Holocaust Memorial Day was marked once again this year on 27th January, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. It is our annual opportunity to reflect on the almost unimaginable horror of the genocide unleashed by the Nazis and their collaborators, to commemorate the victims and to consider the relevance today of the Holocaust; a defining event in human history. I say almost unimaginable because the simple facts are so difficult to comprehend: the reconstructed, chilling, gas chamber of Auschwitz I with the two furnaces of the crematoria capable of burning 350 corpses daily; the 170 hectares of Auschwitz-Birkenau - a place of solitude and industrial proportions and then the memory of the 1.3million people who were sent there and at least 1.1million people who perished there - the men, women and children who happened to be Jews, Roma, Sinti, Soviet POWs, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses.
I had the opportunity to visit Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau in mid January as part of a trip to the Polish city of Krakow. The weekend was very cold, the pretty market square covered in a layer of snow and a bitter breeze swept us along. Krakow is a fabulous and welcoming city with all the usual layers of a complicated history and culture and simple but fabulous local cuisine. I would definitely recommend it for a short break but feel strongly that to begin to understand the history of the 20th century everyone should also try and travel just an hour and half away by bus to the place that is infamous in history, the small backwater town of Oświęcim or Auschwitz.
The tour begins at Auschwitz I, the original camp, walking under the infamous 'Arbeit Macht Frei' ('Work Makes You Free') entrance gate and leads you through exhibits including displays of tins of Zyklon B used for the mass extermination, prison 'mug-shot' photographs of inmates and most disturbingly the personal property of some of victims, including seven tonnes of human hair once destined for German factories. Block 11, or the 'Death Block' brings you up against the reality of the place - the wall where thousands of prisoners were shot by the SS and the cellars where experiments with poison gas took place and the cell where the Polish priest, Maximilian Kolbe was starved to death. You then move on to Auschwitz II - Birkenau where the impact for me was most profound. A lone dog in the distance barked, eerily reminiscent of the vicious guard dogs as we walked near the 'iconic' main gate and the purpose built train tracks leading directly to where the grim selection process took place and where 70% of new arrivals were sent to the gas chambers. Barracks remain, unimaginably foul. They have been left as they were and rather than being turned into exhibition space you are struck by their squalor, the lack of heating. For a moment you might ponder how anyone could possibly have survived there but then the truth hits, they didn't.
In some ways my experience mirrored that of Archbishop Justin Welby who also visited Auschwitz/Birkenau in early January. I can do no better than his words in giving a sense on paper of the dreadful 'atmosphere' of the site: 'In early January the cold is penetrating, between 9 and 14 degrees below centigrade. We were fully equipped with snow boots, layers of clothing, hats, gloves, scarves...yet it worked through layer after layer until we were cold to the core. The prisoners wore the equivalent of pyjamas and clogs. We were out in that cold for five hours in the day. They would be out for 12 hours. We were fed. They were starved.'
A visit to Auschwitz leaves you with many questions, some that will never perhaps be answered. Having seen such a terrible site, can God be present in such a place? How do you respond to 'forgiveness' when faced with the scale of the murder and crimes committed? How can genocide be 'allowed' to happen today, yet it has in Rwanda in 1994, in Srebrenica in 1995 and probably in Syria in 2016/17? Hard and searching questions but worthy of serious reflection.