In My Father’s Words
03/07/1938 – 18/10/2018
Reflections of Life
It can be argued, and I do so argue, that a building, per se, is just a building. Its atmosphere comes from what it represents and it represents the life that is, or has been, within it. It will mean different things to different people, and the emotional state of mind of the observer will be reflected in their perception of the building.
I visited the World Trade Centre in New York in 1988. I was with Jennifer, a flame haired, green eyed beauty, who was the love of my life at that time. We drank coffee in the Windows on the World restaurant and looked in each other’s eyes. Unfortunately, someone loved Jennifer more than I did. That person was Jennifer herself. I shivered a bit when the buildings were blown apart on 11th September 2001, so my memories are mixed.
In 1993 I was in Jerusalem with Jeanne, then the love of my life. When I think about it, and I do a lot, she remains the love of my life after 11 years apart, and as far as I can call it, she always will be. We visited the Wailing Wall at Temple Mount and were deeply moved. During the Jordanian occupation this Holy place was turned into a urinal. There are actually two linked walls, one for men and one for women.
Right above the Wailing Wall, built on the ruins of Solomon’s Temple, is the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aksa Mosque, the second or third most revered place in the world for Muslims. This was a peaceful and dignified building. Not far away, on the Via Dolorosa, was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a deeply depressing and over commercialised place.
Many other buildings parade in my memory; St Paul’s, Westminster Abbey, the Palace of Westminster, Notre Dame, St Peters in the Vatican; the White House, the Capitol Building. All said something to me, all impressed, but none left the definitive memory.
The building which spoke to me most loudly was actually one of a collection of buildings in the Polish countryside not far from the Czech border. The Polish name was Oswiecim (Oss win shin). The Germans called it Auschwitz.
I had known of Auschwitz, of course, as most people have. In the list of concentration camps, Belsen, Ravensbruck, Dacau, Buchenwald and so on, this dreadful place seems to possess a special horror. This camp was designed not to hold people, but to kill them; just that, to kill them as speedily and as cheaply as possible. A heightening of the horror is that this was perpetrated, not by a medieval crowd of savages, but by a civilised, sophisticated, European nation, the Germans. My granddaughter, in response to my question, told me that the Second World War had been started by the Nazis. “Where did the Nazis come from?” I asked her. She didn’t know.
The war was started by Germany and it was the Germans who perpetrated the atrocities at Auschwitz. The same Germans who gave the world so many poets, composers, statesmen, writers, scientists and philosophers also gave it Auschwitz. And it was State policy.
I thought that I knew what to expect. I didn’t. The entrance was like going into Chessington or Alton Towers; a ticket office, a bookshop, toilets and a café-restaurant, on the same ground where over a million people, 90% Jewish, were murdered. This did not feel right. Inside the camp, the world swung back to on a more anticipated axis. Here were the much photographed gates with their cynical and hypocritical insignia ‘Arbeit macht frei.’ Indeed, work will kill you, not free you.
Here was the narrow courtyard, walled on three sides, where people were shot, until it was decided that they were not worth the expense of a bullet. It was also claimed that shooting women and children put too much emotional strain on the German soldiers. Here too were the gas chambers and the ovens where the bodies were burned. Before leaving, in January 1945, the SS and Gestapo had tried, unsuccessfully, to blow up the lot.
And here, in the middle of the camp were the gallows, where hangings took place, ‘pour encourager les autres.’ In this place of such suffering and death, lived the Camp Commandant, Rudolf Hoss with his wife and children. When he was later convicted of crimes against humanity, Hoss was brought back and hanged from these same gallows, watched by a few former inmates.
The infamous railway sidings were still in place and row upon row of huts, arranged with typical Teutonic care into neat lines. These huts were now used to give the visitor a taste of what life was like from 1941 to 145, without the stench, the fear and despair. There was a hut with the sleeping accommodation remaining; three tiered wood bunks with three or four people to each bunk. Here was a latrine hut with rows of toilets, back to back, perhaps forty in all. It got grimmer. There were huts with people’s hair, with false teeth, artificial limbs, shoes, clothing, suitcases and much else. And then there was one more hut. This was full of children’s toys; tricycles, dolls, tops, little buckets, balls, wood animals, train sets and everything imaginable. In the same place were photos of children, some just toddlers, in little coats with the Jewish star and boots. The girls had bonnets and the boys men’s caps, too big for them.
I had to leave and go outside. I was glad I was alone as tears were streaming down my face. I have children and I have grandchildren. I also have an imagination. I cannot forget and I cannot forgive. When some people in our own country question the point of our armed forces, or tell me how wrong ALL wars are, I suggest they visit Auschwitz and come back and tell me then.
Written by BM