15 JANUARY 2005, Page 28

Sacred space

Teresa Howard

Israeli teenagers race around draped with flags, middle-aged Americans discuss house extensions, smartly dressed Italians shout and gesticulate wildly and Japanese tourists photograph their children smiling and holding hands under the entrance sign which reads: ARBEIT MACHT FREI (work brings freedom). This is Auschwitz in 2005, on the eve of its 60-year liberation anniversary.

Auschwitz should be seen by everyone with the courage to face it, but you must prepare yourself for the crowds of tourists who have a few hours to spare between Krakow and the mountains of Zakopane.

There are groups of young people organised by the World Union of Jewish Students (WUJS) and others on Contiki holidays. ‘This afternoon the Concentration Camp of Auschwitz,’ announces the Contiki website, ‘a visit never to be forgotten’, beside which is a message board describing wild bouts of drinking and dreams of endless bonking.

Some people, of course, come to visit the place where family and friends were murdered. Many thousands of Poles and Soviet prisoners of war lived and died here too, along with the Jews. For the few remaining survivors it may be a painful return to the camp from which they were liberated physically but not mentally.

There is no entrance fee to the camp. Once inside, tour groups must pay to engage a guide, though individuals can wander round unguided, as I chose to do.

Since seeing Martin Sherman’s play Bent in 1979, I’ve been aware that Nazis herded other minority groups into the camps as well as Jews. The inmates wore triangular cloth badges to indicate which group they belonged to: yellow triangles for Jews, pink for homosexuals, green for criminals, brown for gypsies and violet for Jehovah’s Witnesses. I was surprised to see that today each tour group also wore stickers, so the guides could identify their group; some had blue squares but others wore yellow triangles.

One of the hardest places to visit was the windowless gas chamber. Not just because it was the site of thousands of deaths, but because the already claustrophobic space had to be shared with endless camera flashes and a vociferous Italian tour guide who ignored the sign requesting a respectful silence.

These days Auschwitz should be the last place on earth where you would imagine aggressive behaviour but, sadly, this is not the case. Last summer an altercation arose between Jewish students from Israel and three tourists. In an article by Jenny Hazan for the Jerusalem Post, one of the students recounted that the tourists ‘told us to go back to Israel and said that we were stupid and should be ashamed to walk around with an Israeli flag’. According to Jarek Mensfelt of the publication department at Auschwitz, the incident was sparked off by a tourist simply ‘asking one of the Jewish participants why she carried a rucksack with an Israeli flag wrapped around it’. Whether Jenny Hazan’s article with its allegations of anti-Semitism is correct or whether Mr Mensfelt’s conciliatory account holds the key to this controversial incident is uncertain. However, I am sure that the surfeit of tensions surrounding Israel means it was not the first and will not be the last episode of its kind.

Auschwitz-Birkenau told a different story. Chris Schwarz, a British photographer who started up the Jewish Museum in Krakow, told me that I would find a less touristy experience there, and he was right. It covers a huge area of land, stippled by weeping willows, birch trees and wild flowers. There were fewer visitors and no guides with stickered followers ranging through the lines of huts. Although there were a few families out for an afternoon passeggiata, there was a chance for silence here.

The railway, which brought transports from all over Europe, leads straight through the main entrance and ends at two gas chambers, hastily razed by the Nazis before their retreat. Beside them is a stagnant pond containing the ashes of thousands of Jews and other victims who were incinerated here. The huts, where those who survived the immediate selection process slept, looked as if the last inmates had only just departed. Some stencilled rules in German are still visible on the walls, along with shreds of filthy blankets and sacking mattresses leaking straw. A heartbreaking painting of prisoners labouring at a ditch covers the cement ceiling of one of the huts; who had painted it or how it came to be there remains a mystery.

Majdanek is the official name for what remains of the camp in Lublin, eastern Poland. Still seeking understanding of the past, I decided to visit this site as well.

It was almost deserted. Most of the long brown huts, reeking of creosote, looked as if they had been rebuilt. Nature had taken over and the profusion of wild flowers looked pitiful. Standing at the end of what had once been known as the ‘black path’ is something that looks like a flying saucer. It is the Majdanek Mausoleum, designed by Wiktor Tolkin in 1969. Inside the rotunda, which is open to the elements, is a mountain of ash and bone, the remains of Majdanek’s victims. The inscription on the mausoleum translates as ‘Let our fate be a warning to you’.

Do these memorials to the dead really warn us, or are they just another stop on the tourist trail across Eastern Europe? Most of the visitors have no personal connection with Auschwitz, which makes me wonder why go? Why spend your holidays walking round a former concentration camp? Is it that so many of us have such bland lives we have to touch horror in order to feel alive? Do we get a ghoulish pleasure from the thought of other people’s suffering, or is our interest just in the history of our race? Perhaps we are wary of all the conflicting interpretations of the past, and want to work out for ourselves what went on there? The more I look into the appeal of Auschwitz, the more I think that it’s not something you can really work out. People have an instinct to return to the scenes of disasters — just like elephants. Elephants will travel hundreds of miles out of their way to stand around the skeleton of a former member of the herd, and pass the bones carefully from trunk to trunk.

It’s the same with us. We treat the sites of death as sacred. We build memorials, erect gravestones, bring flowers. We go to grieve, but perhaps places like Auschwitz also help us to believe that death and wickedness are real. Outside Block 10, where Dr Josef Mengele carried out his experiments on women and children, it felt pretty real to me. I think that Professor John Gray is probably right when he says, ‘Human knowledge grows, but the human animal stays much the same.’ Perhaps Auschwitz serves a purpose in reminding us that the kind of wickedness which built gas chambers will remain an intrinsic part of our baser nature.

I went to the camps to try to understand more about people and I came away feeling that I had. It is an experience I will carry with me forever. Nothing can prepare you for Auschwitz and, even though I disliked having to share it with so many people who seemed unaware of its significance, I will never regret going.