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Reflections on visiting Auschwitz

Summary

5 June 2009

Mohammed Amin recently visited Auschwitz with five other members of the Muslim Jewish Forum of Greater Manchester. He shares his personal reflections here.

It was a beautiful sunny day in May, and in the trees the birds were singing. It felt so wrong. In this place, now a monument to the evil that man is capable of, I felt the sky should be dark with cold pouring rain or snow.

The shadow of the Holocaust has haunted my life. I grew up with images of the concentration camps on television. I was 10 when Adolf Eichmann 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 from the Frankfurt Auschwitz trial. The impact of their words is shown by the fact that I remember the play more than 40 years later. Also unforgettable is the speech Elie Wiesel made in 1995 at the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, from which I have copied a short extract:

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, Jewish children, a beautiful little girl among them, with golden hair, whose vulnerable tenderness has never left me. Look and listen as they quietly walk towards dark flames so gigantic that the planet itself seemed in danger.
My younger daughter visited Auschwitz a few years ago as part of a school visit organised by the Holocaust Educational Trust. I visited it out of sense of duty, not because I wanted to be a death camp tourist, and I was dreading the experience.

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 building with the railway lines leading to it is at Birkenau.

As I walked around the camp, the phrase "the banality of evil" from Hannah Arendt's book on the Eichmann trial kept going through my head. The wall of death where so many were shot felt like it should be more imposing. The crematorium next to the only remaining gas chamber, which is in Auschwitz, seemed so unimpressive that I could almost understand 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.

The three most powerful memories from the visit are probably:

The evil that was perpetrated at Auschwitz and the industrial scale of the Holocaust must never be forgotten. Holocaust denial is not limited to neo-Nazis, and is sometimes found amongst Muslims. Accordingly I was particularly pleased to learn about the French Muslim website Project Aladdin which builds bridges between Jews and Muslims.

I would encourage everyone to visit Auschwitz. Flying there takes you to Krakow airport. In compensation for the horrors of the death camp, the centre of Krakow and the surrounding countryside are both very beautiful and full of landmarks to visit.

 

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