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


7 Responses to “Auschwitz”

  1. 1 Ben Ainslie March 21, 2010 at 4:48 pm

    I’m surprised you find it hard to discern how easily the 6000 could take kodak moments in front of abject suffering. All I need to do is think back to my memories of primary [and to a lesser extent high] school. Humans are little externalising engines. I find it to be one of our most intrinsic qualities, the speed with which we can remove ourselves from the empathetic mind-space, with which we can turn a person into a thing. If we can create a society that revolves around an abstract notion like love, or loyalty, is it really that hard to believe we can construct a world in which all people are not equal? Make no mistake the only difference between the Nazi party and dozens of analogues in the world today is not the desire to go to the despicable ends that Germany went to, merely the ability to.

  2. 2 Alex March 23, 2010 at 4:36 am

    “It is difficult to understand (…) how that could ever be defined as the right thing to do.”

    True. We would do well to remember that the murdering of the Jews of Europe was done in absolute secrecy. Ordinary Germans new about it only through word-of-mouth. A precondition of the holocaust was the inaction of the populace, possibly through ambivalence or latent anti-semitism.

    I have heard that use of gas was favoured after it was shown that mass shootings were emotionally straining for German soldiers operating in the East.

    The point I’m making is that it didn’t require many ideological participants… it was a dictatorship. Everybody else was so rapped up with the idea of the German Reich that they would do anything Hitler said, the nation was the name in which all atrocities were committed.

    To the people it felt like THEIR sacrifice.

  3. 3 hankie March 24, 2010 at 2:19 am

    This of course won’t make their actions any less reprehensible, but: people didn’t have to convince themselves it was *good*, they just had to make it appear the only alternative, or the least bad. Or, “not their fault”. Have you read any Milgram studies?

  4. 4 zoebarron March 24, 2010 at 7:14 am

    I know all this. I know I know I know. I remember primary school, I’ve seen racism, I know they were wrapped up in the Reich, I’ve been told how powerful that was. I know ALL this – I’ve been told it in history class over and over. But as I said in the post, no matter how many times this is explained to me, I can’t understand it.

    After actually seeing the place, and being bombarded with the reality and the DEGREE of cruelty – especially the degree – so that it’s not a story anymore, it’s real and it happened the you’re standing in the place where it did, I can’t then put my brain into a place where normal people could do that to other people. It’s too big, too calculated; it happened too quick and it went on too long. Those 6 000 guards tortured and killed, at a minimum, 1.1 million people.

    I’m sorry, call me innocent and naieve if you want – in this case, I am. As a perpetually comfortable, middle class kid who grew up in Canada and Australia during the warless nineties, who has never seen a dead body or real, proper, malicious cruelty before, it’s simply not within my abilities to understand how 6 000 people could torture and kill 1.1 million. I can have it explained to me until it makes infinite sense, I can write it as an argument in an essay, but it’s not within my actual, empathetic comprehension. And unless there’s a war and I see that side of human beings for myself, I’m not ever going to be able to, either.

  5. 5 Jo April 19, 2010 at 6:16 am

    Zoe – have you read the Kindly Ones?

    It’s a fictional memoir of a former Nazi officer. Hugely controversial bestseller in Europe and now translated into English…

  6. 6 Seco August 25, 2010 at 12:20 am


    “True. We would do well to remember that the murdering of the Jews of Europe was done in absolute secrecy. Ordinary Germans new about it only through word-of-mouth.”

    No. That’s actually not true. There was word-of-mouth but not only. A huge part of the male population was in the Wehrmacht at that time, they knew certainly (and a significant part of it participated in the murderings). I grew up in Germany and this is one of the myths that were spread after the war and are still today, to be more precise: These kinds of whitewashing excuses are on the rise today, here, 60 years after.

    “A precondition of the holocaust was the inaction of the populace, possibly through ambivalence or latent anti-semitism.”

    I can’t completely answer this because I don’t know the exact meaning of “ambivalence” here. What is important here again is to stress the fact that it was not merely some kind of “latent” anti-semitism. Anti-semitism was not only to be found on the side of the Nazis but through-out the german society of that time. ‘Even’ the communists and other moderately left forces during that time used anti-semitic propaganda to persuade the workers on their sides. Partly because their primitive anti-capistalism was anti-semitic in essence too but also because the group that then was the main objective to win over (the lower and working classes) received it quite well – it worked.

    “The point I’m making is that it didn’t require many ideological participants… it was a dictatorship.”

    Thats the point I have to disagree fiercely. Yes, formally Germany was a dictatorship at that time but this notion does not fit here because it blends out the ideological content during that time and stresses purely on the form. The NSDAP was in fact a very huge party, people organized in it voluntarily. Hitler wasn’t afraid of his own people (and in fact there was no reason to be) like dictators usually are – because they oppress people! – but he was rather paranoid of his own doctors. It was national socialism, the specifically german type of facism. It happened in Germany because of the specifically german circumstances. There were facist parties all over the world at that time but they did not win anything in the UK, the US or Australia because of a different political thinking / historical path that surrounded capitalism in these states.

    “Everybody else was so rapped up with the idea of the German Reich that they would do anything Hitler said, the nation was the name in which all atrocities were committed.”

    No. You might have to think it the other way around. Hitler *said* what the germans *wanted*. It could have happened without that specific person. The “Volksgemeinschaft” was everything in this ideology, the party was merely the vehice to get it. Hitler was merely the delegate. Remember, he was not brought to power by any “coup” (like the common, average losy dictator) but by a democratic election. Things could have gone some other way when the opposing forces would have been united but well, they prefered to fight each other (‘ironically’ the communist party fought the social democrats as “social facists” during the 20s).

    You got the nation thing right though.
    Another point I just want to mention before I go to bed is that anti-semitism is not ‘just’ a form of racism. Both are complementing each other but they are not the same.

  7. 7 alex August 27, 2010 at 4:27 am

    I appreciate your lengthy response. If I perpetuated “whitewashing excuses” I did so unknowingly… There are no excuses for the holocaust.

    That the German population had limited knowledge of the extent of the holocaust is a view endorsed by the majority of scholars (excluding, I am told, Robert Gellately).

    I think that many people did know (a friend of mine from Germany assures me that this was the case). But it does not seem to have been conveyed through formal sources – correct me if I’m wrong (i.e. broadcasting, print media, political oratory)

    The Wehrmacht were not perpetrators of the holocaust, the einsatzgruppen were. They were comprised of members of the Ordnungspolizei and Waffen-SS. That’s not to say that the Wehrmacht would not have witnessed some of the atrocities commited by the death-squads (I believe several members of the Wehrmacht testified at the Nuremburg trials), but ordinary people are usually not given the details of the frontline by soldiers. If they were, that would be counted as word-of-mouth.

    I am well aware that Hitler had massive support in Germany, and that the antisemitism of the National Socialist Party was part of its appeal for many Germans. I differ from you in that I do not believe political support is necessarily ideological support.
    The support shown by Germans was closer to a kind of fanaticism. Hitler himself complained after the publication of Mein Kumpf that the majority of Germans did not understand his ideas.

    On the last point, you are right. Hitler did what the Germans wanted.

    I spoke of latent anti-semitism and inaction because I cannot imagine an entire nation taking mass-murder with their eggs for breakfast. Maybe in that respect I am naive.

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