Auschwitz-Birkenau butterfly, from the husband of Christina James…

09 +00002013-10-15T18:08:14+00:0031 2012 § 8 Comments

Peacock butterfly on the steps to the death chamber, Birkenau

Peacock butterfly on the steps to the death chamber, Birkenau

I asked for a riposte to Christina’s cider-pressing post, but that was not to be! However, by way of recompense, she has allowed me space to comment on what must be one of the greatest crimes inflicted by man upon man. While she has been busy with what she calls ‘the day job’, which has been, on this occasion, a publisher-librarian conference held in Krakow (for the pedantic, this is pronounced by Poles as KrakOUF, with the stress on the second syllable), I visited Auschwitz and Birkenau, one hour and forty minutes away by bus.

On the face of humanity, a carbuncle, perhaps now healing slowly, but sensitive to the touch and destined to leave a permanent scar. Yet the body politic suffers still and continues to break out in boils symptomatic of the same underlying disease. Mankind, disfigured, cannot find a cure and treats, always too late, the symptoms alone. These gross and scabbing reminders of our failure as a race to reach the root of our ills do not make comfortable our self-examination in the mirror of consciousness, but I found, on this, my second visit after some years, that the experience was already becoming, for the latest visitors, too organised, desensitising.
Brick, concrete, iron, steel, stone and dust, all strung about with the twisted barbarous wires; original timbers are gradually disintegrating or have gone. All about, the millions of October leaves are falling, falling. Summer’s beauty choked by approaching winter cold, they are gathered up in heaps, loaded into barrows and trucks and taken away for burning or to rot down. Colour and life turned to ashes. Shorn of their tresses, the trunks and branches are emaciated, twiggy fragile limbs starkly outlined against the sky.
Irony in the bus loads of tour groups disgorging their cargoes and delivering them into the hands of the camp guides. Selection by language. An industry in itself. The cameras click; the iPads embrace the scenes as each former terror is re-hashed for public consumption. Work makes free. Tourism makes realism – ‘No photographs here’ signs ignored as every shred of individual dignity is wrenched from the heaps of human history and saved for later: ‘I was there; it was awful; look at my pictures.’ I have to step away, unable to stem emotion. My leaves fall like tears, like lives.
Symbolism of railway lines, stretching through the gate to infinity. The sleepers are relinquishing their hold upon the rails, wasting from within. Will those be replaced, like wooden huts, to show what it was like? The other sleepers are softly breathing their message to us, the words falling as gently as leaves, and we strain to hear against the sound of the narrative of the guide. Their language is universal. The guide says that we are now walking the same way as the doomed, but we are not. Once more I break away, this time for good, and let imagination tell the story. And then, on the cracked steps to those underground chambers, now guarded by a staunch metal grid, a delicate beauty opens wings amongst the many fallen leaves and flies into the air. The loveliness of lost lives is captured for me in a butterfly.

All text and photographs on this website © Christina James

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§ 8 Responses to Auschwitz-Birkenau butterfly, from the husband of Christina James…

  • vallypee says:

    Your words are immensely powerful, Mr James. I am struck by their evocative strength. What is Auschwitz now? Just a tourist attraction? I sense something of a rejection of what it has become on behalf of those who died. Maybe I should also mention that my Mr Koos has been there and turned away too.

  • Marjorie Lacy. says:

    Thank you for that emotional piece, we have to keep looking for the beauty in things, wherever you are.

  • Tim Ashworth says:

    Very poetic prose Mr James, a sad indictment of society both past and present…

  • Charlotte Sing says:

    Thank you for that deeply felt and very perceptive piece. There is a hard but necessary lesson there for us all.

  • Fiona says:

    This is a beautifully written piece by Mr James, Christina. I love the phrase, ‘my leaves fall like tears, like lives.’ He paints a vivid and horrifying picture, leaving the reader to reject the tourism and the ‘looking in’ aspect of visiting the site of what can only be described as an atrocity. Strangely, I have been wondering whether to visit, myself, but am still torn as to whether the experience would be worthwhile or even tolerable. May we never forget. Thank you.

    • Thank you, Fiona, Tim, Charlotte, Marjorie and Val. Thank you for taking the trouble to read and comment. Fiona, should you visit? Your words here tell me that you fully understand the impact of huge numbers of visitors; the laudable effort to bring home a message that I’m certain we all should hear has, from my point of view, produced an ironic counter effect, with a dulling of the senses – tour ‘mentality’ doesn’t tend towards opportunity for quiet personal reflection and I certainly find group behaviours very different from individual. With that in mind, yes, I think you should.
      I’m interested, Valerie, that Mr. Koos had a similar reaction; tourists (and that is what we are) are determined to gain value and, perhaps, the ease with which we can all take pictures to carry away with us I think makes us hide from reality behind the membrane of the lens. Snapping pictures distracts real thought.
      I’m very touched by all your comments. Thank you, all.
      Mr. James.

  • Hello, Mr. James! Thank you for writing from your heart. I think of this tour dilemma in the same way as the old adage that if you’ve helped just one person in the world, your efforts are not in vain. There will be some people, such as yourself, for whom the visit, and subsequent reflections, will ‘stick.’ Others, less so. But it’s had a deep impact on at least some, and that matters. You never even really know which ones, or how. I visited Dachau in 1989, when I was a flighty 20 year old. A portion of my time there was spent discussing American sororities and fraternities with a Texan student named Tim, who later accompanied me to the Munich Hofbrauhaus where we got blind drunk. But some parts of that Dachau visit are still etched in my mind. I only have to stop and think about it now for a minute and it all comes back.

    • And hello to you, Laura Zera! This is a superbly positive (and very honest!) comment. I’m sure that you are right and that there are many, many visitors who are deeply moved by the experience, with others, as you say, touched in ways that they perhaps don’t immediately recognise. You have certainly provided me with some thought-provoking objectivity to balance my troubled sentiments. It’s a dilemma and there is no easy solution; were few people to go, I might be saddened by that; at least the message of history is being given a wide airing, however artificial the method.
      My very good wishes to you. J.

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