Dylan Moore offers his perspective on a recent trip to Auschwitz.
As our minibus pulls away from the remains of the camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau into the relative normality of the nondescript south Polish town of Oswiecim, our driver, Konrad, clears his throat. ‘In the light of recent events around the world,’ he says, his voice catching as it loses the hushed cloak of reverence that has shrouded the entire day at this horrendous place, ‘I would like to say two things: please remember that words have meaning, and that these were German death camps.’ It’s an understandable urge – for a country that was occupied by the Nazis and ‘liberated’ by the Soviets – to distance innocent Oswiecim from the stain its Germanic corruption has left on human history.
Earlier, we had stood in front of the infamous gates, before the bitter sarcasm of the lie, ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’. Our guide, Agnieszka, asks how many glasses wearers are among us. Along with four or five others, I raise my hand. In a group numbering over thirty, I’m surprised how few we are. I see where this is going. What Agnieszka wants us to understand is that Auschwitz did not begin as death camp for Jews, but as a concentration camp for Polish intellectuals. ‘When the Nazis conquered Poland, first they needed to rid the country of anybody who might inspire the minds of the remaining population: teachers, lawyers, doctors, lecturers; they wanted to enslave Poles, and the first step was to imprison the intelligentsia.
Later, we silently file past piles of shoes and hair belonging to 14,000 exterminated Jewish women; they attest to unspeakable human suffering. No less tragic are the thousands of wire-rimmed spectacles that speak of the eradication of those who today might be termed ‘the liberal elite’.
Like Konrad said, words have meaning; words matter. ‘Liberal elite’ is a collocation that needs prising apart if the rise of fascism is to be smashed in our own time. Quite simply, there is no reason to equate liberalism with elitism. Behind such lazy shorthand lies the same dangerous impulse that targets the intelligentsia or the Jew. The wish to discredit the social position of those who defend human rights or freedom of speech, or who have a healthy regard for values like equality is the same logic that locks up journalists and professors as enemies of the state. The first casualties of war are the truth and its proponents, and fascism does not wait for the pretext of war before it begins taking prisoners.
I have, as a teacher, visited Sachsenhausen and Dachau, outside Berlin and Munich respectively; these camps were the Nazis’ early experiments in the concentration and death camps which were to pockmark the whole continent of Europe in the first half of the 1940s. On those occasions, I was stunned into a horrified silence, a prolonged and intensified version of the kind reserved for those two minutes in November when you force yourself to stand stock still and, full of British reserve and stiff upper lip, try and fail to imagine the horrors of Passchendaele and Gallipoli, Stalingrad, Coventry and Dresden. But here at Auschwitz, I didn’t feel much like remaining silent.
The very last reaction I want to have is to keep my dignity. There is no dignity in such disregard for humanity. I don’t feel different here because I am not on a school trip, but am here with my own son; I don’t feel different because I have visited other camps before, or because Auschwitz-Birkenau remains by far the most infamous instrument of the Shoah. I feel different because this is now.
Within days of taking office, the President of the United States of America, the so-called ‘land of the free’, signed an executive order to allow the torture of human beings, followed by another to ban human beings from seven Muslim majority countries from entering the United States. Regardless of who they are as individuals, it is their nationality, race and religion that will define and demonise them in the eyes of the security services.
Words have meaning. According to Agnieszka, Pastor Martin Niemoller’s famous quotation, much repeated in recent days, might have begun, ‘First they came for the glasses wearers…’ Well, this glasses wearer is not a Muslim, but if the fascists of this generation are coming for the Muslims first, then it’s my Christian duty and my human duty to stand with Muslims everywhere, just as I would stand with Jews or Gentiles, socialists or conservatives, gays or straights, if they faced the same persecution. Surely this time they will not pass? Words have meaning alright. As a glasses wearer, the only weapon in my hand is a pen – but this machine kills fascists.
5 thoughts on “Auschwitz, January 2017: What Everything Looks Like From Here”
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
The UK is going through a media lead nationalistic frenzy, or patriotic as they would prefer, and an uncertain future which could turn even more nationalistic.
I am Welsh living in the UK, lets not kid ourselves, we will some of the ones they come for. Let’s stand up for everyone who dares to be different, let’s stand up for everyone who is Muslim an immigrant, or left handed or wants to speak their own language, or doesn’t want to eat fish and chips and read the Daily Mail, or is ginger haired or doesn’t conform to accepted social mores, let’s defend the rights of anyone who dares to criticise the establishment while we still can.
This would have been a good article if it had not begun with a statement that was not true. There was no executive order permitting torture, yes the odious Trump did say that he thought torture worked, but we would defer to his advisers (Mattis and Pompeio) both of whom were strongly opposed to it, along with Senator McCain had personal experience. I think the executive order that banned people from 7 countries was an idiotic injustice. Not the first either, Executive order 9066 signed by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1942 interning Americans of Japanese ancestry was far worse. When I was living in Kansas, we would take a trip to Colorado we would drive through the sleepy town of Granada, not remarkable in its self except for the sign that said “Camp Amache internment camp”. This was a concentration camp for Americans and aliens of Japanese origin. 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry on the west coast (not Hawaii oddly enough I think) were rounded up and put in these camps, that were inadequately heated (winter’s on the plains are deadly cold) . In the issue of the executive order, it was also Pointed out that this was not aimed at all Japanese-Americans only those living on the West Coast living near naval bases , or other important installations . It could be said that I similarities between this Executive Order and the one that President Trump is issued , that a blanket ban would at least catch the tiny minority, yet just as Japanese Americans were universally suspect during WWll so are those of Middle East origin are suspected in the “War against Terror”, so in dealing with this situation it would be better to look at the tragic examples in American history.
The second statement after the untrue torture claim by the author that was also not true was that somebody had implemented a ‘ban’.
This is a 90 day temporary moratorium on immigration from seven selected countries (selected by Obama) and a temporary stop of the refugee admissions system for 120 days, excepting Syria which IS actually now subject to an indefinite ban. It’s designed to permit the US to bed in better vetting systems from these countries. The order also limits the amount of refugees to 50,000 per year, which is basically the same as the previous 15 years, give or take a slight increase to 70,000 under the last two years of Obama. Read the Executive Order yourself and separate the fact from the fiction.
One could argue that the wrong countries have been selected as the EO applies to current conflict zones as the qualifier – hence questionable as possibly arbitrary in its identification of the real source of threat from Islamist terror, as well as the real sources of refugees in need.
An actual ‘ban’ is what Israelis still suffer from in multiple countries. Ironic considering the framing of this essay.
It’s hardly unprecedented either.
This is just a long winded version of the hysterical, “Trump is literally Hitler” meme. The term ‘Muslim-majority’ used here is irrelevant and inflammatory.
Nuance, honesty and logic are not apparent in this article. Facts have taken a back seat.
Words matter as Konrad says.
P.S. Your definition of liberal elite is a mile off.
The ban on Israelis is equivalent to the sports ban on South African teams under apartheid. Very rough justice certainly, collective punishment picking up many who are innocent. At least the Israelis aren’t killed or have their homes destroyed as happens in Gaza when Israel imposes collective punishment on Palestinians. Unlike Yemenis who can’t help coming from Yemen, Israelis can solve their problems by ceasing to steal Palestinian land and trying seriously to negotiate a two-state solution
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