Friday, 9 September 2011

Finding freedom in Dachau: Thanks and Goodbye

So here we are, the final post I will make on this blog. Technically the title is now an historical point, as last Wednesday my ASF year drew to a close with a final seminar in Berlin. I am writing this in a dark room that was once my bedroom and is now a walk in wardrobe/Twilight shrine. I have been back in the UK for nine days now, and the day after tomorrow I'll head to Aylesford for the next chapter. As lovely as it has been to see friends and family, this has not been an easy time, as it means ending a part of my life that was so fruitful and full of amazing, life changing experiences.

I miss Germany a lot, not least because of the freedom I felt there. It is true that my next step is intended to be a way towards a freedom of self, but the loss of physical freedom, the ability to leave the house and not have to feel like my parents will worry about where I am, is a harsh one. Also, I did feel during the last few months a freeing of the mind as I began to become more aware of my own potential, which in turn has made my decision to reject a lot of that physical freedom to go out when I like, to do as I please, that much harder.

So my final feeling about Dachau is a paradox. Through doing something that was not pleasant, not easy and at times painful, I found freedom in a place where for twelve years it was denied to so many. There have been opportunities, chances that I missed or turned away from that with hindsight I would have faced differently, yet I have learned that to regret is to hold on to something that is no longer there, which makes it all the more painful. There will be other times; life is precious and will go on whether I stay on as a friar at the end of this coming year or leave for another adventure.

This is the final post on this blog. I'd also like to take this opportunity to thank all of you who have read this blog at some point or another. It has been nice to hear such positive feedback about my blogposts. I find it interesting to see how as the months have gone on the purpose of this blog has changed. While first it was all about the work and my place in it, as the months have gone on it has become rather introspective and reflective on how all this will affect me in the coming months. To see whether all my cynicism and fears about the novitiate were justified, you'll have to head over to my new blog at I've set it up as a place for me to post bits and pieces sporadically, as I am not sure how often I will be able to use the internet, or if I will want to. It's called STORK for reasons explained on the site. Go check it out from time to time.

This is where I say goodbye and thanks again for sharing the past year with me. To quote Ferris Bueller from Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986)

Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop to look around once in a while, you could miss it.


ROY :)

Friday, 26 August 2011

Dahoam is Dahoam, wherein Roy rants...

It has been a while. We had the International Dachau Youth Meeting (IJB) in early August, at which approximately 90 young people from 24 different nations came to confront the history of National Socialism. With so many nations come just as many national myths and remembrance cultures, and yet the event passed smoothly. On the last evening of the IJB I also marked a rather significant, if soon to be inconsequential, milestone: one month until I am due to arrive at Aylesford Priory in Kent for the Carmelite Novitiate.

The days tick by now as I await what should be a joyful and glorious event. Indeed, plenty of people have told me how I will make a wonderful friar and I do not doubt that. Being a friar per se is not terribly difficult if you have good people skills and can shut up long enough to let someone speak. Yet the novitiate becomes more daunting and more foreboding as time passes and it comes ever nearer. That evening I got drunk, played a few songs on the guitar and tried to enjoy the heady feeling of being drunk and alive with young people. It is one I have only really begun to appreciate this year in Dachau.

It's ironic that I have only truly appreicated vitality and youth, or indeed the fact that I am young, while in a place that robbed that from so many people. My volunteer cohort with ASF has been a young bunch, including a number who undertook voluntary service in their late twenties in the hope they may divine some kind of way forward. I wonder if stability and job security are alien concepts for Europeans in their early to mid twenties. After all, a German who goes to University can expect to spend 5 years on an MA course, and that is after finishing school at 18/19 and spending a gap year somewhere. Other countries are different, though I know one volunteer in my situation (i.e recent graduate) at the age of 27, and others who are in their early 30s. Of course all this talk of possibility and uncertainity makes me rather jealous, as I prepare to take a small room, techinically called a cell, at a Priory.

At the end of the day, this is my main problem. I have spent the past six months defending my decision to so many different people, trying to convince them that I am not crazy or am going to disappear. This is made doubly difficult with Germans because of the following (illustrated below):

The first photo is of Pfarrer Braun from the eponymous TV show loosely based on G.K Chesterton's fictional detective priest, and the second is from the Bavarian housewive's favourite soap Dahoam is Dahoam. Now it is not the fact that these two examples of the priestly vocation are rather large in stature - though being someone with weight issues myself that does rather rub salt in the wound - but the rather twee, conservative small town existences they lead. Indeed, the very...Bavarian lives they have. The Catholic Church in this part of the world is in decline, as everyone by now knows. We can point to 1.5 million screaming young people in Madrid last week and say there's still life in the Church yet, but I can't help but think gathering all engaged young Catholics into one spot to get high on crowd mentality is a rather desperate measure to give them self assurance. In Bavaria (and in Germany as well) the perception of the Church is not strong among young people. They respect those who choose the path of religious life, knowing that perhaps at some point they may rely on a rite of passage that inevitably involves the old institution, but it does appear extremely escapist, as if you are rejecting mainstream culture

When I first officially applied for the Novitiate last September it was out of a desire to find a family and make a difference in the world. The kind of Catholicism the Carmelites and much of the progressive wing of the Church emphasizes, i.e that God lives inside every human being and thus it is our duty to make sure they are loved and that they feel loved, is actually quite a radical one. I still respect it today and I pray I will live up to this ideal. However it's far easier to be cynical. I remember being in Aylesford in May and hearing a prominent Carmelite talking on the topic of 'Contemplative Prayer and hearing the cy of the poor'. I was speaking to another friar about it later and he jokingly pointed out this particualr friar could probably deliver the same talk in his sleep. This apathy is beautifully summed up in the images above of the jovial parish priest sipping his Weißbier and popping up in parishioners' lives every so often when they need some advice.

Every so often there are glimpses of opportunity, and the potential this vocation has is huge. I have spent time in Walworth, a South London parish maintained by the Carmelites where despite all the poverty and trouble there is real hope and joy. In Lourdes I have sat with people who have every reason not to carry on, yet do because they feel the love of God inside them. Simply speaking with them and making them feel loved is a noble vocation in itself. Yet am I prepared to give up everything to live with a bunch of middle aged gentlemen in middle England?

I wish I were less cynical, and there are other reasons why I am cynical that I will not say here, but it is a very disconcerting feeling to have when a lot of my friends are off to enjoy life and I will be in a priory discerning if I should stay or go. For them it also seems an easy option, an escape from "real" problems like where the rent money will come from, ho I will get a job, how will I stay in the country. I will literally have everything on a plate - Aylesford as a pilgrimage site has its own catering. All I need to do is think and pray, which is not as easy or enticing as it sounds.

Either way, I shall begin in 16 days time, and time will tell if I have made the right decision or not. There are second chances, that is clear.

Monday, 25 July 2011

If a man can walk on sunshine...HE CAN RUN!

My good friend Chris Harrison is currently training for the York 10K Run on Sunday 31st July. I have had the privilege of completing the Battersea Park Santa Run 2009 with this great man, and can attest to his ability to run and my ability to pant the words and actions to "Rise and Shine". In fact, here is photographic evidence:

He is putting himself through the indignity of running through York wearing a bright orange hat for HCPT (the Handicapped Children's Pilgrimage Trust), also known as Helping, Caring, Playing Together. Since 1956 the Trust has given thousands of young people of differing abilities the opportunity to travel to Lourdes for a week's holiday. Lourdes is a small town in southern France, best known as a place where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to 14 year old Bernadette Soubirous in 1858. Since then people have come from all over the world to see the spot where Mary appeared to Bernadette, and it has developed a reputation as a place of healing, with a particular emphasis on those who are ill.

I have been travelling to Lourdes for the past three years with the Catholic Association after the Carmelites (who else?) gave me the opportunity to travel with their pilgrimage. It is a place which at first glance is a Catholic parody, filled to the brim with nuns, rosaries, fluorescent figurines of the Virgin Mary and everything in between, yet the place attracts people from all backgrounds and places, many who come to serve the elderly, disabled and/or ill people who come and receive hope. It really has to be experienced to be believed. This year I am gutted I will not be able to travel with them as I end my time here in Dachau, though I am comforted by the fact they will be there praying for me.

But enough of me. Chris is running to raise money for HCPT Group 122, from York and the region. I ask that you ignore the strong tingling sensation that the sight of Chris kissing his biceps may arouse in your loins, and channel that sexual energy into donating to his Just Giving account at Chris & Adam's HCPT 122 10k.

To quote the man himself:

Come on guys, in the words of Delia Smith "Let's be Havin' You!!!"

P.S This is what Chris is running for. It is awesome to see.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Tolerance, or "A Reading from the Gospel according to John (Hughes)"

Following on from my last post, here's a moving scene from an 1980s classic film (aren't all films from the 1980s classics?!) Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987). If you haven't seen it, go watch it now. From John Hughes, the genius behind some of the greatest teen films ever made, essentially Steve Martin and John Candy attempt to get home for Thanksgiving in inclement weather conditions, and must put up with each other's negative behaviour traits along the way. This scene is near to the end, when Steve Martin has had enough and explodes in anger at John Candy clearing out his sinuses.

Let's read that again:

"You wanna hurt me? Go right ahead if it makes you feel any better. I'm an easy target. Yeah, you're right. I talk too much; I also listen too much. I could be a cold-hearted cynic like you, but I don't like to hurt people's feelings. You think what you want about me. I'm not changing. I like, I like me, my wife likes me, my customers like me because i'm the real article. what you see is what you get."

To go all sunday-school-Guardian-reading-wishy-washy-'now-seriously guyz'-priest on you, that is the essence of tolerance; learning to deal with people who annoy the hell out of you, because you realise they must learn to deal with you too. John Candy's character is no saint, and John Hughes' genius in this film is to show them both as flawed human beings, yet in this scene we see Steve Martin realise that to criticise John Candy he must also accept his shortcomings too. A little more tolerance and a little more patience with others might go a long way.

Here endeth the lesson.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

The Big Fat Gypsy Joke

Throughout my year in Dachau there has been an emphasis on acknowledging the suffering of the Sinti and Romani communities during the Nazi persecutions. Over 500,000 were murdered, many of them in extermination camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau, yet persecution continued right up to the present day. Continues. As such I have attended many remembrance services this year at which Sinti and Romanis have told their stories, each as harrowing as one would expect. There was Zoni Weisz, who addressed the Bundestag on Holocaust Memorial Day this year and spoke of a 'forgotten Holocaust'. There was the opening of an exhibition at the Church of Reconciliation led by a local Sinto artist. There was an abridged version of the Stations of the Cross prayed round the memorial site alongside a Romani musical group, focussing on the suffering of Karl Wacker Horvath, a Sinto from Austria killed in 1942.

All of these services were profoundly moving, particularly when I consider the difference in what the word "Zigeuner" (Gypsy) would mean if I used it in the United Kingdom. In Germany the group is clearly racially defined - those who come to memorial services have dark skins, though no longer live the nomadic lifestyle commonly associated with their past. Often people associate them with the prolific number of Romanian beggars here in Munich, who are often of Sinti and Romani origin. When I was at the Kirchentag last month I spoke to a couple about the plight of Romanis being forcibly deported back to Kosovo. As soon as I mentioned the word 'Romani', they began to talk negatively, pointing out that there had been thefts in a local chemists by Romanis, and that all they do is steal and beg. The lady held out her cupped hand and uttered well known words, "Bitte, kleine Spende":

The fundamentals of prejudice against those labelled as 'Gypsy' in Europe are similar to those in the UK, but with a very large difference. British and Irish 'Gypsies' have two origins. The first is similar to Continental Europe; as Romanis originating ethnically in India but coming to Europe in around the 16th century. The most famous example of a member of this community is Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights, who is defined as a Gypsy by Charlotte Bronte in order to evoke a supernatural, mystical element of his character. However the second group, known as Irish travellers, are unique to this part of the world. Having their roots in Celtic travelling communities, today the popular perception of the word 'Gypsy' comes from this group. This is partly thanks to the following:

Click here for 'My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding'

My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding was first shown on Channel 4 in 2008 to record TV audiences, and inspired a follow up series of five episodes last year. First of all, I should say I watched the show with the same voyeuristic glee as everyone else. The show portrays itself as a serious documentary on gypsy and traveller life, while really it simply confirms commonly held prejudices against the Irish traveller community. For example, I remember watching it with my parents. Everytime one of the men was introduced, we laughed, as the names and descriptions were almost interchangeable - "Paddy is a labourer" - "Mick is a builder" - "Kieran is a labourer". These were the men who come and offer to tarmac your drive, then leave having done the job badly. Possibly the worst example of this caricature is conversely one of the show's most like-able 'characters', "Paddy the labourer who has retired after a successful career in bare-kuckle boxing." Aggressive in manner, staunchly traditionalist though ultimately very friendly, he talks with foul mouthed candour and honesty, at the same time reinforcing every negative stereotype imaginable. His wife does the cleaning, indeed cleans for his sixteen year old son in a neighbouring caravan as well. Yet as we progress through the series, we learn that Paddy has had ten children, four of whom have died during childbirth and one in a car accident.

It's worth remembering that this was prime time viewing in the UK, and remains a popular talking point. The show attempts to portray itself as a serious look at traveller culture, yet no sooner had the show been broadcast hundreds of people who identify as Scottish Romanis or English Gypsies called up Channel 4 to complain. An entire community had been portrayed as loud mouthed, backward, sexist, violent and undesirable. Those involved in the making of the show are actually a small minority from the North West of England, defined racially in the UK as 'Irish Traveller'. A Liverpool dressmaker is referred to often as an 'expert' on traveller culture, yet her experience is based in the contact she has had when producing the notoriously extravagant wedding dresses for those families with the money to pay for them.

Ultimately the show treads on extremely thin ice. It attempts to cast itself as a candid documentary on a persecuted culture, yet ends up offering a one-sided reinforcement of all existing negative stereotypes of travellers in the UK. We are thus led to believe that the producers have given those in the show just enough rope to hang themselves. There is constant talk of a proud heritage, yet we hear nothing of it other than fleeting references to the Appleby Horse Fair and a few establishing shots of traditional Gypsy caravans by a motorway lay-by.

In German the word is Antiziganismus, literally 'anti-Gypsyism. There is no such word in English, and there is possibly a reason why. It is in many ways the last accepted prejudice in the UK. Tinkers, Dids, Pikies, these are just a few words that you will hear used more often than most people would care to admit. They do not pay taxes, they steal anything not tied down, they come tarmac your drive, do a bad job and disappear with the money. All this is accepted parlance. The root of the problem may be in the fact it is difficult to imagine 'Irish Traveller' as a race; putting it bluntly, they're white like most people in the UK. In Europe it is easier to imagine Sinti and Romani as a minority because they look the part.

Last month, I was reminded of this prejudice once more. The Church of Reconciliation was host to two choirs, one German, the other Israeli. While directing cars wishing to park near the church, a white Ford Transit van pulled up in the middle of where cars were moving. A small girl got out with her mother, both wearing tank tops and tight-fitting trousers. A man got out the driver's side, well built and wearing a miraculous medal round his neck. My first thought was 'Irish Traveller', and when he approached us and asked in a booming Irish drawl whether Mass was being said that evening, my suspicions were realised.

About twenty minutes later I wandered back to the Church to see him perched on a ledge on the roof of the building (half the Church is underground, so this is not difficult) shouting questions at the Israeli choristers, who hurried down the steps into the Church avoiding eye contact. I approached him in an attempt to explain the significance of the concert, and ended up having a long discussion with him about the site and it's legacy. He spoke loudly, often very directly and coarsely, but he was friendly enough, simply passing by on holiday with his family.

I have no word for this behaviour other than 'in-your-face', though this has negative implications I wish to avoid. My mind wandered back to Paddy, the friendly bareknuckle boxer from the TV show. Here was a people whose society was based around traditional models of masculinity and femininity which, although not always set in stone, remain influential. He meant no harm, and for all I know was not a traveller. Yet the suspicions and my initial reaction worried me. That event occurred the day before I travelled to Oświęcim and visited the Auschwitz Memorial Site.

Two of the most vital things in breaking down stereotypes is communication and honesty; the ability to ask questions of each other without feeling hindered or silly in the process. In many communities this has already shown results, for example in London and Liverpool relations between different communities have drastically improved in the last thirty years as Police have encouraged consultation in the area. The traveller community can appear both secretive and aggressive, even when in actual fact it is not. This breakdown leads to prejudices that begin with what seem like reasonable points ("I have nothing against them if they just pay their taxes like everyone else") and develop into hatred ("They steal anything in your drive you don't nail down").

Cultural difference is often a difficult problem to overcome, but it is essential we do so to avoid prejudice becoming the norm. When prejudice becomes normal, people lose their individuality and their dignity. They are Tutsi. They are Kulak. They are Jewish. They are pikies. I used to think this was exaggerating. Frankly, I'm not so sure anymore.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Normal service...

...will be resumed in the next couple of days. Last week was filled to the brim with tours and I was in the Netherlands for a few days researching the life of Bernard Tijhuis (more on that later!)

In the meantime here's something I made earlier. It's a playlist I compiled with a website called 8 Tracks, which allows you to make snazzy playlists and send them to friends/post them on blogs and social networking sites. As I prepare for a transitional period (this time in two months I'll be wearing a religious habit - how the hell did that happen?!) I'm going into 1980s-music-contemplation mode, so the music is all soft stuff from that golden era.

See what you think! Incidentally, the image is from Harvey Edwards' collection of photos of Ballet Dancers he produced c.1986.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

The Religion of Auschwitz I: Pilgrimage

This time there is a good reason for the absence of posts, if I do say so myself. I have been in Poland/Berlin for the past week or so on a study seminar, during which we spent four days in Oświęcim and two days afterwards in the absolutely gorgeous city of Kraków. Oświęcim is better known by its German name, Auschwitz. That name, used primarily for the concentration camp and outlying extermination camp, has come to represent many things for many people, and the word now has an almost religious aura about it, like 'Armageddon' or 'Exodus'. It is in actual fact a name, not a word, but during the four days we spent in Oświęcim we came to understand just how powerful that name and what it represents has become.

Much has already been written about Auschwitz, its conception, operation and modern existence as a museum/memorial site. One such response, from a former volunteer in Dachau now living in Wrocław, Poland, can be found at his Wrocław Workshops blog. I do not yet feel ready to go into much depth about my personal response to the site here on the blog. We were given a small black notebook by our organisation, ASF, to write our thoughts in, and I'm not sure yet how (or if) I wish to present them to the world. We'll see. However, what I would like to consider is the almost religious status the site has developed into.

Chances are if you think of the Holocaust, you will instinctively think of Auschwitz, or at the very least the Birkenau site and it's now iconic image of those perpendicular train tracks drawing you in to the mouth of the gatehouse. Of course there is good reason why Auschwitz/Birkenau holds such iconic status. 1,500,000 people lost their lives there, 90% of them Jews. That is a number that should shock us to the core, and merits at the very least its place in our collective memory as people of western Europe. However, Auschwitz has taken on a different dimension entirely.

A few weeks back, my colleague delivered a tour of Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site to a group of fourteen year olds, who were left rather nonplussed. The memorial site Dachau, being in a convenient commuter region for workers in Munich, is now bordered by a housing estate, an industrial shopping complex and a community with its own school and nursery. It's not very big. At the end of the tour, one of the schoolkids said, "Well, if it was Auschwitz...". What? Would it be worse? Would you break down in tears? Not to put too fine a point on it, is the death of 41,000 people therefore too low a threshold to illicit an emotional response? I understand this is an extreme response to one throwaway comment, though I get the impression a lot of people feel the same. Auschwitz was different, Auschwitz was...evil.

At this point, we enter a realm into which History as we understand it may not enter. It is difficult to ask the question "How could this happen?" and "Why did this happen?", because no-one can give a sufficient answer, and it's difficult asking a question over and over again and not getting anywhere close to the response we as a curious species need. This is where the sacred begins to merge gruesomely with the profane, as the inexplicable is responded to with an unhealthy and dangerous religious awe. The big questions are thus explained away with mystery, because the answers appear unattainable.

All this of course sounds rather hypocritical coming from someone two and a half months away from a religious habit. However there is a difference between saying 'I don't know the answer' about existential questions, and turning a man-made tragedy into something sacred in order to suit the context. The former is the grounds for debate; the latter shuts an issue off with far reaching consequences.

Take the steady stream of visitors who come to Auschwitz. In order to travel to the Auschwitz Muzeum (the term 'memorial site' is not used in Polish) one must plan a trip to Krakow and then travel at least an hour north-east. The majority of Israelis who come to Auschwitz see the site, perhaps a bit of Krakow and go home (more on that later). When I traveled with the Holocaust Education Trust back in 2007, we had one day to see both memorial sites before being shipped back to Blighty. Costs aside, Poland was treated as the unfortunate occupier, where the graveyard lies but nothing more.

On the journey to Poland I considered whether I would be going back had I not been given the chance to go with ASF. Would I go back. If I did, why? Nothing is there anymore except traces, a few barracks and the ruins of the gas chambers in which thousands were sent to their deaths. I wondered if this was a sort of pseudo-Pilgrimage. The night before we went round the site, we were given an article from TAZ, a left-leaning German newspaper. Entitled "Pilgrimage to Auschwitz", it discusses the way in which the Holocaust has been sanctified to enable certain political narratives to prevail. Israeli journalist Iris Hefets says how

"...before a young Israeli begins his military service, he must have experienced sex, booze and an Auschwitz trip at least once [...] Not a few Germans have come to a nice little arrangement with the past. They explain the crimes of their forefathers as something so bad, that it becomes quasi-mythic in nature. The topic is removed from the present and the realm of politics, and placed firmly in the realm of the Sacred. As long as one follows the rituals of this religion, one is placed firmly beyond reproach and can, as the case of Angela Merkel and the SSPX affair has shown, hold themselves as more holier than the Pope. It's no wonder one meets more engaged advocates of Israeli politics in Germany than in Israel itself.

The full article (in German) can be found at here.

That last line is important to bear in mind, as the article deals primarily with the implications of Auschwitz's sanctification for current German-Israeli relations, and it certainly does seem to have its place in the German process of Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung Yet the sanctification of Auschwitz has far reaching consequences for our understanding both of the site, and of what it represents.

Memorials are living things involving an uncontrollable dialogue between the past and the present, though is a figure of Mary appropriate in a section of wall on which hundreds of prisoners were shot?

It is a commonly held fallacy that 'even the birds do not fly over Auschwitz'. I know it seems pedantic to pick on what is clearly poetic metaphor, but I think a lot of us were surprised how full of natural life the Birkenau memorial site was. A lot of tourists possibly come expecting a field full of mud, of barracks, of trains, of the traces of death. What you see is a slightly overgrown field with barracks (some reconstructed, others not) as far as you can see. It is a cemetary, not an extermination camp, yet people expect to see the latter. The site is also teeming with wildlife, whether it be ants and bugs scuttling between the cracks of the memorial, rabbits making staccato dashes across the grass by the ruins of the third and fourth gas chambers, or indeed the birds themselves, singing away as if nothing happened.

That is of course a description of Birkenau. Auschwitz I, which is best known for the Arbeit macht frei sign over its gate, is filled with birds singing away. In fact, Auschwitz I was the biggest upset of all for our group. It is a museum, the barracks in which men were forced to live in sub-human conditions that resemble a 19th century workhouse now converted into a series of national exhibitions. A lot of people in our group were annoyed by that. One sighed, saying that perhaps it wasn't their fault that she had such high expectations of the site.

We filed around, taking photos, asking questions now and again of the tour guide, absorbing what we saw. We remained silent, and at the end of the day it was clear that none of our expectations had been met. What was worse was that the question of 'why' was not addressed once. Not a word on the perpetrators (though it's debatable whether Auschwitz is the time or the place for that) or the role of millions of people as bystanders. Facts were delivered as we looked at piles of human hair, suitcases, pots and pans, the relics of mass murder.

I already know the horrifically simple answer to the 'why' question; because human beings are capable of dehumanizing other people to the point that they are no longer human. That is the terrifying legacy not only of the Holocaust, but of mass murders that took place thoughout the twentieth century. Auschwitz simply occupies a place as the most well known and the one that most people will come across. When Auschwitz becomes a site of pilgrimage, we lose that sense of our own responsibility as members of humanity, that the Nazis were not merely a 'mistake' of history but the consequence of events and circumstances which are not exclusive to Europe in the 1930s. We are related to Nazis.

I will end this post with a final point on Birkenau. As we walked over to the fifth crematorium, a Polish friend of mine pointed out a Stork, wandering the freshly cut grass. As well as being a national symbol for Poland, Belarus, Estonia among other northern European nations, Storks are also a common metaphor for the arrival of new-born babies. My friend told me of how when a stork landed on her house her sisters wondered who it was who would be having a baby soon! There is something quite comforting in the symbol of new life walking among the remnants of mass murder, a small sign of hope returning to a place where once it was lost and given up on an industrial scale.

Auschwitz-Birkenau is a mass grave, a field where millions of names and identities lie forgotten. Life goes on, and it is our responsibility to remember them and move on, not turn the site into something more horrible than it actually is.

N.B In a previous version of this post I erroneously said that 'only one person cried in our group'. This of course should have been 'I only saw one person cry in our group', as someone kindly pointed out to me that the person I identified was not the only one to be affected in this way, just the only one I had seen. With this in mind, I have decided to delete the line altogether. I apologize to anyone I may have offended.