…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…
…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?
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.
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.