Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Birkenau (Auschwitz II)

Birkenau was the main extermination camp where over a million people were murdered. It was a place that affected me incredibly deeply. In Birkenau it is what you feel and not what you see that has an impact on you. It is a huge space and again, it speaks of those that we may consider forgotten but it is clear the earth remembers. Birds sing on the perimeters of the camp but they will not enter it. They do not even fly across it. It felt to me the closest thing to a garden of olives.

(left watchtowers surrounding the camp)
I jotted down the following when I returned from

the camp and I think it is enough. I hope it gives you some sense of my experiences:

Desolation. In Auschwitz Birkenau the vocabulary of death has silenced any sound or trace of life. It has become nothingness. A vast expanse; a gaping wound that bleeds anguish into the world. The empty watchtowers, the silent barracks, the stacks of bricks that stand as isolated monuments stretching back across this space of barren loneliness and finally the imploded gas chambers. There is no noise. Only emptiness; an emptiness where life once was. This is the emptiness of loss. (above, the train tracks which brought transports into the camp from across Europe)

Now only the silence speaks here but it is louder than any sound. It is the unanswered cries of those eradicated. It is the answer that never came. Yet somehow those calls have been translated, they cry still- not in sound but in the sheer burden here. It is a hole; it is too wide and too great to ever be filled; not even nature which flitters around the edges will enter. It watches from on the peripheral.

Echoes. Only fleeting echoes live in this place. The echoes of the past and the echoed footsteps of the present. The footsteps which try to retrace become echoes of those that faded into silence on the steps of the gas chambers.The voices which try to remember become echoes of testimonies; echoes of the voices that spoke here and were absorbed into silence when their mouths were stopped.

(To the left - the unloading platform where families were separated on arrival and selections were made for the gas chambers.)

The prayers we say for the dead as it grows dark create the loudest echo and one hopes that in this deafening silence this is the part that never went unheard. The echoes of those prayers said under this blanket of darkness in this desolate place. The echoes of words spoken between man and God. A deep mystery.

I wanted my students to come here to connect with what was done but we found much more than this. We found ourselves connecting with what it is possible to do. Destruction in its purest form. An attempt not only to destroy the physical but to decimate even the smallest tenderness that exists in man.

This will always be without success for God has touched the heart of man and evil has devoured itself here.

(The imploded gas chambers)

As it grows colder and darker the echoing Hebrew calls back to the silence.

We heard you. We hear you. We witness.

(Left, a photograph brought to Auschwitz by a prisoner - it would have been taken from them upon arrival along with everything else they owned)

This is our answer. Where the Nazis tried to destroy we return to remember and as we walk in the pitch black along the railway tracks that brought people to their death we leave with life. We leave imbued with the talking silence and the suffering- in the hope that our echoes might go out into the world and remind that life, in all its forms is precious. That what life you take will be a heavy blow to the earth - even if that blow is not heard. It will be felt. It will make our souls tremble in years to come. Let us always recognise humanity in others no matter their size or dependency. Let us never be given over to this destruction. Let us stand firm in love.


Sarah (JOT) said...

It's kind of hard to wish you a Happy St. Pat's after such a heart-wrenching read, but I shall: Happy St. Pat's and may God continue to bless you, you, who enrich us with your powerful witness. Mother Mary, ora pro nobis.

SQUELLY said...

Oh thank you for that prayer! Also,I am more than a little bit Irish so I am delighted with the St. Pat's greetings! The same to you also.

mum2twelve said...

Hi there> I have marked this post to share with my teenaged daughter when she starts her WWII studies this semester. We have many novels she will read and this will add meat to them. Thank you for sharing. The opportunity to see these in person is very remote so seeing them through your eyes helps. Thank you.

SQUELLY said...

Oh great! So glad it will be useful for her. If you want anymore photos or anything then just let me know and I can email them over to you. I think sharing these experiences really is the best part of going in lots of ways so thank you!


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