Saturday, 13 August 2011

The day I went to the death camps

I've written here, at some point, about the amount of books and related material that I've read, or watched, about the two world wars. My thirst for knowledge about it was based on, on the one hand, the need for historical perspective: to be able to have a sense of what informed the flow of events and how these have shaped the subsequent decades upon which they still have a huge impact.

On the other hand there has been, in my mind, a need to find some kind of insight, or attempt to come to terms with on some level, the sheer impact on human lives at an individual and collective level that those wars brought.

What this has meant, during those extended periods of reading and viewing, is a lot of exposure to material which is heartrending, depressing, bleak, unfathomable, yet also inspiring and humbling. All this, of course, in the vulgar comfort of my armchair.

Quite what it says about me that I've kept a corner of my mind open to information about such extremes of existence, I'm not sure - but there's a desire in there to try to comprehend or at least apprehend such suffering and adversity. I know that part of it is informed by the sheer proximity of such great and terrible events to my own lifetime: WWII ended a mere twenty-five years before I was born. Long enough to render me at a safe distance from it, but otherwise a mere blink of an eyelid, and still very much shaping the world I was born and brought up in.

It's too neat to suggest that this inward flow of words and images served as preparation for my visit earlier this week to Auschwitz: that wasn't my intention, though in retrospect it did have that effect. But it's a largely separate set of circumstances (not of particular relevance here) that enabled myself and a couple of friends to go there a few days ago.

Reflecting on all this, I'm not quite sure what I can meaningfully say about the experience, yet I do feel the need to express it somehow. There's the ever-present chance that I could write an extended, convoluted post which could be summed up as I really don't have the words. Also, an account based on my own subjective experience feels like it would be indulgent: yet should I try to open it up into more large-scale observations then I think I would fall flat on my face.

Perhaps my own subjective experience, indulgent as it may be, will be the only way I can express anything at the present time. Right now though I feel the need to go out and get a temporary change of scenery.


Zhoen said...

Anyone with conscience will feel a kind of backhanded indulgence in that interest. The need to make sure I am not readily susceptible to becoming a sadistic murderer. Proof enough that it would take dire circumstances to force us into bad actions.

Most of us, under enough pressure, will go along, to survive, to keep our loved ones safe. Very few will lead the way into such a hell. Very few will successfully refuse to succumb in any way. There is no way to know if we would stand against those pressures, outside of that situation. I think it's good to aspire to such courage, though.

trousers said...

Bloody hell that's eloquent. Thank you - genuinely (but no more or less than always) for that. I'll bear this in mind as much as I can for when I post further on this.

I've talked about Auschwitz on and off all evening, thanks to people asking what I've been up to the last few days: I've tried to ensure that it's not been a one-sided conversation (or that it's been a conversation at all if respective people have wished otherwise), and we've discussed the kind of moral territory that you've just beautifully sliced through.

Still don't know how the post in question will turn out - but, my word, I hope I can enunciate it at least half as strongly as you just have.

Fire Byrd said...

Been there, felt it, didn't get the T shirt. Was silenced for a long time by the sheer magnitude of what man is capable of to man, regardless of colour, race or creed.
It is though now something I need to talk about and share a year later... lest we forget.
I'm sure when you're ready for your words to come they will flood outin a torrent as you try to articulate the inarticulate.

trousers said...

Thanks, FB, and I think I know what you mean as in "didn't get the t-shirt". Absolutely as regards your pithy description.

Oh and thanks too for the email, I've read it and will reply when my head is a little less scrambled.

ejenne said...

I think you were brave to go. I can only relate to how you felt by remembering how I felt in Anne Frank Huis in Amsterdam. I cried when I saw the height marks on the walls. I don't think I could find words either. it was important to go there. absorb the wrongness. try to put oneself in the shoes of the Franks.

trousers said...

Hey, ejenne, thanks for that. It feels very current again at the moment since I visited a friend yesterday who has also been to Auschwitz, and we had a lot of conversation about it, and it still has quite an emotional impact. I do still intend to find the words so I can post more about it here, all in good time.