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.