“Why on earth would anyone want to visit Auschwitz!” Polish students were amazed. They had asked their Finnish guests what they would like to see while in Poland and the answer they got was some prison camp from years past.
There would have been other options available like important research centers, industry complexes, and even western-like jazz clubs – Poland was, you know, starkly different from the Soviet Union.
But the crazy Finns insisted on visiting Auschwitz.
The year was 1985. The concentration camp in Auschwitz had been liberated 40 years ago.
For the Polish the intervening years had passed in another kind of prison. That’s why they didn’t feel strongly for the victims of Auschwitz – especially for the Jews whom the Polish had no difficulty persecuting even without the help of Germany.
The people that visited Auschwitz at the time were only the few history enthusiasts and some old folk with a set of blue numbers on their wrists.
I met one former prisoner in Birkenau, the camp number two in Auschwitz. When on one of the foundation slabs of the demolished barracks, this gray-haired man pointed with his silver-plated cane where his bunk had been. Around him was a group of young men dressed in black, listening in a solemn pose. He was a business man from New York sharing about the circumstances of his younger years.
I asked the man about the years spend in a concentration camp. I no longer remember what he said, but I know how I keenly I felt his strength, like that of a patriarch straight out of the Old Testament. Yellow flowers were pushing through the ruins.
April 2014. I can hardly recognize the place. The parking lot is packed with tourist buses, souvenir shops, hamburger stands, and, most of all, people. Just 29 years ago Auschwitz was a remote historical site, now it is a bustling tourist attraction.
My grown-up daughters chose Auschwitz as a target for our vacation when other choices could have been Paris, Rome or Berlin. My eldest had taken some gloomy history course at the university and tells me that I shouldn’t be taking pictures. She is embarrassed.
I don’t mind her, but I try to be respectful. So do others. No one smiles in a selfie taken by the electric fence.
There are too many tourists for the narrow corridors. But instead of nudging, rushing or stopping for too long to cause blockages, every place has a dignified almost religious feeling. Even at the popular displays of hair, shoes, and more.
The overarching feeling is sadness, that is at times mixed with horror, like in the gas chamber. My daughter ponders if there has ever been that many deaths in such a small place.
Is this the crux of this place: the black hole of human history whose gravity exceeds all mercy?
The next morning we visit the headquarters of Gestapo in Krakow, now a museum. There the story gets a few of the pieces it has been missing. The soviet army arrived at Auschwitz on January 27, 1945. For the Polish this was not the end of their suffering; only the hue of the guard uniforms changed.
Fascism and communism are both chips from the same block. The swastika or the hammer and the sickle – both are symbols of oppression and tyranny. There are many who continue to try to deny that, to present different definitions and theoretical footnotes. Personally, I have more confidence in philosopher Hannah Arendt: “If you want to understand an ideology, ask its victims.”
Auschwitz became a ground zero and a new beginning for Germany and the whole Europe. Power and military strength were replaced with new goals of peace, democracy and human rights. This was such a powerful formula for success that masses would like to come and partake of what Europe now has.
In contrast, the history has not been properly addressed in Russia, only skimmed very lightly. Archive doors are finally a little ajar and some apologizes have been mumbled, but then there has been a swift retreat to old putrid lies.
This must be the reason why Russians are so easily subdued by the tricks of former KGB agents, tricks that first deny the people of democracy, then human rights and finally peace.
Fanatical patriotism and fascism are tied to the contest in Ukraine as if we were back in the 1940s.
In her book “Iron Curtain” (2012), Anne Applebaum reminds us how to recognize totalitarianism. It is that there is no truth independent from power, rather the truth is whatever happens to be most beneficial to those in power.
Sounds uncannily familiar.