Magazine article The Spectator

Sacred Space

Magazine article The Spectator

Sacred Space

Article excerpt

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 Kazan 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. …

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