PRESIDENT’S COLUMN: However much you have read, however many times you have been to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, however often you have watched documentaries and films like Schindler’s List, nothing can prepare you for a visit to Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration camp in Poland.
Seventy years ago more than 1.3 million people, 90 per cent of them Jews, were put to death in gas ovens while others died from starvation or were shot.
Today much of the camp stands as it was then. The railway line and the platform where those consigned to Auschwitz from across Europe tumbled out of sealed wagons to be separated into those deemed suitable to work – until they surrendered to starvation or exhaustion, those(mostly children) earmarked for hideous medical experiments – and those (the majority) to be marched off, stripped and pushed into a gas chamber.
Few visitors are stoic enough not to react to the relics of Hitler’s largest death camp. My companion held out until the sight of tens of thousands of children’s shoes piled high was too much for her. Our guide, a woman from a village built within a few hundred metres of the main camp, described what we had come to see in a tense, quiet voice, her face convulsed with the pain of telling the story as if this was a place that had been discovered in recent times.
There were the cells where those who tried to escape were sent to stand up in darkness until they died of exhaustion, there were the records of Poles and Russians who had been put to death alongside the unnamed Jews, there was the yard where the disobedient were shot. And everywhere, haunting black and white photographs.
And then we were inside the gas chambers where 700 were gassed in each 20 minute cycle, the equipment, gas canisters and the crematorium’s conveyor belts still there to see.
Outside, a grey sky, and the remains of a gibbet where the first Nazi commander had been brought back and hanged at the end of the war, just a few steps from the gas chambers where he and his colleagues had embarked on the “final solution”.
A visit to this place – my first – leaves you drained and with mixed emotions. The faces of the hundreds of visitors who take the four hour tour betrayed feelings of horror, near disbelief, pathos, and extraordinary sadness.
As I drove back to the nearby beautiful city of Krakow, miraculously unscathed from years of Nazi occupation and subsequent Soviet control, I felt anger.
Anger that we seem to have learned so little from history.
There has not been a repeat of anything quite so evil as Hitler’s final solution, but I have been to Vietnam and seen the horror wrought by the Americans on innocent Vietnamese by the spraying of Agent Orange, we have seen the curse of Milosevic in the Balkans, massacres throughout the Middle East, most recently in Syria, we witness a lack of respect for human life in various parts of Africa, and we watch, helpless, while Israel, whose people were the victims of the Holocaust, seize land that is not theirs and avariciously build settlements on the West bank of the river Jordan.
At a more prosaic level, the European Union, that was built by Jean Monnet and other visionaries after World War II with the overarching aim of avoiding wars in Europe, is now plagued by divisions and nationalistic rivalries.
It is far from clear whether the European project will survive intact from the present crisis, or will evolve instead into a two-speed Europe with all the risks that involves. Here in Poland, which suffered so much when Europe fell apart in 1939, there is a determination to make Europe work, but it is a tough call.
Poles gloomily recall the words of the early 20th century philosopher, George Santayana – “those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it”.
I hope not.
Colin Chapman is the President of the AIIA NSW.