And it all looked just…so ordinary

 

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From this office, selections for the gas chamber were decided

…as though it had been administrative buildings, or maybe a factory. The truth of course, is that it was both. An organisation whose principle purpose was the extraction of labour and then the extermination of people who were “surplus to requirements” and who seemingly posed a threat to the regime.

I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel about visiting the Nazi concentration camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau. As mentioned in previous posts, twentieth century history was sadly lacking in my education and all I knew of the Holocaust was what I’d read in Anne Frank’s diary as a child and from programmes I’d listened to on the radio. It all seemed such a long time ago. Would my visit provoke wailing and gnashing of teeth or was I just too divorced from the events that happened, to feel anything?

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Birkenau 

I arrived on a bitter cold January morning. Minus 17 degrees celsius. My first thought was for the inmates of the camp and how on earth any of them managed to survive the extremes of temperature. Clearly most of them didn’t.  To begin with, many people weren’t even registered upon arrival. The elderly, infirm, pregnant and children were gassed straight away  which is why it’s difficult to ascertain exact numbers of victims.        Exposure, starvation and disease killed those who weren’t murdered. Of an approximate 1 million prisoners, only 7,000 were liberated by the Soviet Army on January  27th, 1945.

Of all the facts that I had learnt about Auschwitz before coming to visit, the one thing that I couldn’t comprehend was just how it was logistically possible to kill so many people. Coming to visit answered the query for me. Auschwitz-Birkenau and the other components of the concentration camp relied on other methods of killing than just the gas chambers.

Many victims existed with such little food (approximately 1400 calories) and worked in such physically demanding jobs for 11 hours per day,that starvation and exhaustion killed them. And this was a deliberate part of the “Final Solution”, not a mere consequence of unseen events. Not everyone was destined to go to the gas chambers.

Wandering round both camps, it was impossible to process what exactly had happened here all those years ago. The buildings looked so regular. So institutional. The documentation in the exhibitions looked so efficient. Everything was devoid of emotion. So matter of fact. And I think that’s how it was arranged, and how it was executed. There was a “problem”. It needed a solution.

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The Final Solution

There was nothing to suggest any sense of humanity. This was not built as a place to live. This was a place whose purpose was to dispose of an unwanted problem in as efficient a manner as possible. Identities were removed along with souls. And if money could be made out of the labour of those lost souls before they met their miserable demise, then all the better.

There was a war on, after all.

Trying to rationalise this train of thought is impossible for anyone who has any sense of humanity and greater people than I have debated and will continue to debate how it could happen. All I know is that I felt such sorrow at the seeming “ordinariness” of the place. The displays of human hair, suitcases, crockery, shoes, spectacles and prayer shawls made me feel wretched. Possibly because such atrocities continue to happen in the world; it seems we have learned little since the Nazi genocides.

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Thoughts on Poland…

For a child growing up in the 80’s, Poland seemed a strange place. Western propaganda had done its thing. I never in my wildest dreams imagined that I would one day visit. Or that I would ever actually want to. Poland seemed to me, to be a drab and dangerous place. Cold, hungry, with men with strange names (Lech Walesa was continually on the news).

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An enduring figure from my childhood. It wasn’t normal.

 A place where the Government made you do strange things on pommel horses, suspended rings and with ribbons; bending your body into all kinds of awkward shapes to perform for the Olympics. A place where no-one smiled. And all of this was before I read 1984 and Animal Farm, which just compounded my prejudice.

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A childhood spent feeling inadequate after watching these girls from Eastern Europe

 

Eastern Europe seemed remote and unfriendly. A place to fear.  A place that had its finger on the nuclear button with its warheads pointing straight for West Bromwich (my place of birth). The 4 minute warning was imminent. I’d read “When the Wind Blows” and watched “Threads”. And I’d eaten enough over cooked cabbage to know why Eastern Europeans always looked so miserable on our tvs. (As a child the vegetables for Christmas lunch were put on to cook when the turkey went in the oven). I joined CND and campaigned to ban the bomb. (I am still a member and unfortunately I am still campaigning).

So today is my first  visit to Eastern Europe. And I can’t wait.

Ten years or so ago, I began teaching English to speakers of other languages. My very first students were a Polish couple who worked in a local factory and wanted to improve their conversation skills. I charged very little for the lessons as they were almost guinea pigs for my fledgling teaching business. I was also very nervous. Would we have anything in common? Did I have to avoid the word “communism” (As if it would come up in everyday conversation anyway!) Would they shout at me if they didn’t understand me? Would they make me perform triple backflips whilst explaining the past tense? Yes, I actually was that naive about Eastern Europeans.

Needless to say, I’d needn’t have feared. Theresa and Bolo were a wonderful couple of students. They were so kind. And very quickly we discovered that hey? Guess what? We laughed at the same things! We shared the same interests – our children, travel, food. We had the same worries in life. We are the same.

I’ve met many Polish people since Theresa and Bolo. And many Eastern Europeans. Most of them have been too young to remember Lech Walesa and the struggle for democracy, however some have expressed regret at the fall of Communism. All however, have been in the UK. Today, I travel to Poland to finally meet people in their own country. This time, I will be the tourist, the visitor, the one with the language barrier. And I finally get to find out if they eat anything else other than cabbage (I rather suspect they do…)

Fear of flying…

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I have a love/hate relationship with flying. I love the sense of adventure I feel when I climb onboard the plane, bound for destinations that my ancestors only dreamed of, full of promise and excitement. I love the feeling of escape as I walk through the Departure Gates, leaving behind all thoughts of work and home, alone to self indulge and gorge on the unknown; new places to seek, new foods to taste, new languages to misunderstand,  new history and art, new smells. I love the little indulgences. Time is irrelevant. When else would a glass of wine with a bacon butty seem reasonable at 05.00? I love the camaraderie of being with other passengers, this merry band of pilgrims on our way to pastures new (except the screaming kids. And the drunks. And anyone who tries to make conversation with me).

But boy, do I fear flying. Well, it’s not flying that I fear. It’s crashing and dying.

Yes, yes, I know that statistically, flying is the safest form of travel. Yes, yes, Mr Richard Branson, I know that I have more chance of dying in a road accident on the way to the airport than actually on board the flight itself. And yes, yes, I have made vague attempts to understand the technicalities of flight, thermal dynamics, jet engines and wingy things that move.

But I still just don’t get it. My brain cannot rationalise how such a big, heavy, metal box full of people can stay in the sky.

So my travel plans are always a mixture of fear and excitement. And a few days before my plans come to fruition, my stomach begins its downward spiral of dread, preparation for doom (the will is in the box under my bed, girls) and self reproach for putting myself in yet another state of panic. For me, flying is like playing Russian Roulette. Yet how else can I fulfil my travel dreams in such a short time?

My first thought when planning a new journey is: “Will I have to fly?” And if yes, then for how long? So far, Australia, New Zealand and South East Asia have not made it onto my fuckit list. Not because they have little to offer me – on the contrary – I would love to visit. No, it is the thought of spending 12+ hours suspended in mid air that puts me off buying a round the world flight ticket. If I could sail then I would. If I could walk, then I would. Maybe train?

Last year I flew to Reykjavik, Seattle, Las Vegas, Dallas, New Orleans, Washington and back to London in the space of 10 days. I fervently thought that such plane hopping would cure me of my fears. After all,  Americans use planes like buses apparently. Alas, no. This morning, on board my flight to Krakow, the kindly flight attendant provided me with a paper bag in which to vomit. And no, I hadn’t drunk wine at 05.00…

Off on the road again, and smelling like a tart’s boudoir…

…It’s been a while. Over a year, in fact. This doesn’t mean that I’ve been sitting at home ironing (I guess some people sit when they iron but not me). I’ve been to Las Vegas, Red Rock, New Orleans, Lisbon, Glastonbury, Brighton. But it’s been a while since I’ve travelled alone. So today, I’m off to Krakow, Poland.

To get to Krakow I have to first run the gauntlet of duty free at East Midlands Airport. And perfume.

I don’t smell. What I mean is, I don’t smell of anything with a brand name attached to it. I don’t wear perfume. No one ever bought me any – and I guess that’s where most women’s first experience of perfume comes from – the Anais Anais in the white bottle with a pretty flower as a birthday or Christmas gift. However, no one ever bought me any perfume. Maybe I just wasn’t seen as “girly” enough. My daughters both wear perfume. And my grandmother distinctly smelt of eau de something from Avon. But for me, it’s always been soap and water. And an unperfumed deoderant. Obviously.

I have a very strong sense of smell. I am short sighted and ever so slightly deaf in both ears. However I can smell the change in seasons, the sadness in people’s hearts and my hamster’s cage before I even get in the house.

So walking through Duty Free to get to the Escape Lounge at the airport is an assault. Particularly at 04.30. And it’s hideous.

Why do people want to smell of these vile, chemical concoctions? None of them smell pleasing. None of them smell of sheets that have been dried in the wind on a summer’s day, or freshly mown grass, or a frosty morning. They are sweet, sickly and over ripe. And that’s just the aftershave…