On November 15th of last year, I made a visit to a place I hope never to forget. A teacher of mine advised I write something a little more informative than my poetry about the experience, so I put together a few hundred words on the day I spent in Auschwitz.
I suppose I got on the plane expecting to be shocked.
I expected huge, ominous black gates and the inscription borne with vicious smirk - ‘Arbeit macht frei’, and I expected to weep for those that I would never meet.
My visit to Auschwitz fell in November of 2011, in the midst of a particularly cold spell - even being born and raised in Scotland was still not enough of a preparation for the chill. The entire operation was created by the Holocaust Educational Trust, an organisation taking hundreds of school pupils from the UK to the camp in Poland ever year in day long visits. I and a friend from my year happily nabbed the two places our school had to offer after a short interview process about our reasons for wanting to subject ourselves to the experience. My view was deemed an artistic one - as an actor, I’d take the experience on and replicate it in some performances. As a writer, the trip would seep into my poetry. As a painter, my brushstrokes and colour palette. When the heads of the history and philosophy departments were satisfied with my answers, I was congratulated and handed sheets of information - figures, graphs, facts, dates, locations and names; all relating to the darkest infamy of human history.
Taylor and I, the selected representatives, headed up on train to the city of Glasgow for a seminar about the experience we would have. The meeting was complete with a talk from Kitty Hart-Moxon, an ageing survivor of the camp, and a woman who lived within the barbed wire boundaries of Auschwitz for two years. Too say the least, I was nervous. After a quick briefing on the content of the course that all two hundred children and teachers present were embarking on, we were given an idea of the purpose of the whole challenge. A man with several piercings and a slight lisp clasped his hands together in line with his chest as he informed the rows and rows of red chairs and audience members with tilted heads why we were there - to return some form of humanity the victims. Their identifies were lost in a pile of empty suitcases and their bodies disappeared in smoke long ago, and his job was to find a way to remind the boisterous pupils back home of the realism of the Second World War, and that real people endured the horrors of it. Not numbers, estimated figures chalked on blackboards and scrubbed off at the end of a lesson, but bona fide human beings with families, favourite past times, birthday traditions and lives of their own that were taken.
Taylor is a historian. He is always the first in school each morning (myself being a close second) and I’ll find him alone in the common room devouring a historical account, and every week I have to ask what decade or event we’re delving into. Last Monday we were at Stalingrad. His approach to the whole opportunity we had seized was slightly different - a more measured, logical undertaking, full of notes on political movements and the men and beasts behind the mechanical proceedings of the Final Solution. My jotted down scribbling were descriptions of the people we were meeting, and how they talked to us, sketches of buildings and faces. Kitty herself filled up a few pages of almost illegible ink-splatters. She is now around eighty years old, first entering Auschwitz when she was frighteningly near my own age, and was beautifully eloquent in her descriptions. Her hair was a well cared for cut, and when she blinked, she pressed her eyes together in exaggerated crinkles, and I was struck by how routine she found it reciting the intricacies of parts of her story.
It became apparent that she had been telling people of what happened for years - in fact, from the moment the war ended for her. She vowed to not let the real memoir of her life die in a suppression of harsh memories - she wanted to alert the world to the terror she endured, and ensure that we could never allow anything like it to happen again. And I must hand it to her, she has done her part. With a book of her experiences under her belt, Kitty returned to the camp for the first time in the seventies with her adult son, and a small camera crew to film her reactions and recollections. Even as a cynical teenager, I was in absolute awe of this remarkable woman.
With the voice of Kitty still reverberating in my head, we boarded an aeroplane to Poland in a three hour flight over the sea. Then, in a coach from the airport with several dozen strangers and a few new friends as passengers, we pulled up outside a red brick building, a deceptively ordinary looking structure. Part of the hideousness of the whole place was the fact that it was so normal now, so mundane and unnoticeable. Two men were to take us on a tour of Auschwitz I and instructed us to button our coats, pull our hats on and keep up with the group. With thin black headphones wired to the microphones on the guides' scarves, we shuffled through the entry building to the camp itself.