Margaret’s response to the trigger ‘word’:
Solution by Margaret Moreton
‘The word was made flesh … and dwelt among us … full of grace and truth…’ The word was “solution” and was proclaimed to the world. It too was flesh – nothing more nor less – and dwelt among us – full of dread and despair … and yet hope.
“Arbeit macht frei” – so many times have I seen this maxim proclaimed in news bulletins or I’ve read it in journalistic articles, but never have I felt the chill of its impact so deeply, as I stood beneath the gateway carrying its message. My mind ranged through the translated meaning which I understood from schoolgirl German, and which I’m sure lay behind the hoped for message greeting impending occupants. The dastardly underlying meaning hit me and clearly I saw the man who put it there. He who dreamt it up must have borne a triumphant, cynical smile across his lips. A more loaded welcome would have been hard to extend.
What did I expect as I stood there? This epic chapter of history I had lived through. Had I been asked that question in the late forties, my answer would have been different from that which I may have offered a few weeks ago. Even with that answer, I would not have come close to what now I saw and learned. I had seen photos of ‘striped pyjamas’, ‘Goon boxes’ and barbed wire, but none began to relate the choking horror of what was preserved, telling of what happened. As I walked on, between the harsh naked once-dwellings of selected and herded humans, I was eerily forewarned by the chilling silence, of the awfulness of what I had to address as I went forward. No birds sang; no dogs barked; indeed, in the vast openness of Birkenau, no rabbits scampered, no foxes prowled.
Everywhere was evidence of the dehumanisation of people; of men and women like you and me, and of children like ours. Names ignored and numbers used instead. Thus dignity was gone – indeed how would a number need – on demand – dignity? Clothes removed, comfortless striped pyjamas supplied in return. Dignity and individuality were gone. Barbed wire and electric fences corralled all, and all were watched by armed guards in elevated wooden towers. Dignity was gone! Even in death there was no dignity – corpses were haphazardly cast into mass graves, body on body. Unsuspecting souls were promised much-needed showers; instead were stripped, cornered and poisoned by Zyclon B, then cast into an oven inferno.
The stark reality of rows of supported wooden planks with holes over buckets every two or three feet – latrines in a very open communal area – no question of a label or a latch on a door – no question of a door. Privacy and dignity were words far divorced from the vocabulary of the master. The dormitories were grotesque – indeed the derivation of the word was a mockery – sleep could only have happened in exhaustion. Just tier upon tier of stark, rough, wooden, crate-like structures, each one shared by, I believe, two or even three people – often by corpses.
Seventy years of suns, snows, rains and fogs have not cleansed the chill concrete ‘shower-room’ of its awful gasping cries; of its bitterly dashed hopes for a future. It is still there, that aching mausoleum of innocents. Neither have those years cleansed and erased the shuddering ghastliness of the vast ovens, nor the sight of crammed heaps of empty Zyclon casks, nor yet the impact of the towering chimneys.
While I was there I bought a book: ‘Man’s search for meaning.’ Its cover carries the picture of an imaginary but splendidly vibrant bird, poised for flight, perched, on a barbed fence surrounding an open space, guarded by observation towers, wired electric fences and flood lights. I see it as a defiant salute to hope, despite the awfulness of Holocaust – a message voiced in its forthright writing. We all need hope in our lives. So felt the man who secretly fashioned a tiny rosary from his once-a-day ration of bread.
Towards the end of my visit, I became aware of the biting wind and my deeply blue hands. It seemed to sum up and underline the pervading chill; the insidious lack of any feeling of warmth anywhere. In quiet moments now, there still thunders through my mind the phrase, ‘Man’s inhumanity to man.’ I have seen in widescreen, pictures of those words drawn in abject sufferings. May they never be so clearly portrayed again.
The word? The word was ‘solution’. And the solution? Was it final? I think not. I was helped in my aching tiredness, over the last hours there, by three groups at various times: firstly by a party of young Jewish men, then by a party of Irish visitors, and finally by a French family. There lies something towards a solution, with natural barriers down and help given as and when it was needed. We can preserve our differences without resorting to aggression, if we have humanity, nation unto nation.