Wednesday 16 May 2012

Crowd control, deutscherweise

I bought my first pair of shoes, with saved-up pocket money, when I was about 10. They were red: I like red shoes, and I’ve always had at least one pair in my wardrobe since. I saw red shoes today, small splashes of colour in a sea of dull brown, a long, long heap of 70 year-old shoes, doubled on the other side of the room to make, apparently, 43,000. Pairs or singles? Doesn’t matter.

There were so many big numbers at Auschwitz today, 6 million being the biggest – but the small numbers were impressive too, in their way. The one month Helena lived after arriving at the camp; the mere hours most of the Jews lived there, sent straight to the gas chamber on arrival, deemed unfit for work; the twenty minutes it took for the Zyklon B gas to kill a roomful of naked people.

The camp is intact. The brick barracks are neat, the grass between them trimmed. The electric fencing is tight, still ironically labelled ‘Vorsicht – Lebensgefahr’. The flowers in front of the Death Wall are fresh, the trees surrounding the chimney from the gas ovens covered in lime green new leaves. The steps down to the basement cells are very worn, though – that happens after 60 years of visitors, a million-plus every year. It was busy today, thousands shuffling through the halls, eyes everywhere, silent mostly.

The recycling was impressive too. The gold teeth melted down, the hair cut off and woven into cloth, all the belongings, 50kg per person, carefully sorted. Very efficient, the whole operation, especially the mug-shots labelled with name, ID number, dates of birth, arrival, death. Not so the two simple angled wooden posts near the Wall of Death, though, the ones with the hooks: for hanging people by their hands, tied behind their backs, to dislocate their shoulders as a punishment. They couldn’t work after that, so they were killed. Seemed like an uncharacteristic waste of time, to me.

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