from the perspective of those who had perished there, and the presentation excludes any details about the guards and employees at the camp. Our guide, who always looks startled at any interruption to her recital, fields a question about the guards by saying that they had lived on farms somewhere outside the camp. In other words, they are not part of her story.
It seems that the camp could hold 120000 people at a time. The three thousand or so guards could only keep order because most of the inmates were completely exhausted. The guards themselves required certain fictions in order to keep functioning. They had taught themselves that their victims were animals, until they had to finally follow their own demented logic and shear the inmates as if they were sheep. Yet the shearing equipped the Nazis with proof of their efficiency – it confirmed that they were modern – and the indiscipline and carnage which otherwise comprised the entire reality of the camp could be consigned to the shadows. The truth was that anybody could be murdered at whim, that savagery existed here at its most pure. Some deranged pervert would torture children, but he was hopelessly awarded the title of “doctor” and his tortures were deemed “experiments.”
We have to finally enter a partially-reconstructed building which had contained the gas chambers. The guide insists upon silence, as there cannot be many more buildings in human history in which so many people have died. It all happens very quickly. We pass through three cold dank chambers, glancing at the holes in the ceiling and the furnaces. Then we are back out in the afternoon air and this feels good. You were not meant to come out of these doors again. I do not know whether this satisfaction is banal or profound.
The rain has been spitting all afternoon, but we reach Birkenau’s infamous “gates of death” to receive a sudden, thorough drenching. My jacket has no hood, and so I huddle in the ice cold rain, despising the weather for being quite so obvious. Yet it turns out that this downpour may not poetically express the despair of Auschwitz. My friend tells me that it has come from the North West, and most probably from Edinburgh.
We duck into the labour camp’s wooden dormitories and with the rain roaring on the roof and the rich odours of the wood, some faraway memory reaches me of being in a barn during a thunderstorm. I wonder whether I was ever really in a barn during a thunderstorm.
We inspect one of the cattle carriages and then we walk down the long road on which the crowds once walked to the Birkenau gas chambers. They thought that they were going to be washed before dinner. They were exhausted from their journey but still cheerful about being resettled in some promised community, I tell myself. It was quite reasonable to expect that the Nazis could find land for them somewhere. There followed a quick unpleasant surprise, like being hit by a bus, and then they were dead before they could think about it. No, they were undoubtedly frozen in the cold wind from death’s opening doors. No death is easy or timely, everybody is torn from this world. They were probably exhilarated with terror, scorching at the injustice, fighting to the last breath for life. We arrive at the monument to the victims, which looks as small as a knuckle when compared to the enormity of all that it has to express.
Oh Auschwitz, you make our beer sweeter, our girls prettier and the ground beneath our feet seem as free as if it was brand new. Our banal world has risen from what happened here. Our banality – the impossibility of pleasant idiotic people like me to understand such realities – is the ultimate tribute. Auschwitz is truly beyond us.