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.

1 comment:

  1. Of course, that former ASF voluteer has been to Auschwitz four times now so have had more time to reflect on the place.

    It's mad that British groups don't see much more of Poland. Hell, for me even Kraków isn't representative of Poland, though it's a useful place to counteract prejudices of Poland (as long as one doesn't leave the city centre).

    They were hares, by the way.