Today, 27th January 2015, marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz concentration camp. It’s been five years since I visited Auschwitz with the support of the Holocaust Educational Trust and the encouragement of a supportive history teacher. The images I saw there, the scale of it is beyond comprehension. Figures in a school textbook do not do it justice – what does is the piles of shoes in exhibition rooms, as many shoes as if they were as common in one place as gravel or grain. They filled an entire room, from floor to ceiling, no gaps in places. The same with a room of spectacles, wrapped around one another broken, broken frames, broken lenses, twisted over one another, wrapped and rusting. Items stolen from victims, items prised away from them but pointing to their absence.
The railway tracks that brought the persecuted to the camps stretching off over the country further than you can see in any direction, even from the highest point of a watch tower, just a thread of metal slicing through the landscape. The line of fences, dwarfing you, to consider the horror that men built this, their arms hardly strong enough to pull them into their beds at night, these are the people who built this. Humans forced to build their own walls, the fences, the barbed wire that kept them prisoner.
My trip there was a day saturated in images of terrifying scales – the hundreds of thousand faces of the victims families on an endless walls of photographs, winding round every corner of the room, and behind each display another standing waiting, millions of lives. Some were children with smiles, families playing on beaches, portraits of lovers, solo pictures of young men and you could smile, staring at the photo, to know he spent minutes arranging himself to let the camera focus on what was probably his better side. There were those natural shots of friends laughing standing in the street as figures walked past. Human figures, not textbook figures, people with lives, with passions, with failures, with hopes.
These are the images I hold with me. But if there was something that day made me feel more than anything it was not images but words. There were some words on the tip of my tongue all day, from a poem, a specific poem I’d read somewhere, I couldn’t even remember the context of it, it was just a line. I had a partner with me that day, a friend from school, we didn’t speak all day, and when we did it was in hushed voices for no reason at all. But when we did speak it was to communicate nothing of importance in the slightest, rather we stood near each other and stared at something or read a sign quietly to the other. Still I could I hear the words in my head repeated, of this poem. They were repeated as I walked over the train tracks, hardly believing what the wood and metal had witnessed, repeated as I watched my feet leave footprints in two day old snow, wondering about the other millions of feet who had walked where I stood, repeated as I lay a candle on the tracks, as I walked on past it, just knowing that for the rest of my life, I’ll remember this moment. I need to remember this moment, because it is a moment I must tell others about, I have an obligation to tell others about. So I turned to look back. To press it into my mind, to swear I would never ever forget it, or let it slip, or wake one morning to feel it was any less important than it was right now, right here, at this moment. The sun was going down, and my candle became just a little thread in a huge blanket of lights over the ground, pitching away in the night, as the sun had left us.
The words were floating around my head still, I couldn’t remember whose they were but they struck true. I looked them up the very next day. They are the words of W.H. Auden from his poem ‘September 1, 1939’.
‘We must love one another or die.’