Europa Europa: a terrible banality
I have just returned from Krakow – as part of a delegation to Auschwitz that we at the European Jewish Association organized for 160 education ministers and parliamentarians from across Europe to mark Kristallnacht’s 83rd birthday.
Why link Kristallnacht to Auschwitz? As I explained to a reporter, it was important to show what started with broken windows and burnt down synagogues led in just a few short years.
For many participants, it was their first time there. And they were deeply moved. As for me, having been before, I watched their reactions with interest – and, if I’m honest, bewildered. Because the word that best sums me up, the word that makes me sick deep in my stomach, is how ‘ordinary’ it is.
When I was a child, like most of us, I grew up with the Holocaust. It was like the foie gras in my family, stuck in my throat whether I like it or not. Sometimes I wanted to cover my ears. Because I regarded it as an unspeakable horror, and I just couldn’t figure out the “why”.
What was so different about me and my family that we could, in the space of living memory, be so completely put aside by society? Completely destroyed, dehumanized, thrown into the fire?
These questions still haunt me, and every time I am in this particular part of Poland they are magnified. Part of it is because, when I’m there, I understand how it happened. And it is related in this sense of “the ordinary”.
I don’t know what the Gates of Hell must look like, but if you close your eyes and try to imagine it, I guess you won’t imagine the bucolic countryside that surrounds it; nearby McDonald’s drive-thru; parents pushing their children in the streets in strollers; kids were prowling around bus stops trying to look cool and old people chatting outside the shops.
The Gates of Hell has a parking lot, a pizza place across the road, and students in tight leggings and Ugg boots chewing gum while waiting to peek inside. Our Jewish zero point, literally the site of our worst nightmare, is an ordinary place. Right next to Auschwitz and Birkenau are houses, shops, a playground, bored dogs barking at cars, the half-built brick barbecue in a front garden that has never been completely finished. Ordinary.
Auschwitz terrifies me, but not because of what happened inside those gates. Like I said, I know the horrors, I grew up with them. No, it’s so terrifying because of what happened outside of them, so close, so palpable. Within sight is a city where, even during the harsh and brutal years of war, life went on. Couldn’t they feel the bodies burning? Couldn’t they see the trains coming?
This is what I cannot reconcile at all. How ordinary life could go on when our lives were dying out.
I think WH Auden had this feeling when he wrote “stop all the clocks, cut the phone” about the funeral of a person so close to him:
Stop all the clocks, turn off the phone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Take out the coffin, let the mourners come.
The Shoah is so visceral. So raw, so painful to face that I think (and hope) that many Jews feel like Auden to his dear friend. This life can never get back to normal because of it.
And yet it is.
That scares me. It scares me that people can eat their margherita pizza in front of the Auschwitz museum after the tour is over.
It also scares me that surrounded by this banality, like all these years ago, Auschwitz-Birkenau and what it represents is not powerful enough.
I want him to scream and yell at people. I want it to be sorry. I want it to be frozen in time. I don’t want to see an H&M and kebab store nearby. I want this to be hell for everyone who perished there, and hell for the Jews who visit it today.
The banality of Auschwitz-Birkenau – for me anyway – is dangerous. This tells me that anti-Semitism may continue to rise, even if tourists continue to walk through those doors seemingly without learning anything – and worse yet, go back to football and order another drink to go with their kebab afterward.
Would they leave their kebabs for us today if the windows started breaking again? Ordinary life then continued. I fear the same is true today. The Auschwitz ordinary testifies to this terrifying possibility.