FEATURE: Auschwitz will stay with me forever
On a sunny day at the end of April, I accompanied a group of 16 and 17-year-olds on a day trip to a Nazi concentration camp.
The Holocaust Educational Trust organised the visit, as part of their ongoing work to ensure that the lessons of the worst genocide in human history are not lost on the next generation.
The one thing I can say about the experience was that, at the time, it did not leave much of an impression on me.
In the intervening weeks however, I find myself thinking about what I saw, dreaming about the camps and at a loss to express in words, what I can say about Auschwitz that has not been said before.
I was invited along by HET as a representative of the gay press, for gay men were also sent to the death camp.
Auschwitz was an unreal experience. Nestled in the pretty Polish countryside about an hour from Krakow, at first it appears like a film set.
A vast tourist industry has grown up around the site to service the increasing number of tourists who want to come.
And they come in droves. And they stare, take pictures, wander round aimlessly, some with wailing infants, others with small children.
They pose for photos under the famous gate, with its chilling slogan “Work Shall Set You Free,” as if at Disneyland.
That angered me. It made me angry for the people who lost their families and friends in this place. I felt that they should show more respect.
It is only later that I realised that the physical act of being there is not the end of the matter, at least not for me.
The young people on the trip were all from Birmingham area, and were attentive and keen to learn about what happened here.
One of the organisers explained on the way home that they hold debrief sessions with the youngsters some weeks after the trip, because it often takes people a bit of time to process the enormity of what they saw.
The displays still haunt me. There is room after room piled high with the belongings of Auschwitz inmates – suitcases, prosthetic limbs, shoe polish.
Although the focus of the Holocaust is rightly the Jews, others were incarcerated and murdered at Auschwitz.
Our efficient Polish guide talks us through some of them. German Jehovah’s Witnesses, who refused military service.
Roma from across Europe, seen as an inferior race. Czech, Hungarian, and Polish political prisoners and partisans.
I had to prompt our guide to tell us about the gay men that were sent here.
She explains that they were from Germany, that the prisons were full and many were sent here. Around 10,000 died in the camps.
The copious notes I made during the trip, the pages and pages of facts, are of no help to me now as I come to write about my day trip to Auschwitz.
Fragments jump out at me. In the adjacent, and much larger, Birkenau camp, a train line was built right up to the gas chambers.
Pre fab huts meant for 50 horses housed 400 prisoners.
Of the 7,000 guards just 10% were brought to justice after the war.
90% killed on arrival. Mothers and children led into chambers and gassed.
I stood in one of the chambers where countless thousands were executed.
It did not feel like much at the time. But in my mind now, it lingers.
The horror of Auschwitz is impossible for me to describe. Words fail me. Even emotion fails me.
I wanted to write an efficient account of my day there, the rush from airport to coach to camp, the reaction of the youths, the moving memorial service.
But all my mind returns to is a pile of suitcases. The silly possessions that we think make us who we are.
The daily grinding horror of the camps, the sceptre of death and the grim reality of people doing what they had to just to survive for another day.
It was impossible for me to imagine gay men being sent to this place.
It was impossible for me to imagine anyone being sent there.
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It is impossible for someone whose life has been as privileged and protected as mine has to empathise with those who lived and died in Auschwitz.
The Holocaust Educational Trust are to be commended for the work they do in bringing young people from all over the country to Auschwitz.
The Trust stresses that in a world rife with xenophobia, racism and homophobia, we all have lessons to learn from what happened there.
Yet it has taken me ten weeks just to get round to writing about the experience, and the only conclusion I can come to is that fragments of what happened are lodged in my mind, like the phrases that jump out from my notes.
The full horror of Auschwitz is something I cannot comprehend, but I know those fragments will keep floating around in my head for many years to come.
See pictures of the trip here.