Sometimes we end up in places wondering what has brought us here. I found myself asking this question as I pulled into the town of Oswiecim in southern Poland on a wet and foggy night in September. It struck me that it was probably the same question that millions of jews, gypsies, gays and members of the intelligentsia asked themselves when shipped here by the Nazi's in the 40's. The difference between their reasons and mine being that mine were my own.
I got an eerie feeling as the tyres of the car rumbled across the train tracks and into town. It was a Saturday night and as I passed the town square on route to a hotel I noticed crowds of young weekend revelers hanging in the bars. Just like anywhere else. Except in some regards this town isn't. I found my hotel and crashed.
The story of Auschwitz Birkenau is known by all and I'm not here to rehash the facts only my own experience of a visit to what is now a Unesco World Heritage site with as many as 8000 visitors some days. What many don't realize and which I didn't is that Auschwitz was in fact 3 camps. It was expanded to facilitate the implementation of the Nazi genocidal policy of the 'Final Solution' which aimed to wipe out the entire jewish population of Europe. At Auschwitz I as I passed under the infamous slogan on the gate of 'Arbeit Macht Frei', 'Work Frees' I got my first hint of understanding the scope of how cruel and crushing this terrible lie had been.
As a walked around Auschwitz I, listening to my tour guide on my headphones recount just how systematic the place had been run by the Nazi's I found myself staring at the worn patches in the stone floor. I was thinking of those people walking on these very same floors. The terribly evil Nazi officers and their helpless destitute victims. The tour guides microphone picked up the ambient noises around us and in my ears the sounds that stood out were the other visitors feet shuffling along the floor. When I closed my eyes those very same footsteps were of the individuals who died here , echoing from the past. When I looked out the window they were the very same windows but they were not part of a cage keeping me in.
We moved on to Auschwitz II and it was here that the scale of what happened and the cruel intent that was responsible for it began to bear down on me. This place was picked because of it's convenient location on the railway line that shipped people in. Every factory needs an infrastructure . Apparently it seems even when your product is death.
Auschwitz Birkenau as it's better known is 320 acres of what was once a mass killing machine exterminating 5000 people a day. The sheer scale of it when you are confronted with it in a visit like this is what is the most staggering. Most of it is in ruins but as far as the eye can see stand the chimneys of the sheds where up to 1000 prisoners were kept at a time. The sheds are cold brick buildings with rudimentary bunk beds that provided no comfort. Slogans stenciled on walls reminded prisoners to behave and that drinking water was strictly forbidden. Poland winters are notoriously cold. There was nothing about these huts that would protect you from it. That much was obvious.
What I couldn't help thinking when I walked around this sad place is that really this wasn't very long ago. We're supposed to learn from our past but in the case of genocide and bullying I don't think we have. Rwanda happened and was allowed to happen. The international community knew what was occuring and did nothing about it. Rwanda like many problems that are now arising in the developing world are occurring because of corrupt regimes but also because we as the first world have raped and pillaged these countries of their domestic raw materials and therefore wealth. All to support our own materialistic, selfish and non sustainable lifestyles. If Rwanda had been a country rich in oil it would have mattered to the US and her European cronies and they would have stepped in to do something. But there was no oil. As far as they were concerned there was nothing worth saving, not even human lives.
Besides growing up in a country that was torn apart by war (Ireland) I have been living in the US for 16 years and have witnessed the American reaction to the 911 atrocities. I'm still living there while the United States wages war in 2 countries and thousands of innocent civilians continue to die at it's hands. We are now into the 8th year of the 'war on terrorism'. Deep down this basic evil fact puts me at odds with myself and my own morals. I have like I'm sure so have many people, avoided it when it raises itself in my consciousness. I'm not sure I can continue to do so anymore. The holocaust has it's deniers and unfortunately too there are many who fail to admit the atrocities today that are perpetrated in their name. I think the term is 'collective denial'. Until the consequences of these actions come home to roost I guess this mental condition of denial will continue.
President Obama in April 2009 at the annual memorial to the Holocaust, said in reference to the lessons of this dark time in our history :"to recognize ourselves in each other; to commit ourselves to resisting injustice and intolerance and indifference in whatever forms they may take.". The thing is these 'forms' sometimes aren't necessarily just swastika touting skinheads or turban wearing, Kalashnikov waving Koran readers. Sometimes they wear suits, read the bible, and have massive military budgets beyond the GDP of many countries. This is a 'form'. So I'd say Yes President Obama I recognize it in ourselves. The question is do you? This is the real lesson to be learned.