“Work will set you free”

The entry gate to Auschwitz

The entry gate to Auschwitz

“Work will set you free” – perhaps the biggest lie ever told by man to human.

For the very select few it became true; Stanisław Ryniak, prisoner #31, was brought at the beginning and was liberated at least alive. He did it by learning fast – which were the good jobs, who were the least obnoxious bosses, how to ingratiate himself to others (as many others as he could). For him and for the lucky(?) 75,000 others who were fortunate (?) enough to be fit (?) enough for working and so remained alive as the Russians entered the camp it was also true.

But for the 1.2 to 1.5 million Jews, Poles, Roma, homosexuals, political dissidents etc their journey to Auschwitz-Birkenau was their last. If you were unfortunate enough to be a woman, a child, infirm or disabled you would highly likely be poisoned by cyanide within 24 hours of arrival, your body incinerated and your ashes scattered randomly into the river, the on-site ponds or used as fertiliser on adjacent fields. Nearly all the men followed eventually.

Yes, I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau and I find myself holding back tears of anger, sympathy, despair and other emotions that I cannot name. Man’s inhumanity in those circumstances is hard to believe, let alone capture. Not man’s inhumanity to man, but man’s in inhumanity to around one and a half million individual men women and children who were unfortunate enough to be born to the wrong race, religion or to hold what were considered inappropriate political views. How to understand one and a half million people slaughtered for an ideology? If I were to read out all the names I suspect it will take me a lifetime. If I were to type a ‘full stop’ for every individual it would take me 750 pages.

I wanted, and want to write about my feelings on the visit. Paradoxically I cannot recall any – I think it was either bury them to enable me to experience the sights or let them all flow out only for them to get in the way of really learning about the greatest horror of our, or anybody’s, times. I chose the former and even yesterday I found myself questioning the value, 75 years on, of emotion in the circumstances. I cannot bring them, or their torturers and murderers, back. I cannot enter empathise – can anyone truly empathise with those who were lied to, humiliated, treated like cattle, separated from their families, tattooed, starved, beaten, tortured and eventually murdered in the name of the philosophy that is not yet dead and continues to rear its head throughout Europe (the recent suggestion in parts of the Ukraine that Jews should register filled me with absolute horror – fortunately it was a hoax, but the fact that someone could even think of such a hoax is worrying). I am no psychopath, but what good can come from floods of tears? At whom can or should I direct my anger – especially knowing that similar atrocities continue in Rwanda, Serbia, Nigeria, Cambodia, Iraq, Burundi, Bangladesh and so on. Separatism leads to war, war leads to atrocities; what happened in Nazi Germany was ‘just’ a matter of scale; extreme behaviour under duress seems to be an inescapable nature of the human state. I would like to think that I would not have dropped those canisters of Zyklon-B into the gas chambers at Birkenau. But if the option for me was certain death? I do not know how I would behave and nor, despite your protestations to the contrary do you. Why the final solution? Because translocation to Siberia was impractical, because shooting them was affecting the morale of the Nazi troops and so concentrating the deaths into one location made it possible to find those few true psychopaths to actually do the killing (or, in the case Mengele, the experimenting on unwilling victims)?

Whilst I argue that I cannot empathise with 1.5 million murdered, I found the most touching moments, those when my mask tottered, was when we heard the stories of survivors who came back and record their experiences. The sheer bravery, not physical but emotional, to revisit a place where you were always a whim away from death, where your family and friends had been brutally abused and killed. Now that I can almost imagine, and it hurts. It hurts so much that I choose to bury it, not in the hope that it will go away (I know it will not) but in the hope that I can and will find some way to continue to operate in my world.

I stood outside those iconic gates at Birkenau trying, with utter impossibility, to imagine what it must have been like for the new arrivals; understandably upset at what had happened to them yet totally unknowing of what was to happen. I failed.

I can only hope that the remaining few who lived through it, those who directly remember it and those of us who visit third hand can keep the memory alive in the hope that somehow it will never happen again.

In memory of the unknown and unnamed and in hope for a better future.

One response to ““Work will set you free”

  1. Sally Burgin

    Well written Geoff. I also found it impossible to imagine what it must have been like, for two reasons. One is the sheer monstrosity of the situation for the people taken there – the whole idea of a ‘final solution’ is incomprehensible. The second reason is quite, if not purely, selfish. Usually when I visit somewhere historic, I try to put myself in that situation, to imagine what it would have been like if I was there etc. This is fine going round the Jorvik Centre or some ‘living museum’. But, not for Auschwitz. No way could I allow myself to even come close – it would have been too hard and I am not sure how I would have coped. Like I said, this is a purely selfish reason and I feel a little ashamed as I CAN distance myself from it, they couldn’t. And I write this in the memory of the unnamed AND the named – as so many of them were – on the walls of Auschwitz I.

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