Friday 30 September 2016

Eoghan Harris: A tour and a testimony in the cold Polish winter

Published 31/01/2010 | 05:00

The tour bus calls before first light. It is bitterly cold. Krakow, the most beautiful city in Poland, is hunched down in the dark depth of winter.

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The bus leaves the city behind. The winter sun wakes and strobes through the forests of tall spare trees, standing like stripped telegraph poles on the snow-covered plains.

Tibi, one of our tour guides, is 80 years of age, but full of boyish beans. He has the hooked nose, bronzed face and hard-bitten humour of a Roman gladiator. He has a tale to tell.

We are so lost in his story we hardly notice the bus is slowing down. When it stops we get out and stare up at the three words which sum up the lost innocence of humanity. Arbeit Macht Frei.

* * * * *

Like most educated Europeans, I have read almost everything about what happened at Auschwitz. But now I am actually here. What do I really feel, standing on the spot where Hitler murdered one million human beings, mostly Jews?

I wish I could say some eloquent things about it being the most extreme symbol of evil. But the fact is, I felt flat. Even in Auschwitz -- especially in Auschwitz -- I must be faithful to Ernest Hemingway's iron rule of reporting: fundamental fidelity of observation.

So what I see is the sun shining on snowy neat rows of solid redbrick buildings, much like an Irish industrial school in a hard winter. What I feel is a mild irritation at the milling throngs talking loudly as they try to follow their guides. Whatever Auschwitz was, it now looks like a manicured museum.

Like most Irish people, I am averse to set speeches and guided tours. So I wander about until I see a big exodus from one building and make my way inside. Sitting against the far wall of a long bare room, I see two young girls, an Israeli flag across their knees, sobbing as if they would never stop.

I walk down and follow their gaze to see what has given them such grief. A shaft of sunlight shines into a gloomy glassed cavern. I lean against the glass and shade my eyes. The shaft of light falls on a tiny pink shoe. A baby's shoe.

I realise it was once red. It has faded to pink in the past 60 years. Above it rears a huge hill of children's shoes, stripped from the bodies of babies before they were sent out of the world as naked as they came in. And then the barriers come down and I find tears in my eyes.

* * * * *

Why had the shoes moved me in a way the whole camp could not do? Ironically, the anti-semitic TS Eliot supplies the answer. He coined the term "objective correlative" to describe external objects which can arouse an internal "equivalence of emotions".

Standing there, I wished that TS Eliot and the other Catholic anti-semites, like GK Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc -- hailed as Catholic heroes in my childhood -- could have been extracted from their comfortable London clubs and taken to see the huge heaps of little objective correlatives: these worn soles, these loose laces, these little leather clues to lost lives.

* * * * *

These rooms of remembrances justify the decision of the Polish government to preserve as much of Auschwitz as possible. And in spite of a flatness of feeling, caused by too many visitors, I found three other reasons for hope at Auschwitz.

First, I went to Auschwitz for European Holocaust Remembrance Day at the invitation of EFI, the European Friends of Israel, in the company of parliamentarians from 30 countries. Second, more and more countries are willing to mark the Holocaust as a crime against humanity.

In particular, it was good to meet Russian parliamentarians who are proud of the part the Red Army played in liberating Auschwitz. And it was also moving to see a wreath of red flowers, laid by parliamentarians from the Republic of Turkey, at the execution wall in Block 11.

Above all, I found hope in the testimony of Tibi. He did more than survive Auschwitz. He held on to his humanity, including his sardonic sense of humour. He also showed his Jewish heritage by telling his story properly -- as if he did not know what was going to happen next.

This ability is the mark of an artist. Art is better than raw reportage in purging our soul with pity and terror. Hence Aristotle's brilliant insight that a picture of a dead dog can draw forth more pity than a real dead dog.

Tibi is a true artist. He realises that we see the Holocaust in hindsight, see it whole, know how every small step led to the crematorium. But that is not how he and the Jews of Europe experienced it. They did not know what was in store.

I heard two strong testimonies in recent days. One was by the Slovakian-born, now Dublin-based, Tomi Reichental. He told his story in the searing film I Was a Boy in Belsen, shown on RTE last Wednesday. We learned that the leader of the Slovakian fascists was a Roman Catholic priest

Tibi's tale is also a singular story. His real name is Zeev Ram and he was born at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains. In broken but graphic English, and with many ironic asides, he told us that, like all European Jews, he had lived his life without hindsight, lived through the Holocaust without knowing its name.

So he lived in hope. When the Germans put him and his family on a train and told them it would take them to work in another country, Tibi took it at face value -- and admired the German uniforms. We nodded wisely. We know better.

Then Tibi took our breath away. He told us that at 13 you have no crystal ball. Like all teenagers, he thought himself immortal. So he found a spot on the train where he could sit for days and see between the slats.

He grinned at our astonishment. Yes, he had enjoyed watching the world pass by. Although some people died, he still held his spot.

And one day he was especially happy to see sheep, "because I always liked ships".

After he arrived at Auschwitz he was peeled like an onion. First his family was taken from him, then his clothes, then his body hair and then his name, and replaced by a number. Now he was nothing. All he had left to lose was his life.

Tibi was determined not to die. He did hard things to stay alive. And was able to welcome the Russian troops who liberated Auschwitz. After all of that, and homeless, he went off to fight for the only home he had in the whole world: the infant state of Israel.

Today, at 80, Tibi is a member of a special unit of survivors which works with the Israeli Defence Forces. Their job is to make recruits remember that while they must defend Israel to the death, they must also try to do so with as much decency as possible.

Tibi's testimony is one of the many reasons I am proud to be called a friend of Israel.

Sunday Independent

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