It doesn’t seem to matter where you end up in Europe, or anywhere for that matter – you will inevitably find yourself confronted with the past. Unfortunately this isn’t limited to the positive and for every piece of magnificent art or architecture there is a corresponding evil lurking in the shadows. When you think about it, this might even say something about our wider nature.
Despite what they say about history being the story of the victors, across time there have always been losers and now, more than ever, we hear their side. History mightn’t be an objective discipline, but some horrors escape obliteration and rest in our collective memory as reminders of darker times. Or so we tell ourselves.
There is perhaps no place where this is more apparent than an hour’s drive from Karakow, in a quiet town on the edge of the Polish countryside. Once a small unremarkable village, Auschwitz is now scorched into the collective consciousness as the epitomy of human evil. The horrors perpetrated against Jewish victims in the gas chambers designed as the “final solution” are almost unspeakable, and even more so for the pre-determined and dissociated fashion in which they were done.
1.3 million people died at Auschwitz in the three years it was in operation, 90% of whom were Jewish. It was a grim mechanical process, devoid of hope for those unfortunate enough to be trained through those sad gates. They were told work would set them free, but in the end death was the only escape as the Nazis turned their hair into socks for soldiers and stockpiled mountains of their shoes and glasses.
There were many things I couldn’t understand as we walked around this grim temple to the darkest side of man. I couldn’t understand the disconnection, the lack of humanity and the mindless obedience that must have fuelled the atrocity. Perhaps it was a cultural thing; a product of less open times and powerful allegiance to concepts of nationality – but I couldn’t be sure. I certainly couldn’t understand the tourists who didn’t follow the requests for no photography. What was their fucking buzz?
The group was fairly subdued by the time we reached the collapsed gas chamber and the final memorial. The ruins and eerie space of the empty fields only served to magnify the weight of what had occurred, and an unseen wind raised hairs on the back on my neck. The bronze words were unequivocal:
“Forever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity.”
Faced with such concrete evidence of evil we struggled to remove the weight of the past, and it was a sombre van ride back to Krakow.
You think with that out of the way I might have confined myself to more positive attractions but the gravity of the negative was hard to ignore. Marco had indicated that he would like to check out a museum based in an old prison in L’viv and with little else to do and lots to talk about we wandered in its general direction.
Much like Poland, Ukraine has had a pretty tough run over the last few hundred years: it was annexed and occupied by the Soviets in 1939; under German occupation from 1941; then liberated and enslaved by the Soviet Red Army in 1944 – and it seemed like this prison had seen it all.
The building was originally a Gestapo office before the return of the Soviets saw it converted to a base for the Secret Police and holding pen for political prisoners. Our guide was an old woman who politely responded to Marco’s Russian inquiry in English, saying that she only spoke English and Ukranian. This was something I had heard about L’viv – that the people there were strongly nationalistic and proud of their status as Ukranian. It was easy to see why once Marcia took us round.
The Russians hadn’t made many friends in their period of occupation. Marcia told us of her classmates who had been locked up for the beauogoise crime of selling jeans; many others suffered similar fates: heartless interrogation or execution as the Soviets backed up the cruel omissions behind the Holodomor with positive acts of coercion and cruelty. Particularly horrific were the ice boxes: empty cells with stone walls and no light, where cold water was poured onto the floor to create a frozen bed you never got to sleep on. Guards kept the victims awake all night, pouring water or hitting those who might give into dreams of another life.
Marcia told us that the position of the Secret Police was that there was no such thing as an innocent prisoner, just someone who had been badly interrogated. No wonder the locals were keen to assert lingual autonomy.
It wasn’t just guilt that was loosely defined and the barbaric practices were extended to all prisoners. Marcia recounted one particularly young prisoner, a girl of 15 years, locked up for five months. Her “crime” was being suspected of supplying meds to the resistance movement and she endured her imprisonment with only the summer dress she was arrested in. One evening the oppression of it all was too much and a sympathetic guard lent her his fur coat. Despite the horror of the situation Marcia smiles: “In that night she knew what heaven was.”
Unfortunately such kindness was rare. It seemed that in both these cases there had been very carefully deliberated attempts to dehumanize the victims. Climates of oppression and fear framed an adversarial response that left empathy on the outer – I had to believe that circumstance had an effect here; the alternative was too bleak for contemplation.
The tour wrapped up in the yard outside and once again I was left to mull on the bitter taste of injustices past. I couldn’t help that such horror weighed heavy on my soul: it’s not easy to be optimistic about humanity when confronted with our worst characteristics. For all the lessons these places had to teach us I wondered if it wasn’t better to focus on something more positive.
I confided this to Marco and was reassured: I wasn’t alone in feeling this. We ate varenyky in a small restaurant and walked up the hill to High Castle, lost in thoughts of an oppressive world and our own good fortune.