The Book of Names at Auschwitz
I arrive in Krakow early on Saturday morning, meet my friend Sara and spend the day exploring the city. The Institute of Contemporary Art hosts a Holocaust exhibition focusing on art created to tell stories of the Holocaust, made at the time and since. The message is that art and literature are as important as history as they can successfully convey emotion in a way that history may not. The pieces are both provocative and sobering and include the depiction of scenes of torture made with children’s toys. It is hard to look at and hard to look away.
At lunchtime we wander to a flea market in Krakow and find that in a market of 15 or so stalls, at least 5 of them sell Nazi memorabilia; including party membership badges, postage stamps, belt buckles and ink stamps. It’s hard to believe that the pieces can be authentic and are being sold so openly. Among the pieces are one or two fabric stars worn to identity Jewish people. These are objects unpacked and packed at the beginning and end of a day by the market trader, but to us they represent such evil. Seeing the sheer scale of these pieces after all these years reminds us that the Nazi Party were elected and in power.
My friend Sara is an artist; she mostly takes photographs or uses existing photographs to tell stories. Her work has been shown internationally. Her current project is about her father, Manfred, who came on the Kindertransport from Berlin at the age of 17, his sister Susi having been sent earlier when she was 14. Manfred’s mother, Paulina was a slave labourer for Siemens who eventually went into hiding with false papers, this meant she survived the war and was later reunited with both her children in the UK. The rest of the family were scattered, an aunt Elfrieda went to Shanghai, another, Rosa was sent to a concentration camp and escaped – twice. Our visit to Auschwitz is, in part, because another aunt, Martha and her husband Hermann died there. Their daughter Helga however, survived by escaping to Israel. My friend Sara, was estranged from her father in his final years and is seeking to piece the story back together. Most of the information, not talked about in the family has been found through support from the Weiner Library and it is pure luck that certain lists and records survived – whilst others did not.
On Sunday we travel from Krakow to Oświęcim by train. Most visitors do this trip on a coach in one day, but we are staying in the hotel opposite Auschwitz 1. Getting off the train we walk the straight road to the hotel, at some point the old unused rail tracks appear at the side of the road.
Monday morning – we arrive at Auschwitz for our guided tour, our guide Adrianna takes us on a tour of Auschwitz 1. It is busy, with many groups waiting for tours given in English, Polish and Swedish. The atmosphere is trepidatious. We are waiting in sight of the familiar entrance sign and it seems filmic and unreal. The tour takes us around some of the most significant ‘blocks’ within the camp. I am grateful for the knowledge of Adrianna and her obvious emotional connection to the history, she is able to deftly correct an overzealous visitor who has been reading books that are fiction not fact; it becomes apparent that she thinks it is vital that visitors learn from history. I am grateful for her skill and commitment, without her voice to listen to and a path to follow it would be hard to keep going around the camp. The museum is so well preserved it is as if the people have just left, and it feels palpable. It is, for me as terrible and difficult to see as I had imagined. One block of living quarters contains the beds that were slept in shared by 2 people sleeping top and tale (in Auschwitz Birkenau the beds were shared by larger groups) and it has a washing area – one single room of long sinks shared by the 1000 people who were crammed into the space. On the wall in this room is a painting of a cat with its tongue stuck out, washing its paw. It is hard to understand what it is doing there, it is whimsical and sweet and jars with its canvass. I wonder who painted it and if it did lift spirits. Maddeningly, I can’t find any reference to its origins online.
It is an enduring issue that we will never comprehend the Holocaust, the murder of 6 million people, the individual stories that became family stories, the volume of people affected and impacted generations later. In one block we see displays of vast quantities of ‘stuff’ – shoes, clothes, brushes, glasses and of course the human hair; cut off to be used to line uniforms and stuff mattresses. The piles are both grotesque and powerful. Every item a person, every person from a family, every family with a story of loss of life, of family, of home, of country. For my friend Sara this is her history, she is finally catching up with it. We find Martha and Hermann’s names in the ‘Book of Names’ recorded with dates of birth, but not death.
Later, when we have a break before going up to Auschwitz Birkenau I see Anne’s diary in the gift shop and instinctively take a picture, I am delighted to see its cheerful red and white check cover. I get told off for taking photographs in the book shop. You can take photos in Auschwitz in most places, but not in the bookshop.
In the afternoon we visit Auschwitz Birkenau, it is bleak and too blowy to go into any of the blocks still standing so we look at the memorials and walk the train tracks. The site also contains two blown up gas chambers, destroyed by the Nazi’s to cover up what they did. The one that still remains at Auschwitz 1 is too bleak to describe. Go and see it if you haven’t, if you can, just to witness it. It’s hard to see Auschwitz, it is as bleak and powerful as I anticipated, and the air is heavy there and was not diluted by lots of visitors or the overzealous group member. Yet I am glad to have seen it and to have deepened my understanding and commitment to the part I play in the work we do, I am also grateful for my life of freedom and comfort. My overriding feeling was how did anyone survive this? There is no reliable documentation of how many did, we know at least 1.1 million died there. Thank God for those that did survive and told their stories.
Back at the hotel I found myself wondering how the staff of the hotel work and live so close to Auschwitz, if it takes its toll. The reception said when you live and work here – it’s the museum, the real privilege is when survivors stay at the hotel and they meet them and treat them as special guests. Her favourite visitor is Marian Turski, a Polish journalist, who spoke so provocatively at the recent 75th Anniversary event at Auswitz Birkenau. I’ll finish on his words:
Auschwitz did not fall from the sky. It began with small forms of persecution of Jews. It happened, it means it can happen anywhere. That is why human rights and democratic constitutions must be defended. The eleventh commandment is important: Don’t be indifferent. Do not be indifferent when you see historical lies, do not be indifferent when any minority is discriminated, do not be indifferent when power violates a social contract. Marian Turski.
About the guest editor
Lara Wilks Sloan is the Anne Frank Trust’s, Director of Development.