Archive for March, 2010

Auschwitz

The Way There

I am on a big, fluffy, comfortable bus to Auschwitz. The seats are high above the street and recline-able. There are curtains to keep the sun off our faces and bags for rubbish and overhead racks for the luggage. Outside a new Spring haze hangs over everything. The countryside has been battered black and brown by winter but it is warm enough to be outside without an overcoat now. Soon the sun should start drawing colour out of the landscape again.

I am apprehensive. Up until now Auschwitz and the horror that went with it has been the spiky, emotional centre of books and films; the lesson that made the history class go quiet; some black and white textbook pictures of suffering that has always been so very long ago and far away from me. Just a terrible story. It’ll be real now.

Also on the bus are two Czechs, one Frenchman, a Greek girl, a Spaniard and thirty-nine Americans. The Americans are at Charles University on a program that, for the most part, keeps them carefully separate from the places they go. It is a tireless program of tours-guides, class, and hanging out with other Americans. This is their trip to Krakow and the surrounds. The rest of us are tag-alongs.

After the Tour of Auschwitz, on the Bus to Auschwitz-Birkenau

I write:

“It’s difficult to understand how something like Auschwitz happened. How ideas and consciences and empathies could be wired to accommodate something like that. It’s difficult to understand how something that from this standpoint – 60 years, two political systems, two generations later – is so obviously and deeply and completely evil, how that could ever be defined as the right thing to do. And be done without hesitation for four full years.”

The tour is full and thick with numbers, facts, photographs. The guide barely stops talking the whole time we are there. We are spared nothing.

I don’t want to go into detail or describe what it was like because, as much as can be achieved with letters on paper – and as a writer I believe these achievements can be great – I don’t think any level of skill would be able to do this justice. It’s just too big. There’s too much of it.

But this is the thought that plagues me the most. I understand there was ideology and fear and wartime involved. That people are capable of things during wartime that aren’t conceivable in peace. But still – no matter how many times it’s explained to me, I just can’t help trying to conceive of how any degree of ideology could be so consuming as to convince the 6 000 or so guards who worked at the camp – who were presumably fairly normal people before the war began – that what they were doing was good.

There are photographs of great lines of Jews being marched to work or to the gas chambers or to other camps, and in the foreground there’s a guard on a bicycle or on foot smiling broadly at the camera. It’s like the picture of the guard had been transposed over the top. The two images just didn’t go together.

Back on the Bus Back to Krakow, Immediately After Boarding

“I have strawberry-carrot flavour.”
“Yeah, I have orange-carrot.”
“There’s only a tiny bit of strawberry in mine, though. Mostly it’s carrot.”

To my right, Roger – the big, lumbering, deep-voiced guy who say next to me on the bus from Prague to Krakow – starts talking to another guy three or four rows back about basketball scores. They soon move on to ice-hockey. People laugh and chatter and talk about what they’re going to have for dinner. The bus driver puts on Coldplay again.

I turn towards the window and write:

“It’s difficult to know whether it is OK to be here. Whether the gift shop and the tourist information centre, the audio-tours and the pay-toilets – whether that should be the legacy of this place. Whether our guide should be so well-dressed. Whether the buildings should have been refurbished with heaters and new floors, electric lights and easy-to-read placcards. Whether we should be allowed to climb up to the guard tower above Auschwitz-Birkenau and look out over the whole camp.”

I mean, when something like this happens – how can you tell the correct response?

Standing in front of the ruins of one of the main gas chambers, the tour guide finished with, “This has been kept here as a lesson to the world about what can happen. Of course, if you look at what is happening in the world today it is easy to see that we haven’t learned anything. But please, every time you see injustice or suffering, please let it remind you of this place. That is the end of this tour. Thank you.”

She’s been doing this for ten years. I wonder if she is still affected by it. She seems to be. It is obvious to see that she really believes in the philosophy that has kept Auschwitz and Birkenau functioning as a museum since 1947 – as a warning and a lesson.

The bus pulls out, still full of chatter. The concentration and death camps are left behind. I stare out the window, listen to some music, eventually doze and before too long we are back in Krakow.

– Zoe Barron

Nowra vs Greer, Razer vs Naperstek

So I was wandering around on Facebook this morning, when I noticed one of my friends had posted a link to an article about International Women’s Day. The post had swear words in it so, curious, I followed it.

It led me to Helen Razer’s website, Bad Hostess. I don’t know a whole lot about her (though I feel that I should) but from what I can gather she’s a fairly well-published Melbourne freelance opinion writer (The Age and Sydney Morning Herald, Crikey!, lots of ABC stuff), and not knowing her comes down to ignorance on my part.

The tagline to the website warns that this house is an untidy one, and the article certainly is that. She’s a ranter, and though the general theme seems to be feminism, the article starts off condemning various forms of vaginal enhancement, and then jumps rather abruptly over to condemning Louis Nowra for his his recent article about Germain Greer in The Monthly, and in turn the magazine’s new editor Ben Naperstak.

Now, I haven’t read the article in question in full. Mainly because I’m in the Czech Republic and The Monthly and its article are in Australia, and the website only offers the first couple hundred words or so. From what I can gather from its critics, though, Nowra’s essay is a bit of a rant itself, basically arguing that Greer really didn’t achieve very much after all because women still like shopping and his mother never became a feminist and that Greer is pretty old and ugly now, or something along those lines. The first couple words seems fairly level-headed, but who knows, maybe it gets crazy later.

And it’s stirred a lot of people up, which makes sense, considering how controversial the issue is. After reading Razer’s article, I wandered on and followed a few of her links. Anne Summers calls the article a “cruel and very personal attack” in The Age; Kathy Marks closely details its attacks on Greer in The Independent; someone called Kim describes it as an “amazing rant” on the Australian group blog, Larvatus Prodeo.

My qualm isn’t with the attacks on Nowra however. I can’t read his article, so I can’t really comment on the attacks of it. What bugs me are the nature of the proxy attacks on Naperstek.

Ben Naperstek has only recently taken up the editorship of The Monthly and, when he was picked, many an eyebrow raised at his age – or lack thereof. He’s twenty-three – one year older than me – which, yes, is pretty young to be picked as editor of such a publication.

And (like being a female politician without a family, possessing over-long eyebrows, a funny voice or silly dress sense) it’s a pretty easy and obvious thing to attack.

Nowra’s “piece of shit” article, complains Razer, “was commissioned by a very young piece of shit called Ben Naperstak, a twelve year old whose stewardship of the August Periodical might be kindly called uneven.”

Summers, from her Age article, agrees: “Instead we have an editor, smirking from the safety of his extreme youth, seeking to ridicule her. It’s a cheap shot.”

Nowra attacks Greer for being old, Summers attacks Nowra’s editor for being young. Bit cheap, really.

If you’re going to attack an editor, attack their editorial decisions – that’s fair game. Age is not. Attacking an editor for being 23 is very much like attacking a feminist for being 70.

To quote Razer’s summary of one of Greer’s main arguments: “can we please get on with the business of living outside of “man” and “woman” as we have known these categories?”

I say we try to escape from young and old while we’re at it. Let’s stick with editor, writer, feminist, reader – they’re categories that have a little more to do with the subject at hand.

– Zoe Barron

My qualm isn’t with the attacks on Nowra however. I can’t read his article, so I can’t really comment on the attacks of it. What bugs me are the nature of the proxy attacks on Naperstek.

Ben Naperstek has only recently taken up the editorship of The Monthly, just before I left Australia actually, and, when he was picked, many an eyebrow raised at his age – or lack thereof. He’s twenty-three – one year older than me – which, yes, is pretty young to be picked as editor of such a publication.

And (like being a female politician without a family, possessing over-long eyebrows, a funny voice or silly dress sense) it’s a pretty easy and obvious thing to attack.

Nowra’s “piece of shit” article, complains Razor, “was commissioned by a very young piece of shit called Ben Naperstak, a twelve year old whose stewardship of the August Periodical might be kindly called uneven.”

Instead we have an editor, smirking from the safety of his extreme youth,” agrees Summers from her Age article, “seeking to ridicule her. It’s a cheap shot.”

Cheap like attacking an editor for how many laps around the sun they’ve completed. If you’re going to attack an editor, attack their editorial decisions – that’s fair game. Age is not. Attacking an editor for being 23 is very much like attacking a feminist for being 70.

To quote Razor’s summary of one of Greer’s main arguments, “can we please get on with the business of living outside of “man” and “woman” as we have known these categories?”

I say we try to escape from young and old while we’re at it. Let’s stick with editor, writer, feminist, reader – they’re categories that have a little more to do with the subject at hand.