Published: 22 November, 2012
by PAVAN AMARA
IT’S hard to write about the Holocaust because every phrase, every metaphor, sentence, analysis, analogy has already been used. And still nothing puts it into words. There is no angle, introduction, or quote any more hard-hitting than the rest. Everything sounds like a cliché, try-hard, overemotional, not enough. What can be written on this page when roughly 1000 “words per page” can’t match the Auschwitz pinnacle of up to 4,000 “murdered per day” in a “meticulous killing machine”? “Gates of hell”, “embodiment of torture”, “evil on earth”, what catchphrase can sum it up?
And how did anyone settle on just one word – “genocide” – to describe this? It may be obvious: I’ve never been to the site of mass horror before.
But there is a room in Auschwitz where human hair has not been touched, stroked, tugged, or caressed in nearly 70 years.
Two kilograms of chestnut brown plaits, hair grips fixed in blonde waves, red messy curls – they lie dead in a heap behind glass. They’re for the wide-eyed spectators only. But once those blonde ringlets were for her husband to run his fingers through, for her son to tug at when he needed comfort, that pigtail was maybe pulled in a playground, definitely stroked while she was put to bed.
Close to 1.5 million people were murdered in Auschwitz-Birkenau’s gas chambers between 1940 and 1945, the women’s hair was shaved off and shipped to German companies to make cloth and carpets. The Nazis were paid for it. In total the Nazi state made the equivalent of £125million from slave labour in Auschwitz.
They were 1.1 million Jews, 140,000 Poles, 20,000 Gypsies, 10,000 prisoners of war. Auschwitz-Birkenhau was one of six death camps, and one of 1,200 concentration camps and subcamps scattered across occupied European countries.
Twenty Camden schoolchildren, aged 16 to 18, peer into the glass. “Before I came here, I was told it would be something but I couldn’t be sure what,” said Izzy Saklawska, a student at La Sainte Union convent school. “It’s this room. I think when I leave here and I see hair, I won’t look at it in the same way again.”
On Thursday, 200 students from north London schools visited Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp as part of the Holocaust Educational Trust’s “Lessons From Auschwitz”.
Auschwitz I, formerly a concentration camp holding up to 20,000 prisoners at one time, is now an unnerving maze of children’s shoes stolen minutes before murder, displays of tiny knitted jumpers hoarded from gassed babies for Nazis to sell, and a room of battered suitcases each handwritten with the name and birth date of the owner.
“You can see different personalities in the writing,” says Aden Mims, of Highbury Grove School. “One has big confident capital letters, that one over there is neater, like they spent a long time perfecting it. You wonder what they thought they were packing for.”
As we trail the hallways, black and white photographs reveal an urgent conversation boldly being conducted beyond the gaze of an SS officer, mothers cuddling babies with parting squeezes of love, tender glances painfully exchanged between separated couples, and chilling images of an SS doctor’s eyes as he chooses between life or death.
Jennifer Kaif of Regent High School said: “I have started to zone out a little bit, especially during the narration because it’s so overwhelming. I’m zoning in and out because it’s painful to listen to the entire thing.”
Within two hours of arrival by cattle carts from ghettos and concentration camps across Europe, 70 to 75 per cent were dead, according to statistics from the Holocaust Education Trust. “Just be aware,” says our Polish tour guide. “You know more than they did, about what they’re doing here in this picture.”
With that, we enter the death camp Birkenhau. Our team leader reads us the Leonard Cohen poem All there is to know about Adolf Eichmann.
It begins: “Eyes, medium. Hair, medium. Weight, medium... what did you expect? Talons? Green Saliva?”
As we walk into Crematorium II, Liza Pacarada of Parliament Hill School notes the average brown walls, the average brown flooring, the average everything, apart from the ovens next door, used to dispose of the bodies.
She says: “They would have seen these pipes at the top, they really would have thought they were taking a shower. I can’t get over the lies, they are numbing my mind. They were told to remember their clothes pegs before they went in here... why? When the officers knew they were going to die? It’s beyond words. I couldn’t describe it in one word, I couldn’t describe it in 10 words. This isn’t [a human experience], but what is it? I can’t decide. We hear the Nazis weren’t monsters, they were so average, but if you believe that, it’s frightening because if they weren’t monsters, they were humans, which means what?”
What facial expressions did these walls witness, and would there be words to describe them? What words of comfort or agony did they hear exchanged? Was it a scream or a whisper, the tone of voice? What reassuring imagery did they cling to in their mind’s eye? What would real, living, breathing humans do to face death within these walls?
“I can’t think that,” says Nazia Begum of City and Islington College. “If I did, I wouldn’t be able to get on a plane back to England. I’d just stay frozen here.”
We walk out, treading the footsteps millions yearned to make – out of Crematorium II.
“I don’t think I’m going to process this for a long time,” says Faisal Hussain of Regent High School. “It’s not the blood, guts and gore I expected. It’s more real than that, it’s crushing. It’s not like a Hollywood film. That makes it worse in a way.”
The school trip arranged by The Holocaust Education Trust is at the heart of this “never happening again”.
Rabbi Barry Marcus of Central Synagogue in Regent’s Park leads the evening’s memorial service, saying: “That is why we bring you to Auschwitz, this is why we keep it. If young people can see what comes of hate, we can stop it in its tracks.”
But since the Holocaust a conservative estimate – itself highly debatable – based on U.N figures, suggests 5.5 million dead in five genocides since 1970.
Nearly 90 per cent of SS officers here were not held to account.
But it didn’t start with gas chambers, rather a perilous indifference to racism.
In August 1936 reporters and international leaders didn’t venture 35 kilometres north of Berlin during the Olympics, to the town of Oranienburg, where concentration camp Sachsenhausen was being constructed, and opened one month later.
Ironically in a country where ideas of the “master race” and “subhumans” held power in political ideology, conversation, and law, only images of Olympic prowess were beamed across the globe.
Since the Holocaust, the world has seen millions butchered because of ethnicity in Bosnia, Cambodia, Rwanda, Sudan and the conflict in the Darfur region. Despite this, the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight estimates that in 2009, of 754 Members of European Parliament, 57 were considered “far-right politicians”.
According to a poll in May by the anti-racist campaign Hope Not Hate, one third of British adults admitted “making comments or being involved in conversations that could be considered racist”.
Shif Mahbub of St Aloysius RC College says: “Maybe some people let this happen because it wasn’t them doing the gassing or shooting. There’s that saying, about standing by being as good as taking part... I’m still trying to get my head round all this. But there’s something in that. You see someone being bullied, pushed, it’s no way as extreme as this but... I think you know what I’m trying to say. It’s too easy to turn a blind eye.”