Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Journey into the Darkness and out the Other Side

Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Journey into the Darkness and out the Other Side

Article excerpt

Today I taught one of those lessons where you stumble to convey your subject appropriately: the life and death of Maximilian Kolbe. His story is endlessly fascinating. He was a Polish Franciscan friar imprisoned in Auschwitz. In 1941, when several prisoners escaped, the Nazis retaliated by sentencing 10 others to death by starvation. Kolbe volunteered to take the place of one of them. After two weeks locked together in a tiny cell, most of the prisoners had died, and Kolbe was murdered with an injection of carbolic acid. Even the guards marvelled at his piety, his compassion and his endurance.

Told like that, in under a hundred words, the story barely does the man justice. Trying to shoehorn that into a lesson about something so fathomlessly brutal and dismal as the Holocaust feels like a travesty; there is the sense of something important being summarised and drawn in outline only. Trying to convey even the smallest sense of how appalling Auschwitz must have been to endure adds to the offence.

I've been to Auschwitz twice, and both times the experience left me bruised, appalled and heartbroken for what we have done to ourselves. I call it the anti-life - the horrifying absence of all love, warmth and hope that is embodied by the shattered gas chambers and the lonely ponds of Birkenau, into which the cremated remains of thousands of men and women were poured.

As you are led through by a guide, the place hums with the ghosts in your head. In a gallery of misery, some things stand out: for me, it was the piles of spectacles and pince-nez robbed from captives; the room filled to waist height with artificial legs and other prosthetics; and, of course, the room entirely full of human hair, bleached by time to a common grey. Each strand from the scalp of someone who was once held tenderly as a child by a mother, a father.

In Birkenau, the prisoners huddled for warmth in cattle sheds with no windows amid the Polish Winter; ablutions had to be performed in troughs in a matter of seconds; the dead lay with the living. …

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