The city of Cracow in southern Poland is a popular tourist destination, and rightly so, since it is one of the very few cities in eastern Europe to have survived the war without being devastated. It was the capital of mediaeval Poland; it has a well-preserved centre with several fine churches and an old university. The future Pope John Paul II lived here. On Wawel hill you can see the magnificent tombs of the old kings of Poland in the cathedral of St. Stanislaus. There is also a Jewish quarter, called Kazimierz, where you can identify some of the settings used in the shooting of the film “Schindler’s List”, though little trace now remains of Schindler’s factory. In the war, Cracow was the administrative centre of the German-occupied "General Government" of Poland, headed by Hans Frank, who was an extremely nasty character even by Nazi standards. If you sign up for a package holiday in Cracow, you will find one day is devoted to an outing to Auschwitz; but this will always be billed as “optional” - understandably so, since many people would find the experience too upsetting.
Historians remain divided on when the decision was made to exterminate the European Jews (or, indeed, whether there was ever one single decision, as distinct from a general spasmodic intensification: see notes at the end). Of course, it is possible that Hitler always intended extermination, though there is no documentary evidence for this (indeed, there is not a single reliable document to show that Hitler even knew of the existence of Auschwitz). The suspicion is that a decision was made either in the spring of 1941, before the invasion of the Soviet Union in “Operation Barbarossa”, when the mass killing really started, or that autumn, when the Einstazgruppen (hit-squads) in Russia began to shoot large numbers of Jewish women and children as well as men. The Wannsee Conference in January 1942, where the aim of extermination throughout Europe was announced, only explained a policy already decided upon, for the gassings in the camps had already started.
There were six death-camps with facilities for gassing, as distinct from simple concentration camps. All six were in Poland. Four of them, Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka, were built in 1941-42 for the purpose of killing the Jewish population of occupied Poland. These were extermination centres pure and simple, and comparatively little is known about them, for there were hardly any survivors and the Nazis demolished them thoroughly in their retreat before the advancing Red Army later in the war. The two remaining camps were Majdanek, near Lublin, and the most famous of all, Auschwitz. They had facilities for work as well as gas chambers: for instance, the Italian writer Primo Levi worked in Monowitz, part of the Auschwitz camp complex, where he and other slave labourers manufactured artificial rubber known as “Buna”. He survived, as did various others, such as the cellist Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, who was a member of the Auschwitz orchestra (see notes at the end).
The buiding of the Auschwitz complex began in spring 1940, and its first prisoners were Polish. It was greatly expanded in autumn 1941 to house Russian prisoners-of-war, who were used in the first experiments with cyanide gas (Earlier camps like Chelmno and Belzec had used carbon monoxide from diesel engines). Mass murder of Jews began there in early 1943, and the vast gas chambers built the next year. The complex continued to expand until it was evacuated in early 1945.
Auschwitz is about an hour’s drive from Cracow, across flat, swampy and rather uninteresting countryside with occasional areas of forest, thinly inhabited. I visited three times with school groups. The whole Auschwitz complex eventually came to cover more than 20 square miles, with numerous sub-camps, but only two are open to the public: the original camp which is “Auschwitz I”, and a mile or so away across the railway line, “Auschwitz II” or Birkenau (derived from the Polish word for a birch-wood).
Auschwitz I is actually quite small, and is now maintained as a museum, crowded with parties having guided tours. The barbed wire is intact, with over the gate the famous slogan “Arbeit Macht Frei”: “Work sets you free”, expressing the notion found under many different regimes that labour is somehow morally improving and can save you from falling into wickedness.
The camp mostly consists of identical barrack-blocks, two stories high with attics, and a parade-ground complete with a gallows. We saw photographs of the camp taken by the Russians when they occupied it in January 1945, and tins which contained the crystals for the Zyklon-B poison gas.
We saw Block 11, the Gestapo torture centre, with its isolation cells down below, in one of which there is a memorial to a Polish priest who was starved to death there. Others were mere tubes, rather like chimneys, a yard square at the base, in which recalcitrant prisoners would be made to stand all night. Outside this was the “Wall of death” where shootings took place.
What really shook everyone, however, were the grotesque collections of goods taken from victims that the Russians found stored in a part of Birkenau known as “Canada” (so named because to the inmates, who were mostly from Eastern Europe, Canada was a legendary land of plenty), and which now formed huge displays in one of the blocks. There was a whole wall of human hair (two tons of it, according to the guide), another wall of suitcases, a third of artificial limbs; great dumps of brushes, of shoe-polish of spectacles, and (what was most distressing) baby-clothes. One lady burst into tears at the sight of the baby-clothes, despite the fact that she had visited before and knew what was there. The overall effect of this monstrous exhibition can only be described as surrealist. We were also taken round the only surviving crematorium and gas chamber, which simply looked like a large, gloomy cellar. It survived because later in the war it was used as an air-raid shelter, and the little trucks for transporting corpses to the furnaces actually came from elsewhere.
In fact, the gassings almost all took place at Birkenau: nobody knows how many, because the victims were mostly taken directly there from the trains without ever being registered or counted. Just outside the wire of the camp stood the house of the commandant, Hoess, who after the war was brought back there to be hanged. On one of my visits I noticed a school party of children who looked no more than 10 years old being taken round. I could not understand the reasoning behind this: either the experience would give them appalling nightmares or it would have no effect at all: neither would serve any useful purpose.
Birkenau is quite different. It is a vast howling wilderness of over 350 acres, surrounded by barbed wire, within which little now survives except a few barrack-blocks in a desolation of rough grass: the other blocks are marked only by their foundations and brick chimneys.
The four huge gas chambers and crematoria which once stood at the far end were blown up before the Nazis retreated, and are now mere heaps of concrete rubble.
(This has enabled Holocaust-deniers to ask what evidence there is for mass gassings). The entrance to Birkenau, known as the “Gate of Death” is still intact, with a railway line built through it in 1944 to take the huge shipments of Hungarian Jews direct to the gas chambers.
We were able to look round the few surviving barrack-blocks, single-storey here, and built of wood or very crudely mortared brick, each of which would hold up to a thousand people in fantastically overcrowded communal bunks while they waited to be gassed.
This hut held Ukrainian women; ten to each of the three levels of each tier. One of our girls took just one look, exclaimed “Oh, God!” and fled. In one corner of the camp I found a small wooden hut in which, the sign informed me, the S.S. killed babies born in the camp by lethal injection.
Even in sunny weather the effect was overwhelmingly depressing, and everyone was very silent as we drove back to Cracow. One of the boys announced that he didn’t want to revisit Berlin after this. I could well understand him - and understand those who would prefer not to visit Auschwitz at all.
Notes: (1) I once had a very intelligent colleague who was one of those who doubted whether there was ever any one single decision to begin extermination. I said to him, “But surely someone, somewhere, must have made a decision?” “I don’t think that follows”, he replied, “I used to work for the B.B.C. No-one there ever made any decisions at all!”
(2) Some years ago I attended a talk by Anita Lasker-Walfisch, who had survived Birkenau because she was a cellist in the camp orchestra. Their jobs included staging concerts for the guards, playing marching tunes to send off the slave-labour squads in the mornings, and performing on the platform to greet each new trainload of victims, who would conclude that the place couldn’t be too bad if there was a band. She finally escaped when the surviving inmates were marched off westwards as the Russians approached in January 1945 (Primo Levi was left behind in the hospital by mistake). I asked her about the comments I had come across, that the most brutal guards at the camp were not actually Germans, but Ukrainians or Lithuanians. She agreed. Her interpretation was that for the Germans, anti-Semitism was always something academic or philosophical rather than visceral, whereas many of the peoples of Eastern Europe simply hated Jews, and relished an opportunity to kill them.
(3) I do not know what the Poles today make of the camps. Outside Reading there used to be a Polish museum, run by a group of exiled Polish monks. The whole tone of the museum was anti-Russian: anti-Tsarist in the earlier sections, anti-Communist in the more recent exhibits. You would not learn from a cursory glance that Germany twice in the 20th century invaded and devastated Poland; still less that there was once a huge and vibrant Jewish community there. I once taught Politics to a Polish student who had come to Britain to do his A-levels, and I asked him, “Back home, what were you taught about the fact that all the Nazi death camps were in Poland?” “Nothing!” he replied firmly