March 21, 2003
Auschwitz

Well here I am, and I didn't miss a day. And for me, it's already been quite a day, let me tell you.

I'm in an internet cafe in Krakow, which is in the south of Poland. This morning I and a handful of others (we'll all be attending the Libertarian Conference here that begins tomorrow morning) were driven to Auschwitz concentration camp - museum, and remains of. Quite an education. It's in two bits, separated by real life, so to speak, in the form of the industrial area where during the war Auschwitz inmates were used as slaves, and where people still now work, but in far more civilised circumstances.

The small bit, Auschwitz itself, Auschwitz I, is where the official museum is. Lots of black and white photos, which is how these events are now most vividly brought back to life and to mind. Heaven knows, this was ghastly enough, but the life of a reasonably well educated person has included a look at a few of such photographs and recollections, and nothing there hit me hard enough to really hurt.

But Auschwitz II, Birkenau, is if anything even more terrible than Auschwitz I, because it is so huge.

The horror of the Holocaust is not only what was done to individual victims of it, but the sheer scale and ambition of the enterprise. And at Birkenau you see this scale. Most of the huts have been ripped down, but the layout of the place remains exactly as it was. And it is big, about the size, I should guess, of somewhere like Fords of Dagenham, or of a medium-sized city airport. Hut after hut after hut, each with its own tale of horror to tell. As we walked, often briskly, at exhausting length, and on a sunny but bitingly cold morning, we all brought what we knew of all this to what we didn't know, which was the size of this damned place. It was all so horribly organised and industrialised. It was a huge storage facility for humans, one of my companions said. A giant filing system, but for people rather than paper.

I could say a lot more in a similar vein, but let me confine myself to an educational angle, as befits this blog.

I don't know quite what I was expecting, but for some silly reason what I was not expecting was that the overwhelming proportion of the visitors would be in the form of quite large parties of very obviously Israeli teenagers. These were either high school or college students, I couldn't tell which and I didn't ask.

At first I stupidly thought that some of these young people might not have been taking everything totally seriously. They were dressed in generation-X logo-decorated late C20 plasticated garb - the garb, in my country, of indifference to such things as grandfathers telling tales of the past. On the other hand, the big blue-on-white Star of David flags said that they were very serious, and indeed they were. As did the identical woolly hats that many of them sported, in exactly matching colours to the colours of their flags. What they looked like, now I think about it, was crowds of football supporters, supporting Israel United, you might say. Oh, they really meant it.

When wandering about in one of the little Auschwitz I buildings, I climbed some stairs at random and encountered a group of about thirty or forty of these people, singing along to a tape recording of Hebrew songs played on what sounded like a accordion. The room was dark and they were in a big triangular shaped circle to fit in the space left by the exhibits, if you get my drift. All were visibly moved, some were in tears and being comforted by friends, perhaps thinking of dead ancestors.

I have already touched lightly on the teaching of history here - sorry I'm not equipped to supply the link back, but it was in connection with a similar matter, namely the Hitlerisation of school history, in Britain. But this was different. This was no mere accident of the syllabus. This was history red in tooth and claw, being drunk in like newly found water in a desert, by the next generation to those that got it in the neck. This was history teaching with a hell of difference, that was going to make a hell of a difference.

I've heard it argued that the state of Israel faces a strategic predicament so difficult that it could end up being totally engulfed, and its citizens being subjected to a new diaspora. But after seeing all those Israeli youngsters with their flags and their songs of sorrow, I have to say that I now doubt this. I don't know how they'll hang on in there, but hang on they are surely determined to do. Everything about them - their presence in this place in the first place, the flags and woolly hats, the singing - said: Never Again. And I'll bet that the older people who were instructing them in loud and mournful voices about what it all was and what it all meant were saying Never Again in those exact words.

Apart from the singers, the other memorable group I chanced upon was the one being told about the exact place, for this is what it was, where the nearest thing to a violent uprising that Birkenau witnessed during its horror years actually took place, one of the very few such places in all of Nazi Europe.

You know the kind of thing. A few dozen inmates, deciding they had nothing to lose, dying with dignity instead of without it. You can imagine it. A major shrine of the soon-to-be born State of Israel, I should suppose.

All very different from education back in Britain. But education nevertheless. And how.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:13 PM
Category: Brian's educationHistory
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