18 June 2009
The piece below is based upon my website article "Reflections on visiting Auschwitz." It was published in the Jewish Chronicle, and the editor made some small changes for the newspaper.
The text below is as it was published in the paper. The original can also be read on the website of the Jewish Chronicle.
Ignorance is no excuse for the cruelty of dismissing man’s most evil actions
Last month, on a beautiful, sunny day, I visited Auschwitz with five other members of the Muslim-Jewish Forum of Greater Manchester. In the trees, the birds were singing — which felt wrong. In a place that is now a monument to the evil of which man is capable, I felt that cold rain or snow should be pouring out of a dark sky.
Even though I am not Jewish, the shadow of the Holocaust has haunted my life. I grew up with televised images of the concentration camps. I was 10 when Adolf Eichmann (whose ashes were scattered over the waters of the Mediterranean 27 years ago this month) was captured, tried and hanged, and about 16 when ITV showed The Investigation by Peter Weiss, a play consisting solely of readings from the testimonies of prisoners and camp guards at the Frankfurt Auschwitz trial. Its impact is evident in the fact that I can remember it more than 40 years later.
I also cannot forget the speech Elie Wiesel made in 1995 at the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. His words are burned in the memory: “In this place of darkness and malediction we can but stand in awe and remember its stateless, faceless and nameless victims. Close your eyes and look: endless nocturnal processions are converging here, and here it is always night. Here heaven and earth are on fire. Close your eyes and listen. Listen to the silent screams of terrified mothers, the prayers of anguished old men and women. Listen to the tears of children…”
My younger daughter visited Auschwitz a few years ago as part of a school visit organised by the Holocaust Education Trust. I visited it out of a sense of duty, and was dreading the experience. When I got there, I realised that I had never appreciated the physical layout of the camps, or the distinction between Auschwitz and Birkenau, which are actually different places, a few miles apart. The gate with the unforgettable lie, Arbeit macht frei (Work brings freedom), is at Auschwitz, while the notorious image of the building with the railway lines leading to it is at Birkenau.
As I walked around the camp, Hannah Arendt’s phrase, “the banality of evil”, from her book about the Eichmann trial, kept going through my head. The “wall of death” where so many were shot was just a wall — shouldn’t it have somehow been more imposing? The crematoria next to the only remaining gas chamber, which is in Auschwitz, seemed so unimpressive that it was not hard to see how Holocaust deniers convince themselves that the death camp must be a fake, despite the overwhelming documentary records the Germans kept and the oral evidence from both survivors and the Nazis themselves.
But the experience of standing inside a gas chamber still feels chilling today, weeks after the event, perhaps even more so than it felt at the time. Then there was the enormous pile of human hair. After gassing their victims, the Germans shaved the heads of the corpses before burning them, and the hair was woven into fabrics. There is a fabric sample on display in the museum.
Also overwhelming was the sheer, physical scale of the Birkenau camp, which covered many acres with wooden huts. This was made grimmer by the knowledge that the camp was used only to house those capable of work; children and the infirm were separated as they left the train cattle cars and gassed immediately.
Holocaust denial is not limited to neo-Nazis, and is sometimes found among Muslims. Accordingly, I was particularly pleased to see an article a few months ago in the JC with details of the French Muslim website www.projetaladin.org about the Holocaust.
No thinking person can possibly deny what happened at Auschwitz. The evil that was perpetrated there and the industrial scale of the Holocaust as a whole must never be forgotten.
Mohammed Amin is the treasurer of the Muslim-Jewish Forum of Greater Manchester. He is writing in a personal capacity