Old Bordenian Mark Sayer lived in Germany during the 1990s. As part of his travels through the newly opened Eastern Europe, he visited Auschwitz. On International Holocaust Remembrance Day, he provides a thought-provoking piece on that experience and his reflections:
I was privileged to be able to work and live in Germany in the ’90s, beginning not long after the Berlin Wall came down in November ’89.
I have fond memories of my time there, of the people – friends, colleagues and strangers – and of the environment.
There was a darker shadow, too. Something I wanted to exorcise from my conscience.
I had grown up indoctrinated by wartime films like ‘Colditz’, ‘The Battle of Britain’, ‘633 Squadron’ and ‘The Dambusters’, as well as documentaries and films about the Holocaust.
Living in Germany provided an Attenborough-esque anthropological opportunity to observe attitudes in this strange land, and study the environs, to sate questions laying heavily on my moral sense: “Did it really happen ?” and “Did it really happen that way ?”
I was fortunate to have a German company car, which I deployed to the full in weekend and ‘vacation’ pilgrimages to the sites that I had seen in films and read about.
The bridge at Remagen, the three Dams, the Concentration Camps.
Yes, it seemed that they did actually exist.
I felt I had a duty to witness these places to get it out of my system
The memorial that affected me the most was Auschwitz, in Poland.
I took advantage of a conference in Berlin to drive instead of flying, and to follow up with an impromptu lightning tour of Eastern ex-Soviet Europe. As you do.
I drove from Berlin to the border between Germany and Poland, intermingling with a long procession of low-loader trucks and vans with trailers, carrying cars with no wheels. It was in the days when you had to get out of the car and go into the guardhouse to present your papers while the car was searched. I had just my British passport and a German car, and no paperwork for the car; not a good look (I had not realised that there was a Black Market in stolen European cars heading East. The trucks and trailers had cars with no registration plates and their wheels removed – apparently, if they had no wheels and no plates, they were not “cars”, and were let through).
“Why do you want to come into Poland ?” was demanded and, in my best Polski-nglish, I tried to remonstrate: “Oświęcim, Oświęcim”, Polish for ‘Auschwitz’. They studied my face deeply and finally let me through, and I am grateful – I think that they strictly oughtn’t have done.
I had no real concept of what Poland would be like. Certainly more rural and less developed. One concern was finding fuel, as petrol stations were few and far between, as was my currency.
It was all rather ‘Mr. Bean’. The only navigation aids that I had were 2 facing pages of an RAC atlas which, together, covered the whole of the UK and Europe, plus a compass. And much of the left hand page mapped water. The scale of the atlas showed only cities, large towns and major roads, so my plan was basically to head east, turn right at Poland and head down.
Navigating on the right-hand page of the atlas, with frequent stops for compass checks at town names, I arrived at Auschwitz along a country road, and parked up at a small gate and wandered in. I did not realise until later that I had entered not by the official main entrance, but via the camp Kommandant’s house, past the high barbed-wire fences.
‘ARBEIT MACHT FREI’ stands over the main gate: “Work frees you” (but also: work kills you – you will be worked to death). The original, crafted by Polish blacksmith inmates defiantly presented the B of ‘ARBEIT’ upside down. Like horses to water, you can lead an inmate to the chamber, but you can’t make it comply. One of the first thousand inmates, blacksmith Jan Liwacz ironically survived Auschwitz.
The red-brick two-storey inmate barrack houses are arranged geometrically in neat tree-lined avenues. Ironically, they were well-built for their time, even with indoor – albeit communal – flushing toilets. Outside of the memorial site, some similar buildings are now apartments. But whatever their original architecture, their purpose was twisted to packing-in ‘battery-humans’ on wooden shelves three levels high.
One peculiar detail that struck me was that the prisoner barrack buildings were 13 windows long. I do not know to this day whether that is coincidental or some cruel design feature.
One barrack house was given over to each nation that lost nationals at Auschwitz for their own memorial. Each presented a different flavour, a different take on the destiny of their compadres deported here. Each transportee had a one-way railway fare funded before they could be loaded into the cattle trucks. Funded by their belongings, their valuables, their teeth, their hair, their bonemeal.
The memorial barrack for Hungary stands out for me. Inside a large room, stand monoliths, reminiscent of those from the film ‘2001, A Space Odyssey’, towering almost to the ceiling. Monoliths engraved from top to bottom and side to side with the names of the known Hungarians who were exterminated at Auschwitz. Thousands and thousands and thousands. 434,000 in just two months of 1944, as the Budapest Ghetto was ethnically cleared, and more than 564,000 in just four years. Just from one nation. Each one a person. A mother, an uncle, a son, daughter, a baby. All would be scraped from the grates of the crematoria.
A final barrack house contains samples of artefacts stolen from the arriving trails of flesh. Not the money or jewels or valuables – they were spirited away immediately.
Arranged like an ‘Ikea’ walkway from themed area to themed area, each room is dedicated to preserving, behind glass walls, one type of possession pared and plundered from the transportees as they fell from their cattle trucks.
A mountain of Shoes – piled from floor to ceiling, flattened under their own weight
An Iceberg of Glasses – intertwined metal spectacles frames clinging together like petrified families
A Candy-Floss Avalanche of Hair – there is an unforgettable smell of preservative and pesticides that assaults you before the visual ‘shock of hair’. Hair destined for mattresses, coat linings and furniture upholstery.
A forest of Prosthetic Limbs – Ironically, undoubtedly some of the owners would have fought for Germany in the First World War and had already paid for that folly with their flesh and bones. Now they paid the balance with their residual flesh and bones.
Suitcases – with addresses painted on, in effect: “if lost and found please return to …” drove home to me the cruel irony that the owners and their cases and possessions never were going to go home, and that really broke me.
I spent the whole of a harrowing day there, until ushered out by the staff as they were closing and locking the gate. I was the last one out. It was only now that I realised that here was the official entrance, and that I had come in by an ‘unofficial way’. And it was only as I drove away that I stumbled across Auschwitz Birkenau: the huge, industrial-scale, efficient, extermination camp. In my whole heart-rending day, I had only happened upon Auschwitz I, a tiny precursor apprentice to the main event.
I left a note and all the currency I still had, to buy some flowers for them to lay the next day.
“From a young Briton
who came, to understand
but who left
unable to comprehend”
I cried in the car as I drove away. I wonder what happened to those words.
And here we are in the next century. And how we have learned and evolved !
Germany has successfully moved on. Russia has manoeuvred to fill the vacated depths of depravity.
Russia, which suffered more than any other from the inhumanities of World War II. Russia, invading a neighbour for Lebensraum. Russia, inflicting their own Blitzkrieg. Russia, ethnically cleansing. Russia, killing out of spite. Russia, scorching Earth.
Orphans. Maiming. Refugees. Mass executions. Mass burial pits.
The dichotomy of two centuries blurs in the putrid soup of continuing human degeneracy.
As George Orwell wrote, in Animal Farm: “The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”