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New Europe

Day One Hundred and Four: Oswiecim

Michael Palin - New EuropeThe site chosen was the village of Brzezinka (Birkenau in German), less than 2 miles from Oswiecim. Having removed the inhabitants and knocked down their houses (carefully reusing the bricks to build the new camp) the SS and their forced labourers built Auschwitz II-Birkenau, 300 accommodation sheds covering 170 hectares of boggy countryside. Much of the camp has been preserved and the long gatehouse with its pitched and tiled roof and central watchtower with the railway line running through it is grimly familiar from documentaries and films like Schindler's List.

I had always imagined this dreadful place to be utterly isolated in some apocryphal landscape, yet there are houses not half a mile from the camp, and quite substantial houses too, with balconies that look out at the evening sun and the perimeter fence beyond which over a million people were murdered.

I walk along the railway line that leads deep into the camp. It comes to an end beside the remains of the five gas chambers, half-destroyed by the retreating Germans. Each one was three times bigger than any at Auschwitz I, and by 1944 they were killing up to 7,000 people a day from all over Europe and the USSR. Today, school parties scramble around over grassy banks whose earth is mixed with the ashes of those who died here. Beyond a line of trees, I can see the roof of a farmhouse.

The fact that the Auschwitz camps remain open as museums is surely right, but to walk through them is still an aseptic experience. The cries and screams of separated families, the visceral malodour of so many people squeezed into such little space, the stench of the crematoria, the sheer corrosive pain of the place, can only be re-created in the mind. Being here shocked and saddened me, and the physical evidence of Auschwitz should be there for ever, but Primo Levi's If This Is a Man told me infinitely more of what it must have been like.

The really troubling thought, that I can't leave behind, is that I was alive when the worst of this was happening. It makes a mockery of civilisation.
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  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day One Hundred and Four: Oswiecim
  • Country/sea: Poland
  • Place: Oświęcim
  • Book page no: 246

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