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Knowledge has to be situated

April 18, 2013

My original plan for yesterday was to spend the day walking around Krackow with the camera before getting the flight back to Berlin to run a seminar and pick up again on Wagner's Ring Cycle at the Staatsopera.  When I got the hotel on Monday I looked at the various advertised tours and realised I was near Auschwitz.   I suppose I should have known, but geography is not the first thing that comes to mind when that name comes to mind.  Now I have never been to a concentration camp, let alone an extermination one so I decided it was about time I did and booked one of the tours on line.   It wasn't until later I realised the irony of taking a visit to Auschwitz in the middle of a Ring Cycle with all its associated controversies.

Now I had seen the Russian films after the got to the camps before, I'd read the books and had a reasonably working knowledge of the horrors of the place.  But none of that really prepares you for the experience of walking through the pictured gate for the first time and realising you are in a location were 2.5 million people were gassed and a further half million died from disease and starvation.  One thing that brought the horror of the place home to me was the sheer banality of some of the documents, the sort of bureaucracy that would normally be considered tedious but necessary; recording arrivals, personal details and the like.  However in this context  it was sinister. The methodical gathering of hair, its bundling and sales, the piles of childrens' shoes and those pictures of people walking to the gas chambers.   OK I had seen them before, but in Birkenau they are positioned at the actual location.

The guide made an important distinction up front between concentration camps and extermination camps.  The former as she made clear (and to my national shame) were created by the British during the Boer War, the latter seems to be a uniquely Nazi approach.  OK genocide is unfortunately too frequent in human history, but its controlled organisation into a limited number of factories (there is no other word) is different.

The evidence of evil is all too pervasive.  This speech by Obersturmfürer Hössler to a group of Greek Jews struck me at the time – I got the wording from WIkipedia as I did not record it at the time:

On behalf of the camp administration I bid you welcome. This is not a holiday resort but a labor camp. Just as our soldiers risk their lives at the front to gain victory for the Third Reich, you will have to work here for the welfare of a new Europe. How you tackle this task is entirely up to you. The chance is there for every one of you. We shall look after your health, and we shall also offer you well-paid work. After the war we shall assess everyone according to his merits and treat him accordingly.”

“Now, would you please all get undressed. Hang your clothes on the hooks we have provided and please remember your number [of the hook]. When you've had your bath there will be a bowl of soup and coffee or tea for all. Oh yes, before I forget, after your bath, please have ready your certificates, diplomas, school reports and any other documents so that we can employ everybody according to his or her training and ability.”

“Would diabetics who are not allowed sugar report to staff on duty after their baths”

Otherwise there was just too much.  I know that I don't regret going, but I am not sure I could go again.  How the guides manage it I don't know and the inane and intensive questions they have to put with must make it doubly difficult. 

I can't really add to the material, I do know that everyone should go.  It is not enough to know something in the abstract, its too easy to excuse.  We exist in the world and we understand through engagement.  To be there decades after the horror is not to claim any similar experience to those who suffered, died and in too few cases survived.  However to have been there teaches you more than any reading or watching of films.  Knowledge has to be physically situated to create learning.

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