Auschwitz

 

Experience

Having studied a ‘Representing Trauma’ module at University, exploring the ways in which traumatic events in the world’s history are represented in various multi modal forms, I was apprehensive about visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau – with a lot of the studies being about the ethics of visiting such places.

What hit me as soon as we got there was the weather. We visited in -2 degree weather, wrapped up in coats etc; I was cold. I just imagined the millions of those less fortunate walking the same paths, in freezing rags and no shoes. I also recognised that I was imagining myself, literally, in their shoes. One of the only ways I was really able to withstand the full day visiting such horrific places was by detaching myself from what we were seeing and experiencing, so I had to constantly remind myself to not envisage what had actually taken place in the very place I was standing.

Everyone is given headphones whilst walking around, both to ensure you can hear your guide and to keep the grounds generally silent, as a form of respect I imagine. We approached the sadistic ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (work will set you free) sign over the entrance and this was the first visual shock for me, having seen the sign so many times in films and pictures.

We then proceeded into Auschwitz, where we had a tour of the general grounds and the guide talked us through a lot of the history specific to the site. I won’t go into facts and figures, but the general volume of victims was shocking, more than shocking, and ineffable really to congest. The way the guides tell you the atrocities are quite bluntly put, I think I was expecting more sort of cushioning of facts similar to what you hear in school, but there’s no softening of the inhumane brutality of the whole systematic operation of the camps. The facts are often too much to comprehend and paired with literally being stood where it happened, again, I had to stop and detach myself from where I was.

The room that disgusted me the most was a room full of human hair, as you walk in there is over two tons of victim’s hair in a huge display. The Nazi’s kept everything of the victims, including the hair they shaved as they used it for wool etc. Nothing went to ‘waste’ – including gold fillings, rings, and glasses – all which was taken off the dead bodies by other camp labourers, as a form of work. I had to leave the room after a few moments; you are also asked not take photos at that particular spot.

The gas chambers are also, obviously, a harrowing moment in the tour. I really didn’t know what I was expecting but you can’t prepare for it. It is an utterly sobering moment that will stay with me forever; the scratch marks on the black walls, the openings in the ceiling and the oven in the corner of the room. Again I could only be in there for a few moments before leaving, to imagine the life lost in there is just incomprehensible.

After Auschwitz 1 you travel to Birkenau (by the coach/ tour group you came on). It is a short drive but a sobering one. This was the next visual sight that hit me the hardest, the ‘death gate’ – the railway lines leading into the camp, again having seen it in so many images and films. The linear railway lines directed towards the mouth of the gate just swallows your gaze instantly – made worse by knowing the millions of entrants to the camp did not leave.

The tour then proceeds down the platform, on which many of the ‘selections’ took place – Nazi officers and Dr’s deciding who would be sent to work and who would be sent to die. Previously at Auschwitz you are shown many images from these platforms, so to be stood in that spot is again a very hard hitting moment. One story took place on that particular platform which our tour guide told us about – a mother, with her young daughter and son, had had word that something untoward was happening in the camps so, just before the selection process she pushed her son towards a passing group of men.He came running back to her and she pushed him away for a second time, again he came running back to her and again she pushed him (harder this time) away. He came running back crying and upset and as she shoved him away for the last time he shouted at her ‘I hate you’. Those words were the last he spoke to his family, as he survived the camp unlike his mother and sister.

It’s an odd feeling being in Birkenau and in particular being stood on the platform, the usual feelings of calmness that comes with vastness and openness of space are obviously never going to be there, the intense feeling of sadness and vulnerability hit me immediately. You just have to look around to see the limitless rows of barbed wire, the huts that will have seen countless atrocities and the clock towers that will have afforded countless victims to be killed for being alive. I almost felt guilty for standing there knowing what I did about the history of the place.

Whilst there (in the camp) I felt scared. I felt vulnerable and small compared to establishments and ideologies that are much larger than the individual. I felt unsure of whether I should be there at all and mostly I felt horrified that this systematic killing of people could have ever been orchestrated for such a long period of time. It’s scary because we never learn, the systematic ostracising of ‘the other’ will always exist – it is happening in America, on a public scale not really seen since racism was at its most prevalent there, it is happening in the refusal of refugee’s to first world countries, such as the UK, and it is happening through ‘Islamophobia’.

Our tour guide ended the tour with a quote by Elie Wiesel, ‘to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time’. I needed to hear this quote, I wasn’t there to gawp over what I was seeing – I was there to learn about the past, to ensure it never happens again in the future.

All in all, my advice is to go. View it as the learning experience that it is, and the memory of the victims will live on through the education of others.

Practicalities

We booked a tour before going to Krakow: http://krakowshuttle.com/krakow-tours/auschwitz-birkenau-tour/. Though entrance to the camps is free, you pay for travel and the tour guide/use of companies.

As tours go, they were efficient and reliable. We were picked up and dropped back off at our apartment, and the driver ensured everyone was back on the minibus as it would have been easy to get lost. This tour also ensures you get an English speaking guide, which is essential for your time there as you want to get a full understanding from someone more knowledgeable. If you go on your own you’re not guaranteed to get a tour guide.

I would recommend to take food with you, as the trip overall is around 6 hours (travel time included) and it’s not always clear when you will be stopping for breaks etc.

Take some money with you for food, drink & toilet use.

Unsure of why but they don’t allow bags in bigger than size of A4, so bring a small bag or ensure you can leave it in the transport provided.

Below Left, ‘The Killing Wall’, location where hundreds were lined up and fatally shot.
Below Right, ‘Those Who Do Not Remember The Past Are Condemned To Repeat It’ – George Santayana.

Homo’phobic’ Russia

I have been wanting to start writing a blog for a while, being a typical lazy student I have been putting it off, however now I think I simply didn’t have the motivation  nor the material I felt strongly enough about to do it.  After watching Channel Four’s documentary ‘Hunted’ about anti-gay Russia, I feel literally fired up and so angry and passionate and upset all at the same time. It’s been, for me, a visual prep talk and motivated me to do something about, what can’t even be described, the pure abomination that is currently occurring in Russia. Even if it is a simple blog entry.

I’m pretty sure I heard Stephen Fry say somewhere ( I will find it but feel like I have to pour this all out at once) that he does not believe homophobia should be described as such, because to do so would suggest that homo ‘phobia’ is something that is medically defined and so therefore accepted. I whole heartedly agree. A phobia is something we are intrinsically scared of, our brain, for some reason, holds an irrational fear over a particular object or feeling. However anti-gay behaviour is not something we are born with, it is developed over time and reinforced by minor parts of society. This label of such thought says: it is OK to hate homosexual people, or be scared of them……. It is definitely not ok.

I am not gay, however it makes me (sorry for the cliché, it could be the hot chocolate I just scoffed) sick to my stomach. I genuinely feel ill that Russian society thinks it is OK to victimize another human being for liking romantically the same sex gender. That it is OK for anti-gay vigilantes in Russia to beat within an inch of their lives homosexuals for loving someone the same sex. That it is OK to pour piss as a ritual over gay people that they ‘capture’. That it is OK to rape, torture, and physically abuse gay men. That it is OK to rape lesbians in public. That it is OK to say out loud ‘we will ruin their lives’.

These vigilantes are mindless angry members of society being manipulated by the government. That is definitely not to say they are blameless or forced by government to commit these heinous acts, the complete opposite. But there is something far bigger than these pawns on the chess board. The key players,government and religion, are the bigger perpetrators of this anti-gay movement. Russian Government recently enforced a loose ban on “non traditional” sexuality, and information of such is illegal to anyone under the age of 18. The transparency of this is insulting to the human race. The central agenda and at the heart (ironic) of Russian Government’s recent law is the supposed protection of their children and younger generations against non traditional sexuality. Both the Russian Orthodox Church and the current government under Putin’s regime advertise this framework as the right way to live and to bring up Russia’s youth, the lie that is being spun is that homosexual people and paedophilia is synonymous, which is all too readily accepted by the majority of Russian society.  The truth is, the blaring obvious truth apparent to everywhere but Russian Society itself, is that the Government are blaming the gay movement, are labelling and centralizing the social anxieties of current times onto homosexuals in Russia. The anger that their general society has for the lack of employment, the downfall of the economy, the downfall of education, the downfall of Russia as a political and economic force, is shifted onto the perceived minority (homosexuals) because it is weaker than the majority.

Within the ‘Hunted’ programme, Channel Four showed a group of anti-gay vigilantes literally hunting gay people, as though it were a Sunday activity and for some of them, it was.  The documentary showed this group of narcissistic fascists tricking a gay man into an apartment, where a group of 10+ men waited, led by the only woman Katya (sp) where they then physically threatened him and interrogated him, asking his name, job, if his parents knew he was gay and how they would feel. As the audience, you could not help but feel had the channel four film makers not be there, that something much worse and immoral would of happened. After an hour of physical interrogating, including forcing him to do a dance for them, they let him go. This had all been filmed and without question it would be posted online – meaning he would undoubtedly be sacked and from that day on, be recognised by every anti-gay person in Russian Society who is familiar with these sites.  Sadly in Russia that is the majority. It is unfathomable to me why this group of people, feel they have the god-given right, further than that how they feel it is their duty, to treat people this way. To demoralize, traumatize, essentially destroy, a fellow human being, someone who you pass in the street, because he is gay.

Here is the image of the gay man who has been blurred to prevent further humiliation, with the ring leader ,Katya, and two of the men who consider themselves servers of justice. As you can see the vigilantes are not scared to be violent with this man on TV or on any of their blog posts. One of them asks Katya ‘shall we pour piss on him?’ to which she replies ‘no I can’t be bothered’. hunted-channel-4 It is not a question of morals for her, but a question of activity. How easy is it would be to substitute ‘shall we go to the gym today?’. It shows the absolute acceptance and systematic violence by the Russian Government that it is OK for homosexuals to be treated this way by other members of society, more than OK  it is perceived as something they are entitled to do.

The programme also showed some harrowing footage from such sites which is, for me, is indescribable; it is not within my vocabulary. I will post the link to watch the programme on this blog, I feel witnessing it and experiencing the physicality of the programme is the only way to truly understand how provoking it is, and how immediate the situation in Russia is at the moment.

Throughout this post you will probably have noticed language that insinuates that these anti-gay activists in Russia are Nazi like. That is absolutely what I am suggesting. There are solid resemblances to the holocaust and its beginnings, to what is happening here, right now, in Russia. What is worrying is that the problem is much deeper than acts of physicality – it is the mindset of society and what’s more, how the current  adult generation is manipulating the youth. How the children of Russia will be taught that homo sexuality is wrong, it is illegal, it is not OK to like someone of the same sex, there is something wrong with them if they do and they should treat anyone of that ‘defect’ in that way. It is already evidential, in the high suicide rate of youths in Russia, that young people feel they are internally wrong for being gay. It makes me want to cry that people, of my age, feel that they would rather be dead than face the world as it is and as they are. That they feel like death is more desirable than living.

So before you rush home, or not today if you live in London, at least be thank ful that at home waiting for you (if you’re lucky haha) is your legal loving partner. I am unable to offer words of advice, or hope because I can’t see what can be done within our power solely as an individual of society, except spread awareness and knowledge and disassociate  yourself from anyone who makes you feel like ‘gay’ is wrong.

I don’t know who said it, but I am familiar with the quote ‘those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it’. It speaks for itself here.