Dear Inner Circle,
Last week I lived for a few days in the old Jewish quarter of Krakow in Poland and spent a day walking through Auschwitz-Birkenau. There is no sense in which you could say this visit was enjoyable even though years of reading came to life for me. It's one thing to learn history and another to walk the ground, to climb the steps, to feel the barbed wire and to stand in the torture chambers of Block 11.
I walked from the Judenramp to the gas chambers. It's a tough thing to learn that children were judged to have no utility so most of them were sent to death without delay. It could be argued that death was a greater mercy than the life suffered by those whose labour was considered to have some value. I went to the building where Dr Mengele did his work. I remembered reading how this man scolded an assistant because he had smudged a record that Mengele, "had constructed with such love". Ponder how a person could murder infant twins without a thought but be concerned about a smudge on his beloved records. I looked into the rooms where Sonderkommandos lived. It was prisoners who did most of the work that made this camp run. A fate much worse than death.
For six hours of brisk walking, I struggled to ponder the sheer industrial scale of this place. A place purpose built for theft, forced labour and death. I walked the same ground that a soldier named Moll walked. I'd read of his acts of cruelty over the years. He once made a prisoner stand in a petrol-filled dish and ignited it. He made prisoners climb electrified fences. He smashed skulls and shot people without a thought. When small numbers were liquidated ("small" could mean less than 500 people), people would be lead to a spot by Sonderkommandos and then shot by soldiers. Moll used a soft bullet that meant people were often still alive when they were thrown into the pit to be burned.
These places are a massive tourist attraction. There is no time to stop and ponder, groups of about 30 people are pushing each other around trying to keep to a timetable and to cover enough ground to get a high level concept of the camp's size and purposes. It’s impossible not to notice others on the tour. Some were "know it alls" who wanted to correct the guide on some points, some whinged about the length of the walk, some were overwhelmed and paralysed by what they saw. I was silent. One lady hesitated to enter a room that displayed tons and tons of human hair. She froze with tears quietly flowing. I just touched her on the shoulder as I walked past and said, "thank you".
For the rest of my life I'll wrestle with this visit. I will return home determined to check racism wherever I find it. I will return home knowing that the Wayside mission of creating community with no 'us and them' is one of the most important tasks in life.
Until then, thanks for being part of our inner circle,
Rev Graham Long AM
Pastor and CEO
The Wayside Chapel