It was my birthday yesterday.
Just a birthday which ended with a non-zero or non-five number.
So not a special one…
And thanks to all those who sent me a birthday greeting in some form or another – or, in the case of my Pillow-Woman, in ALL forms!
But, for the people who have asked me of my birthday plans…
On the weekend just gone, I went to Krakow with two of my Coyotes – Kiwi Bix and Bega Baby.
It wasn’t a pre-birthday trip specifically.
I mean, obviously, it WAS before my birthday, so that means it was pre-birthday, but you know what I mean…
It just worked out that way.
The three of us were there for one specific reason.
One that felt strange to say out loud when people asked, but was the truth nonetheless:
We were there to visit Auschwitz.
Again, not the kind of birthday treat that most people would give themselves.
But I had the opportunity to go with two of my best women and it seemed like the perfect way to make the pilgrimage.
Bega Baby had an unfortunate netball injury the night before our flights, but like the TROOPER she is, turned up at our meeting spot with a rucksack on her back, a crutch under each arm and dressed to kill (she looked gooooooooooooood!).
Kiwi Bix and I were so delighted that she’d decided to power on through that we were more than happy to assist our little cripple as much as possible – especially when it meant we got to use her airport-issued wheelchair to speed through the fast track security!
Our tickets were sorted for our tour to the camps the following day and, despite the early start that none of us were excited about, we felt like we were already winning at this trip.
We woke up on time. WIN.
We got up in time. WIN.
We got out of the house, bought food for lunch and pretzels and coffee for breakfast. WIN WIN WIN.
The tour started well, the trip was smooth and the guide organised us a wheelchair to accommodate our invalid… WIN.
The tour began with a shock.
And not the kind of innate-reaction-type shock that I was half-expecting.
A real, humans-aren’t-really-this-stupid-are-they type shock…
I had read online that they preferred people not to take photos.
Why would you need to state this?
Isn’t this obvious?
There were a few places that were particularly named as off-limits and some which were designed for those extreme few deciding that they needed to document the day.
But, in spite of this, we got off our bus and were faced with cameras.
There were cameras.
We weren’t even through the security check.
We could barely see the infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign.
And people were getting snap-happy.
“They’ll stop.” I think to myself.
“It’s just here they’re doing it. They’re programmed to photograph everything. They’ll stop when we get in there.”
They did not.
The tour guide led us into one of the buildings that has been turned into an exhibition space.
We were faced with the ashes of human beings.
People who were slaughtered in the very area we were now standing.
Real, actual human people who had lived and were then murdered.
AND A FLASH WENT OFF AS SOMEONE TOOK A PHOTO.
I felt a ball of rage form in my stomach.
“The guide will ask remind people not to take photos” I think to myself.
The guide does not.
I breathe out.
I can release this rage.
I look at Kiwi Bix.
I look at Bega Baby.
Their faces too are stamped with incredulity.
“Good. It’s not just me.”
The cameras do not stop.
DO NOT STOP.
For the whole tour.
Here’s a room of hair that makes Tash cry before she’s even fully conscious of what she’s seeing…
Here’s some cells that prisoners were packed into like sardines and shut from light.
Here’s a makeshift hospital where Mengele conducted horrific experiments.
Kiwi Bix and I were getting angry together.
“Why are they taking these pics?”
“When are they planning to look at these photos?”
“Are these seriously the kinds of happy holiday snaps you’re into?”
“WHERE IS YOUR RESPECT FOR WHERE WE ARE???”
Then we get to the only remaining crematorium.
This is as emotional as it is.
This has a sign specifically asking people not to take photos.
The guide mentions the sign this time.
I fall to the back of the group so that I can enter away from others.
And to keep the hobbling Bega Baby company.
The last guy before us…
Takes a picture of the entrance.
I stand in that crematorium as everyone else has filtered out.
I’m in there alone.
I recite the Mourner’s Kaddish under my breath.
I grieve for those who have no-one else to remember them.
And then I step back into the light of day.
On the bus from Auschwitz I to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the girls and I were discussing this odd behaviour.
Kiwi Bix and I had gotten so frustrated by people’s insensitivity that we were deliberately and unashamedly walking through their photos.
But what confused us was the contradiction we felt between people’s desire to go and visit such a place and then the clear lack of respect or awareness about how inappropriate their behaviour was.
We were told that Auschwitz was the “most popular museum” in Europe – attracting between 9000 and 13,000 guests per day.
That is a truly staggering figure.
Almost as staggering as the numbers who disappeared through the gates of this very place, never to be seen again.
That meant that at times we felt like we were being rushed through rooms to make space for the next tour group.
But it also made me think that people would be conscious of where they were.
Of the history of the place.
The context of it.
The reason they were there.
That night and the following day, our little trio hired a tourist-friendly buggy to take us around the old town, the Jewish quarter and the site of the former ghetto (including the Schindler factory). There were times and places for us to get out and take photos.
But we did.
Because these weren’t the site of a death camp where thousands and thousands of people were systematically murdered over the course of years and years!
If you do feel the overwhelming desire to get footage/imagery of such a place, then why wouldn’t you buy or obtain images taken by far superior photographers who took their pictures sensitively and with the right permissions?
Are we becoming so desensitised to each other that our trigger finger is becoming active once more?
Active on our phones. On our cameras. On our iPods.
I guess this post is a direct continuation of Lesson 11 – a warning to us all not to become disengaged from everything external.
The day that happens, we’re doomed to repeat the horrific mistakes of our past.
And, if we repeat them, we’re also doomed to live with the results – we’ll be the descendants who are left with no alternative but to conduct tours of our ancestors’ atrocities.