Thursday, June 26, 2008
The Crakow dawn
We spent the summer solstice, (they call it “Wankia”, which is not as bad as it looks - I’m told just means White Night), in Poland, in a city called Crakow – so nice it makes you wonder why all those Polish people decide to come and live in Birmingham or Slough. Slough doesn’t have a gallery on anything like the scale of the Czartoryska Museum with its Breughels, da Vinci, Rembrandts, etc. In fact Slough doesn’t have a gallery at all.
And, unlike our language, Polish is so easy – word order is voluntary and there are no articles - definite or indefinite. The only slight problem is in trying to speak it. Our stop was Plac (square, that’s easy) Wszystkich Swiętych - even the tram drivers couldn’t say it. It made Casablanca’s Bashri Ibrahimi seem child’s play.
We took a 140 kilometre side trip. What do you say when people ask about your day? “Great”? “Terrific day out – enjoyed it immensely”? No, not if the visit was to Auschwitz. It’s something you do because you feel you should - unlike its earlier guests, who didn't have a choice.
In fact it was a beautiful day, and a pleasant journey – early harvest being gathered, hilltops perched by ancient castles and brooding monasteries…
Then you see the railway sidings, and the ramps where they opened the cattle trucks. Their journey was as different from ours as it’s possible to get: up to five days without food or water and no comfort stops. On the ramps, the cargo – Gypsies, Jews, Polish political prisoners, foreign resistance, prisoners of war (Geneva convention - what’s that?) - was “sorted”. Women, children and incapacitated males to the right, able-bodied males to the left, to be hired out as slaves to the IG Farben plant down the road.
The women were further sorted – the able-bodied became slaves and the rest rejoined the old, pregnant, disabled and the children. They were the lucky ones: their journey was nearly over.
Before the visit, we too are sorted: first by language, then by destination: Auschwitz and Birkenau here, Saltmines over there. Wear your badge and remember your bus number. But our numbers are self-adhesive - not tattoos.
The overwhelming impression is of Teutonic efficiency – mountains of no-longer-needed suitcases here; of shaven hair there (to line the overcoats of our brave soldiers on the Russian front); spectacles here; shoes there; prosthetic limbs here; teeth (after gold removal), there. In the end, when there was nothing left but naked bodies, they were gassed and shoved, by able-bodied fellow-prisoners, into incinerators – 30,000 bodies a night when on full production. The ashes went to the IG Farben factory to be made into fertiliser. (Farben thought the SS were charging too much, so they in-sourced the operation: they opened their own concentration camp.) It is recycling gone mad.
Back in our comfortable hotel room, watching those lavish, meaningless corporate image ads on CNN, we wonder what IG Farben’s corporate ad would look like. “Our most important asset is our workforce – until they drop dead”? “Half a century’s experience in unnatural gas”? But you don’t see these ads because it’s not called IG Farben any more – today it’s called Bayer or Hoechst.
When the Russians arrived in 1945, out of 1.5 million former inmates, there were only 7,500 left, including 90 pairs of identical twins. Of the 15,000 Russian prisoners of war there remained 90.
Of the 7,000 guards there remained, of course, none.