There By The Grace Of

It's Autumn, and traditionally it's a strange time in my life. Like a lot of people, I don't take too kindly to the clocks going back, with the attendant dark mornings and evenings. I wouldn't go so far as to label it Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) because a) I don't believe it exists as a condition in and of itself, and b) it doesn't manifest itself in me as a condition which holds me back. I just eat more, yearn to stay at home and watch telly, and convince myself that I'm too done in to write. The only difference from the summer months is that I don't get to wear shorts.

As it was half-term last week, me and my girlfriend took a city break to clear our heads of work and see some culture. We went to Krakow, which is a great city (not that picturesque outside of the Old Town and Wawel Hill, but it had its charms all the same). There was a pleasant nip in the air, it didn't rain apart from a single evening shower, and meals for two cost about twenty quid. But outside of the city itself, the main activities advertised are to the Wieliczka Salt Mine and the Auschwitz State Museum. We went to both, and if you ever get to Krakow, make sure you do the same. They're breathtaking in very different ways.

Auschwitz had the more marked effect on both of us. Because of the sheer number of visitors, you have to book a ticket in advance, either in a group or as an unguided individual, but that's only for Auschwitz I. As the Nazi quest for the 'Final Solution' escalated, the camp was expanded to include Auschwitz II-Birkenau and dozens of others. Birkenau, because of its scale, was entirely free to see unguided, and we went there first.

The first thing you see as you approach the camp is the famous arch, known as Hell's Gate, where the old railway tracks led into the camp proper. It gives you such a jolt to see it in the raw, smack in the middle of the flat Polish countryside as it is. Ironically, the prisoners would have been ignorant of it until they passed through it, being cramped ninety or so to a cattle car with little or no ventilation. 

From that place, the tracks continue straight as an arrow for about half a mile, and halfway along this was the selection ramp, where the unfortunate victims of the Third Reich were divided into workers and the damned. Either side were mile after mile of wooden huts and electrified barbed wire, enforcing the point that there was no escape from this infernal machine. At the far end of the camp, where the tracks terminate, lies the ruins of the gas chambers, dynamited the day before Birkenau was liberated.

The original Auschwitz camp was as cramped and oppressive as Birkenau was vast and inhuman. Crumbling brick barracks, their foundations laid by emaciated prisoners, laid out in a grid peppered with trees and watchtowers. Block 11, the camp prison, where there were cells designed so prisoners had no space to sit or lie down. Block 20, where lethal injections were administered within minutes of a prisoners' admittance. An old munitions store, covered in grass and moss, which became the first gas chamber at Auschwitz I. The room with the ovens, completely coated with soot, barely a pace from a huge, low-ceilinged room with square slits cut into the roof. They say no birds sing at Auschwitz. They do, but you can't imagine it's a happy tune.

Peter Eisenman's Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, Germany

This blog isn't being written to bear witness; people who experienced this nightmare are better placed than me, after all. But on a personal level, it's left me wondering what I feel about the visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau. If I'm totally honest, it didn't upset me in an immediate way. I'm damn near unshockable, and I've read too much about the Holocaust to discover many things I didn't already know. But it didn't fascinate me either. If anything, it left me confused. Confusion how humanity could produce people who could do these things, and confusion why it hasn't produced a watershed moment in mankind's history. In seventy-odd years, we don't seem to have learned anything from the Holocaust. It was all borne out of hatred, fear, negativity and suspicion, and we suffer it still. The dark side of what we can do when we let tribalism run rampant has been there since the museum was opened in 1947, and we treat that part of ourselves far too lightly.

But the presentation of all that horror has left me considering my own work too. It's made me re-think my writing and editing from another viewpoint, one in which people do get shocked by the point I'm putting across, or find it too brutal or disgusting. To me, as a writer, I think that there shouldn't be any limits on the ideas you have or how you say them, because it seems fundamentally dishonest. But I have learnt this week that the baser instincts of our nature can be overwhelming. The Polish authorities who maintain the camps do not shy away from what happened, and grant every ethnic group which suffered barbarity an equal footing. But after a while, names blur, pictures merge, and voices fade into one another. A stark image, like the tons of hair behind a glass case in Block 4, can turn the stomach. What stays with you are the tiny details: the child's shoes, scuffed beyond wear, confiscated for no reason other than they would no longer need them; the wisps of white amongst the black and brown locks; the peephole in the door of that old munitions dump.

I'm not going to be so crass as to claim I have learned a writing lesson from my trip to the camps, but maybe it's started me off on the road to a new personal maturity. In many respects I'm a very childish person (my first unpublished novel started with the line "the trouble with you, Benny, is that you're a fucking lazy cunt") but Auschwitz has stayed with me. The thousands of pairs of eyes from the prisoner files, and the mundane cost estimates the SS collected for furnaces don't seem much like historical artifacts anymore. Perhaps it wasn't the best choice of trip to make coming up to the dark winter as I am, but I don't think I'll ever forget it.

I know what you're all thinking, and yes, the Salt Mine was lovely. I licked a wall which tasted all salty, and true to form, I was much too tall for the tunnels. Work continues, albeit at a glacial pace, and other works of mine continue to flirt with me, begging me to abandon my ugly pudding of a first draft. But I will go on. I brace myself, because Winter is coming.


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