Today is the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp in German-occupied Poland. As events are held across the world to commemorate the anniversary, I dug out an article I wrote based on a visit to Krakow in the early months of 2006. Katrin was pregnant, and we had travelled to the Polish city to scout locations for an international hostel conference she was organising. A few months later, when the conference took place, we had to travel overland as Katrin was no longer allowed to fly, but on the first visit we landed at the airport and were driven into town through socialist-era suburbs that reminded us of Berlin to the beauty of the old city centre:
On a clear winter’s day, with a light mist hanging overhead, weak sunshine bathes the Old Town of Krakow in a gentle, almost dream-like light. It softens the cobbled streets, the towers and spires, the market square – a more beautiful city in Europe is hard to imagine. In the bone-chilling cold people move at a brisk pace. Young women students scurry between university buildings wrapped in heavy scarves and jackets, hats pulled low, their round, pretty faces open to the elements. Only tourists loiter – that’s what tourists do – framing the city through digital lenses. But in January they are few in number. As the city ebbs and flows, people go about their daily business. For them beautiful Krakow is commonplace; while visitors gaze in wonder, local eyes rarely rise above street level.
We had plenty of time to explore in those first few days, our appointments few and far between. But as much as we enjoyed wandering the streets, ducking into basement bars and cafes, searching out the youthful side of this old city there was always something lingering in the back of your mind. We had planned a day later in the week to travel out to Auschwitz-Birkenau, but it was of course the old Jewish quarter of the city that we discovered first:
For over five hundred years the focal point of Krakow’s Jewish life was the Kazimierz neighbourhood, south of Wawel Castle. Today, alongside renovated synagogues, cemeteries, museums and cultural centres documenting the City’s Jewish life are bohemian cafes and bars, regular haunts of the city’s artists, students and intellectuals. Before the Nazis an estimated 68,000 Jews lived in Krakow, now there are only 5,000 in Poland, just 100 of which live in Kazimierz…
A day later we caught a ride in a minibus out of the city. The mood inside was pensive, the landscape outside the window bleak. The driver did not speak the whole way, concentrating instead on the road and the radio, on which cheerful presenters chatted away between songs by Tina Turner and Prince. Ours was not the only minibus to arrive:
Each day scores of minibuses and taxis take visitors from Krakow to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Drivers gather in the snow-covered car park, smoking and waiting under a steel grey sky. It’s just another routine working day. Yet etched in the faces of those arriving at the gates for the first time is horror, shock and pain. Here, at Auschwitz and the larger Birkenau camp close by one and a half million Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, political prisoners, Poles, and many others were exterminated by gunfire, gassing, starvation or the wretched conditions.
Despite their familiarity, the magnitude of the Holocaust overwhelms the capacity to reflect. What captures the imagination, tragically, are small things: the pair of glasses in a case with thousands of others, somehow apart from the rest, or the suitcase with a Berlin address just two streets from your own, or the photograph of two young guards standing on a train platform, sharing a joke in the aftermath of the murderous selection. Stark moments, frozen in time, feeling like hammer-blows to the chest.
It is difficult to describe now the mood in the minibus as we drove back to Krakow, but I can still feel it. There we headed for our (by now) favourite cellar bar, filled with loud and cheerful students, smiling staff bringing vodka and beer to the table, conversations swirling all around us in a language we could not understand. Katrin was not drinking of course, but I can remember leaving the bar with a fuzzy head, the journey of the day turned into a strange and horrific dream. But of course it wasn’t.
I have been to many sites of memory over the past twenty years. I live in a city that has perhaps more than most. I have visited the District Six museum in Cape Town and the murals of Belfast, the Hillsborough Memorial outside Liverpool’s Anfield Stadium and walked the length of the hundred mile Berlin Wall Trail. In all these places and more I am constantly struck not only by the emotional impact such sites of memory have, but their importance as well. The International Memorial at Auschwitz-Birkenau is inscribed with the following words:
For ever let this place be
a cry of despair
and a warning to humanity,
where the Nazis murdered
about one and a half
men, women, and children,
from various countries
We need this cry of despair, and we need to experience it. Sadly, we cannot as a society make the promise of “never again.” I don’t think it is in our power. But if we can manage “never forget”, then there is always the chance we might make it.
Words: Paul Scraton, 27th January 2015, Berlin, Germany.