There are two stones sitting by the side of my bed on the pile of books that are inevitably there. The books represent my life: fiction, poetry, professional journals, travel guides and some articles gleaned from Sunday papers; some already read, some waiting to be read, some I am reluctant to assign to bookshelves just yet, before one more perusal.
The stones are very ordinary looking. One squarish and dark grey that looks like it might even have been part of a pavement sometime. The other more irregular and whitish. Nothing remarkable about either one. Both sit easily in the palm of my hand.
One comes from Auschwitz. The other from Birkenau. Both concentration camps infamous during and after the war.
I brought them back with me from my recent trip to Poland.
Perhaps I should first say that I am half Polish. My father escaped, barely, with his life in company with his widowed mother as a seven year old from Poland during the Second World War. They travelled by train to Italy, by boat to Lebanon and finally to Baghdad on a bus across the desert. His story is almost unbelievable, and horrifying, but he survived. So great was the trauma that he suffered during his escape that he did not remember he was Jewish until he was about forty, when the fact was revealed to him in a family argument with one of the very few surviving relatives from Poland who had settled in England.
But that story is for another day.
My father died about 10 years ago at the age of 72. He never returned to Poland after his flight, and so nobody in the family felt they could go either until after his death.
It has been my intention to go since his death, but I have somehow never got around to it. The opportunity presented itself when I noticed that there was to be a ‘Scratch’ chorus performance in Krakow.
For those who don’t know about these things, a ‘Scratch’ choir is composed of individuals (in this particular case some 150 seasoned singers) who like to just come together for a couple of rehearsals before performing one of the big works. In this case it was The Armed Man – A Mass for Peace. A glorious work composed by Karl Jenkins after Sarajevo and perfomed for the first time the day before the twin towers went down in New York.
The choir I belong to had perfomed it the previous year. I love it.
It tells the story of all wars. The righteous, often religious, fueling of the inention; the build up and excitement about engagement that trained soldiers often talk about; the moment just before battle when all individuals, military and civilian, are caught in the grip of terror as they comtemplate their own mortality; the clash with the ‘enemy’; the awful silence which follows and the desolation and destruction that is inevitable.
Into the final silence come small beams of light and signs of hope which pierce the darkness afterwards.
The piece has all the recognisable bits of the Mass (Kyrie, Agnus Dei, Sanctus, Benedictus) interwoven with poems written by Kipling, Tennyson, and a poem by a Japanese poet describing the moment of destruction at Hiroshima. There are parts of the Bible and the Mahabarat, and one movement is the sung Muslim call to prayer that customarily rings out from minarets across all Muslim countries five times a day. All of these wrapped in music of different sorts.
In other words, the Piece incorporates all wars across time and place and condition.
The Work starts with a medieval french army marching song, and in some performances the start is the whole choir marching in place and in step, a small drum beating and a piccolo piping.
There are moments of clashing dissonance accompanied by brass and a lot of drums; there are moments of unaccompanied tightly harmonious singing. At the beginning of the Benedictus, a single cello gloriously and poignantly sings, the sound spiralling up into the silence.
It was chosen to be sung in this year to coincide with the anniversary of the Great War in 1914.
There were too many signs. This was too good a synchronous moment to ignore. Poland. War. Singing in the company of others. An opportunity to connect with my roots. A visit to Auschwitz where most of the Polish side of the family had perished. An open door beckoning me.
I felt bound to visit Auschwitz on two counts. One to honour my murdered family and secondly to be a witness to the horror of what happened to millions of people during war when the aggressors lost all feeling for humanity.
It was a significant point in my life. I knew it would challenge me. I didn’t know how.
When I arrived in Krakow I spent the first couple of days looking and looking and seeking. I realised quite quickly that I was trying to find what connected me to this place, these people, and ultimately to my father and his history.
The city is beautiful. Medieval and set by the river. A large squat castle which sits on a mound with turrets and castellations and impenetrable walls. There are even dragon bones which hang in the entrance of the Cathedral attached to the castle, and said to belong to the dragon which formerly inhabited the mound on which the castle and cathedral now sit. There is an ancient cobbled Jewish quarter with its narrow twisting streets and inviting eateries. A massive elegant square, the largest in Europe, with its Basilica and icecream coloured buildings forming the square and reminiscent of Venice. Fountains and statues and thousands of churches.
The city was not bombed like Warsaw during World War 2, as the Nazis made it their headquarters while occupying Poland. Several days while we were there, the place was wreathed in atmospheric fog which simply added to the mysterious atmosphere.
Following my father’s escape from Poland, he had assumed a new identity right down to his soul. He had locked his early childhood behind a solid door and thrown away the key. he never retrieved that key. Nor do I think he ever tried. The father I knew appeared English through and through. A consumate actor, a talented linguist, perfectly mannered, a charismatic people pleaser who hid his consuming, all embracing terror and rage so deep within himself that I don’t think even he knew it was there, and was as deeply shocked by its appearance, only twice in my life, as I was by its murderous vitriolic depth and breadth when released at me.
Poland. Krakow. It just felt foreign to me. No feeling of familiarity. The expected feeling of ‘coming home’, never materialised. I don’t look Polish. I don’t behave Polish. My tastes are not Polish. I could find no connection apart from just being a regular tourist.
In between intensive rehearsals in a cavernous Catholic church sited in the old Jewish Quarter in Krakow, I went on some tours.
The first day there I went to Auschwitz and Birkenau.
There were about a hundred of us, in three coaches, after an hour’s drive, we swung by a modern shopping mall in the middle of Oswiecim (the Polish name for the town) and turned into the car park.
The first sight were 20 or so tour buses neatly parked in a line, hundreds and hundreds of parked cars, and thousands of people milling around the brick buildings at the entrance.
We were instructed to get off the coaches and gather by the entrance, where we were herded, without instruction or information, through a narrow passageway.
That was my first moment of horror and connection.
I realised that this would have been a similar experience for the original occupants entering Auschwitz, suitcases in hand, children and family members pressed in close behind, unfamiliarity, no information about what was happening or why.
I felt consumed with rage that no one had thought that this might be a triggering experience for any of those visiting.
We were issued with our radio receivers so that we could hear the guide who would be taking us around and explaining things.We followed, passively and obediently, to our first stop.
Everywhere around us was neat and clean, swept, the lawns green and manicured and orderly.
It looked like a film set. My brain could not compute that this was the real thing, this was where all those millions of people died horrible, undignified, terrifying deaths.
There were crowds under the gate made so famous in newsreels and films, recognisable to anyone, anywhere in the world. Young people posing, thumbs up under the metal banner that declares ‘Arbeit mach Frei’. Young couples entwined being photographed on iPhones and the like.
Wrong. It all felt so wrong.
I could not tolerate walking round in an obedient and organised way. I needed to make acquaintance with the place on my own terms, Discover what there was to discover in my own way and in my own time. Find my own connections.
I walked in the opposite direction to the group.
The most horrifying thing about the whole place from my point of view is the utter absence of emotion. It is terrifyingly orderly and neat. And that was the thought which came to me as I walked down the long avenues between identical brick buildings.
Auschwitz was simply there, then, as a practical solution to a practical problem. There were people to be got rid of. The goal was efficiency. Initially Polish political activists. Later there were all those who the Nazis did not want included in their vision of a perfect Aryan world. Gypsies, the disabled, homosexuals, and Jews.
The more peole who were shipped there, the less room there was. They started shooting people to make more room. It turned out to be too expensive. Bullets are expensive. Gassing and cremating became the most economical way to dispose of the millions who needed to be got rid of.
Then there was the problem of what to do with what remained. The ash from the cremations, the clothes and shoes, the pots and pans and essentials that the victims had all carried hopefully in their luggage for starting a new life somewhere else. All the things that were most precious and most personal.
The Nazis, with true efficiency made money where they could. The ash was sold and used as fertiliser and to fill in ponds and ditches. The hair shaved from the incomers heads, was baled up and sold on to be woven into cloth, a roll of which was displayed. The example preserved in a display cabinet is tailor’s lining fabric for lining suits, confirmed by DNA as womens’ hair. The gold from vicitims’ teeth was extracted and melted down into ingots for sale.
What remains at Auschwitz are those things which had no practical resale value. Mountains and mountains of shoes, both adult and child, spectacles, surgical appliances, used pots and pans, shaving brushes and toothbrushes, suitcases marked with names and destinations.
These are displayed in mounds behind glass and are shocking for the numbers of each article and the thousands they represent.
In each of those tidy ordered red brick buildings are long corridors lined with photographs, or, to be more accurate, mug shots, like the ones you see in police files, of those who were incarcerated here.
Ridiculously, I scan each face, looking for someone or something I might recognise. I am skilled at ‘reading’ the emotion on people’s faces. I cannot read a single one of these faces. I cannot detect fear or anger, just a sort of blankness. There is no connection here.
When I can take no more in or on, I simply walk to a gate marked ‘Exit’, and leave.
Even this pulls at me.
Nobody who was confined here ever had that opportunity, although they would have given literally anything to be able to leave, or to have any loved member of their accompanying family leave.
The concert the next day found me raw with emotion. Our venue was a large Catholic church, exhuberantly decorated with cherubs and saints in gold, flowers, candles and banners, expressing enormous and deep religious passion. Grandeur. Abundance. Such a contrast to the other place.
I inhabited every note and word that I sang. I sang with all my heart and all my passion.
We were not allowed to perform the Muslim ‘Call to Prayer’ which features in the piece because of the sensitivities felt in the Church.
Wrong. All wrong. It is exactly the inclusion of every kind of faith that is the point of the Work.
The words of the texts resonated with the telling and singing of them. The music described the awful emotions that are not well expressed just with words.
It was not a technically perfect performance, but it was certainly heartfelt.
It is customary for Jews to leave a small pebble in rememberance on the gravevstones of those who are no longer with them, as a personal momento, out of respect and connection and love.
I did not feel inclined to so do in Auschwitz, although I did light a lantern in Birknau and left it on the railway track to add some light to this vast Hell.
It seemed more important to me to carry a piece of Auschwitz and Birkenau away with me into the outside world in rememberance of those who had been obliterated there with such casual indifference.
It is important that the world never forgets such inhuman behaviour from human beings.
When I returned to England a few days later I was dazed and disoriented.
I do not have an appropriate place to accommodate this experience in my soul, and maybe it is right that I never do so.
I will always carry with me now those inexpressable feelings and images which uncomfortably rub at me.
I am forever altered.