Seeing Auschwitz: a Visual Journey through the Crimes the Nazis Tried to Hide. 81, Old Brompton Road, South Kensington, London SW7 3LD. Until 25th March 2023.
I have never been to Auschwitz, but I want to. ‘Want’ in the sense of ‘in need of visiting’: ‘The Lord is my Shepheard, I shall Not Want’, War on Want, Waste not Want not. I have long wanted to visit that site, and to have the privilege of being able to walk away. Oh, Salonica, City of Ghosts! One day, I shall go. It’s on my Bucket List. If I went it would be an act of pilgrimage, peregrinus. Mein Pilgerstab. But tomorrow never comes, perhaps tomorrow is not for me. So I put it off. But Seeing Auschwitz is the very best photo exhibition I have ever been to in 63 three years of life. Do see.
The Long Hot Summer of ’76, Westerham, Kent
The first time I learnt this shit is real. I mean really real, not real a long time ago and a long way away, but real here and now in my life. It’s the Summer of 1976. I’ve dropped out of Sixth Form, and have a flash motorbike to pay off, punk is happening. I’m a labourer at a small factory in west Kent. My job is sawing up asbestos sheets. After work I vacuum myself to remove my whiteness, the whiteness of the dust. But it’s lunchtime, and we’re in the smoke-filled canteen; there is a hot drinks dispenser, packed lunches. Factory production. Back then it was considered a form of solidarity to share cigarettes. Being a sharer marked one out as one of the lads, like Paul Willis’ ‘lads’ in Learning to Labour (1977). But I’d been too tardy: ‘Flash the ash then you tight cunt. What’s your problem . . . .’
12th November 2022, west London
The trains aren’t running between Three Brides and Brighton: if I’m not careful I’ll be late coming back from London; we’ve ordered a delivery of Indian food for all four of us for eight p.m. But I’m cooking the rice; although I say so myself, I cook an excellent Persian-style pilau, tastier and healthier than British Indian Restaurant style pilau, and home-cooking that way saves money. The Cost of Living. Crisis. But I still need to buy saffron, peas, raisins, decent basmati. I would’ve been back two hours ago, but the trains. Upstairs in the rail replacement bus it is hot, damp, sweaty. The bus if packed full. A white man in I guess his late-50s looks dishevelled. He tries to strike up conversations with the passengers. I guess he’s somewhere on the spectrum, or low-level or recovering Schizophrenic, or ADHD, or OCD, or just very lonely. You know the type. To my shame I ignore him. I crave the solitude of my reflection. Then I realise, to the deep shame of my right-on ego, that I am ‘selecting’ him. He tries to open the slit of the ventilation window, it’s stuck fast. He mutters something. Guiltily I refuse eye-contact; then relent. I try with window. With difficulty it opens, the fresh air is delicious. I notice my hands are still shaking badly, a whiff of acridity escapes from my armpit. Adrenalin, cortisol.
‘Thanks. Now at least you and I will survive!’ I will survive.
I say: ‘You are an angel’; it was meant as a blessing, but I’m getting off soon so I don’t need to explain. I didn’t mean that as an endearment, I meant that he really was an angel. Anyway, words would have failed my attempts at explanation. He was, I dunno, Metatron, Malech ha-Chai’im, the Angel of Life; Hell, I could do with that, I’ve just seen the Angel of Death, Malech ha-Mavut, grinning at me from a party, a chillout party of Wine Women, and Song in a retreat in the woods, among the birch trees. You are an angel, dear friend of strange meeting. (In Arabic that would be malak al-Hayyat and malak al-Mawt – difference is as big or small, as positive or pathologised as one choses to make it).
The rail replacement bus notwithstanding, I’ve arrived on time. It is unseasonably hot, 20C – global heating, and denial will kill us. The train was hot and stuffy. Victoria station has a Wetherspoons up an escalator to the right after leaving the ticket barrier from exiting a Sussex train. I don’t approve of Wetherspoons. Their CEO’s Brexit ultra-nationalism rammed down one’s throat over a cheap pint, and they treat their staff like slaves. But it’s cheap and I’m thirsty. I finish my pint, taking a piss on the way out; two stops on the Circle Line to South Kensington. I think I know where the venue is, about three minutes’ walk max. London used to have shit food, 40-odd years ago. Unless you had serious money to spend, or you were eating in one of London’s ethnic ‘villages’. But now the aromas of Korea and Cuba, Persia and Peru, barbecue and baking, kebab and curry massage my sinuses. There is a lot of alfresco dining, a big red sun is starting to set down Old Brompton Road forcing my to look aside against the glare. It’s unseasonably hot. I resist the temptation to look at the prices in an estate agent’s window, but I notice a Georgian restaurant in a basement. I’m hungry but in a hurry, but if I make good time at the exhibition I’ll nip in for a quick bugleme – it’s ages since I’ve eaten Caucasian, and I’ve never eaten Georgian.
I can see the venue across the road on the odd numbers side. Sombre plain black and white panels announce it. No garishness here to humour the tourists. The unaware could walk past it and not notice it’s there. I stop and pull on my vape. ‘How to write about this when so much has been written about it before? When there is no more poetry after it, and the act of writing becomes an act of barbarism? When God was murdered, faith became folly? When attempted theodicy is depravity, and discourse decadent? What can I possibly add?’ ‘Can the image succeed where the word must fail?’ I muse that one way to write about Auschwitz might be not to write about it, but rather how the exhibition affected me. This approach would be personal, but hopefully not self-centred. The exhibition teaches, very effectively, how to read image; affectively. Reader Response to a text. Also, I might attempted to link the exceptionality of Auschwitz with the banal, the everyday, the triviality of petty annoyances. First World Problems. But Germany at that time was very much the First World, artistically, culturally, economically, industrially, intellectually, musically, philosophically. Technologically. Already disorientated, I enter in.
Darkness descended long ago; the Winter day, like life, is short. My brain burns to tell, to tell anybody. I pull three or four times hard on the vape, I blurt it out to a couple leaning against the exhibition building’s street wall, smoking. Like me, they have just come out. They understand my words but not my meaning. How can they when words are not enough? The stench of burning meat sickens me, the melted fat of fed beasts; the bugleme a dead desire from a distant dream. Stomach acid reflux. I pace towards the Underground station, I realise that as I strode I have been vocalising blasphemies quite loudly. Quite why, I cannot grasp. I stop and smoke again, drawing in the nicotine deep as the drawn-in darkness, full fathom five. I must be careful. I shouldn’t want to seem a manic street preacher, a bus stop loony, Lebensunwertes Leben. I shouldn’t want to be selected. So I descend into the Underground’s She’ol. Yesterday was the 104th anniversary of the Armistice on the Western Front. The Great War, of course, was a great atrocity. But its ending is celebrated with great solemnity in the UK. Actually, it is not, it is not great, it is not solemnity: the cloying consumerist imperial nostalgia has become a kind of forgetting. Wearing or not wearing a poppy has become a kind of selection, the woke from the patriots. I don’t wear. Red or white or black. Those who fought, killed, and were killed (or dismembered or disfigured, castrated or disabled, mentally or morally destroyed) will always be, for what it’s worth, in my heart, mind, prayers, best thoughts. Lest we forget. But not a poppy on a pin. In the vestibule cum first circle is a poppy stall. Once, such a stall would have consisted of a disabled veteran and perhaps an assistant selling little paper poppies from a plastic tray wherein reside their hearts. Now there is a cornucopia of poppy-themed memorabilia for the faithful. The Great War was not The War to End All Wars. In the Balkans, the Levant, North Africa, around the Black Sea, in the Caucuses, the Great War started in 1911, and ended in 1924. Arguably, the Hundred Years (Plus) War of Ottoman Succession continues to rage around us to this day. Oh, Salonica!
I enter, and am given an audio device and shown how to use it. It’s very straightforward, and all free. Usually I don’t use these things at galleries and exhibitions, but this one is quite good. User friendly. I’ve seen most these photographs before, many times. They are very small images. But here they are blown up into vast panels. The reprographics are superb despite the enlargement. On the walls are smaller reproductions closer to the size of the original monochrome images. With explanatory text. The audio is a simplified version of that text, but still useful. Both the gallery space and the audio have music: ‘funerial ambient’, I’d call it. I can understand why it’s there, but it isn’t needed. Silence might have been better, but the consumer demands music. Silence, or perhaps ambient sounds from today’s London might have worked better: train sounds, guards directing passengers (‘customers’) into queues and lines to await their train, their fate; snatches of conversations from London’s many languages. Very importantly we (there are about thirty of us present in this space) are informed that these images are taken from the perpetrators’ perspective. Once stated that seems obvious, but it isn’t on a casual reading of the images. Many times I have seen these images before, but that obvious truth never occurred to me. I have many failings, but intellectual stupidity and lack of learning are not among them. But until now, about 15.10 on the afternoon of 12th November 2022, I hadn’t got it. Clever old me. Stupid old me. They were taken to create an archive, a visual record of an industrial process (the process can ever be refined), a record of an experiment in extermination (there is always more to learn, Vorsprung durch Technik): their claims to objectivity are a lie, a perpetrator’s lie.
My first takeaway: these are not objective images, an objective presentation of fact; nor are they naïve: they are selected. What if God isn’t dead, merely that the modes of worship have become dead letter? Suppose God is alive and her worship is in protest and resistance? If so, that God must be wan and sickly, yet still alive. For there are little acts of resistance here among the images of these people getting off a train, most of whom will be dead before the film is developed: an old man looks back at the camera, he uses a bit of cloth to cover his shame, his payot have been literally pulled from his temples, the beard he has worn all his adult life crudely shaved away as the blunted instruments scarred his face, yet he looks back at the photographer’s gaze in anger; a boy of about twelve years of age gazes back at the perpetrator-photographer, stares him out, that’s why Himmler had ordered that even the youngest must die, so they can’t grow up to extract revenge; a man helps a woman he almost certainly does not know carry the weight on her back: pots and pans, brushes, changes of underwear, all she has left, she’s sure they’ll come in useful eventually, she’s being resettled after all, her lasts goods and chattels will end up in ‘Canada’, The Cost of Living; an inmate risks his life to mutter vital information to a woman and her child that might just save them; his job is to bark orders at those descending from the train in Yiddish, Hungarian, or Ladino; he’d be killed on the spot if he said anything else, but the talkers’ body language suggests he is risking his life to help her and her son survive. In vain, because they all were murdered within a few hours, but the human spirit, if not God, lives on. Perhaps they are one and the same thing, in this industrialised death camp?
But not all those images-within-the-image are acts of resistance. A late middle-aged man stares back at the privileged photographer with the 1,000 yard stare of what we would now call PTSD. He has had enough. Is resigned to his all-too immanent fate: he has no trousers, but long-johns; one foot shod, the other bare he is either resigned to his fate, or numb to it, as if it were a kind of relief. For a moment I am him. Empathy. I guess:
‘Magnificent, mourned no more, marred of heart, mind behind, married dreamed, mortal changed—Ass and face done with murder.
In the world, given, flower maddened, made no Utopia, shut under pine, almed in Earth, balmed in Lone, Jehovah, accept.’
Resistance as an act of worship. Watching all this are the SS men, with guns, canes, whips, and dogs trained to disembowel a human being or rip out their throat on a one-word barked order; a few metres away from the railway platform machine-gun emplacements and barbed wire fences render escape impossible. Then there’s that gatehouse, truly an iconic structure; post-War supermarkets, the big 24-hour ones, have long greeted customers with something very like it: Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Waitrose – the banality of evil.
A great strength of this exhibition is its pedagogics. It presents a masterclass in how to read an image, read it critically, to empathise, to read as an act of solidarity and read as a springboard of protest and resistance. Reading as an act of resistance, of worship. NEVER AGAIN! We hope. This exhibition should be packed with school trips, it is a must-view for students studying the much-maligned but ever more necessary Media Studies (Why so maligned? There are vested interests at play undermining the young learning how to read media, critically). It is in short an education. My daughter Rebecca, fourteen, herself persona non grata in the land of her birth because of who she is, is an aspiring and emerging artist. I’d love to take her here. But she doesn’t like horror. But this isn’t horror as a genre, it is horror as lived life, of political life, these human beings being fed into the stomach of the Nazi body-politic.
The platform is very crowded, as are the stairs leading to it. Uniformed Transport for London staff select routes for us depending on our destinations. They bark at us authoritatively, but in good humour, with a species of camaraderie. No Hell hounds here. I try to be a good citizen, why should I not be? It would be churlish of me to disobey an order; besides, there are real risks disobedience for the Hell of it poses to the people pressed by the tracks. South Kensington is very busy: the Victoria and Albert, Natural History, and Science museums; all those al fresco restaurants and the smell of burnt meat and the fat of fattened calves and sheep; there has been a football match, Chelsea or Fulham, I guess; late middle-aged and very elderly men in military uniform, black tie and tuxedo, or morning or smart lounge suits bedecked with medals. I can read some of the medal ribbon bars: Kenya, Korea; Suez; Northern Ireland, Iraq, Afghanistan. Bomb-test survivors. I want to ask them where they served and in what capacity. Were they rescuers, saviours preventing atrocity, or were they perpetrators? Subjective perspective, I guess? Or self-deception, denial. Only following orders. I very nearly do ask one of them, but I have become autistic. I maintain the silence of my-self. My hands shake, legs wobble. There were only a couple score of us at the show, and I’m pretty sure I’m the only person on the train who was there. The restaurants, the museums, poppy day, the football clearly are more important. I start to loathe my fellow human. But that in itself is problematic. That’s how it starts.
It is standing room only, but only two stops to Victoria. A young woman, seated, sketches in a little notebook with pencil and charcoal. I glance down. I half expect to see a bayonetting or a dead baby as oven fuel. A Reality of Horror! But no, just quick drawings of passengers who caught her eye. Not me, alas. I fancy I would have helped her carry her burden, or whispered to her dangerous advice. But no, this train offers nothing of moral agency, just an autistic retreat into self. I’m back at the Victoria Wetherspoons, I pull deeply on my vape and really don’t give a fuck what the smoking regulations are. I order the same pint I had earlier, the same beer in the same place handed to me by the same server as only a few hours later. The few hours it takes for a train load of fellow humans to be mass-murdered. This time the beer tastes disgusting. I can’t finish it and leave it to a beggar. I make my way to the Sussex train that shall only go as far as Three Bridges before uniformed operatives select us into different queues according to our ultimate destinations: Brighton, Lewes, Eastbourne, Worthing.
I am looking at some images. This time they are new to me. This time they are drawings, not photographs. This time they are images made by victims, not perpetrators. Almost the first time I’d seen imagery from victims, not perpetrators nor liberators. I’ve read plenty of textual testimony, but these sketches are new to me. Most of them. To my right there are some screens. Benches for people who find standing through it too much. The audio commentary is starting to go on too much; I switch it off. It’s good, but not that good. I need to centre. I’m reading the images and the text that goes with them. It becomes a kind of pleasure to read rather than listen. Then to my right an voice in German. Good, precise German. I look right instinctively. It was obviously a recorded voice, but I had responded as if it were live and spoken. I switch the audio back on, but combining the audio with trying text and images — is too much. I switch the audio off again. I hear ‘Adonai Elohim’: the iron doors have just slammed shut and been locked. The exhibition spares the viewer what happened inside the chamber. Indeed, to the best of my knowledge, there are no images of that. But I have read textual Sonderkommando and perpetrator accounts of the opening of those doors. I’ll leave it there. I feel as if my lungs are constricting. I feel thirsty. I feel hot. This is starting to get to me. At 63 I’m still reasonably fit. Back in Sussex I do four, five, six, seven, even ten miles a day walking purposefully or hiking. Yet my thighs start to weaken. I feel guilty of my strong walkers thighs. They are about to betray me. I have to sit down. Someone gets up and I sit in their place. A Hungarian ex-Sonderkommando survivor is talking, probably now long dead. Of natural causes. This testimony was filmed, I guess in the ‘80s or ‘90s. He speaks clearly and deliberately in impeccable German with only a hint of a Yiddish accent; there are English subtitles. Somebody else speaks, or is their name mentioned? I can’t recall. I’m feeling dizzy. But the Spanish name hits me like a slingshot. It is, of course, Ladino. From the City of Ghosts. I close my eyes, put my head between my knees as if in preparation for a ‘plane crash. I raise my torso. Breathe deeply with shut eyes, breathe rhythmically against the onslaught of adrenaline and cortisol. But I cannot mute my ears: PTSD – I have seen violent death close up, and smelt the gas, albeit only CS. And seen political killing I saw take place PR-ed off the television news. As if it never really happened. This is getting too much. I stand, my members only just obeying the commands of my mind. I lose track of time in there. As one would; as one should.
The Southern train back home, or at least as far as Three Bridges, the stop after Gatwick Airport. It is crowded, I get one of the last seats. Others have to stand. At least it’s not me. Lucky me. It is still, relative to the time of year, hot. The train is stuffy and intolerable.
Global Heating: some passengers remark on it. There are differences of opinion, ‘Well, personally I don’t mind it, shorts and t-shirts on Armistice Day, who’d’ve imagined? We can manage. We’ve been through worse, what about the War?’ Denial. If a situation is very, very bad denying it doesn’t make it less bad, it makes it worse. Much worse. Deny, you’re such a liar. Your war, not Others’; not even the real war since you never knew it, but a mush of sentimental war-porn. I close my eyes as the train rattles on. I realise that I’ve unconsciously put my hands is a position of supplication. To whom? I realise it looks odd. I don’t want to look odd, a manic street preacher, a bus stop loony, Lebensunwertes Leben. At Clapham Junction some people get off, others get it on; still others move about to snatch a vacant seat. I open my eyes. I start to select my fellow passengers: I try imagine who might be selectors, who might be selected. I try to make eye contact with those who I imagine might be selected. Most don’t get it. Why should they? Most haven’t seen what I have seen. Besides, this is all in my head. Some do, and return a knowing look of mutual recognition. I understand that this has created a kind of solidarity. The Gaydar of atrocity. The few who return that look are young, tough, street-wise, selectable in their Otherness. Like the angry boy returning the photographer’s gaze, like the old man with his ripped-out beard, like the man helping the woman with her burden, like the inmate whispering hopeless life-saving advice sotto voce on pain of summary execution, in between the barked orders in Yiddish, Czech, Hungarian or Ladino. Solidarity. Others are asleep, some literally, most figuratively. The train buzzes with Multi-Ethnic London English, Arabic, Urdu, Yoruba, Patois; I hear some Farsi, some African French. A guard walks the isle to check tickets. Fixed Penalty. The street-wise gaze their gaze of contempt. A moral and physical coward, the guard pretends he didn’t see them. But the digital security cameras record their data from an elevated position of authority. The train rattles on towards its premature destination, I want to explain the solidarity we own in our shared mortality. But I sit tight-lipped. Who but a nut-case?
Some English football fans recall a match, ‘We beat them fair and square’. They discuss the Qatar World Cup; opinions are divided, ‘But it’s out of order, look at the way they treat their foreign workers . . . .’ Look at the way we treat ours. Unexpectedly, they discuss world languages. One, with a degree of accuracy, reckons the most widely spoken languages are English, Spanish, and Chinese. His friend says that Chinese is really just a collection of ‘hundreds’ of different languages and dialects. His mate corrects him, ‘Yeah, but when we go up to Everton or Liverpool we understand what, 50% of Scouse? The conversation goes on to Glaswegian Scots, how it’s a different language, then they discuss Scottish independence, with some nuance. It occurs to me that to know several languages is the natural condition of a humane humanity. But I’ve heard it said that civilised thought can only be expressed in English, or was it French? Or German? Or Arabic? Nationalism demands homonoia and unisonance. Atatürk proclaimed ‘Happy whoso can say they are a Turk’; revived Hebrew is supposed to have united the Jewish people, but really it has divided between Israelis and diaspora. Language is not the Open Sesame of assimilation nor admittance to the Volksgemeinschaft: one can deliberately forget the languages of one’s forbears, forsake ummat and emmunah, but still the Nuremberg Laws (plagiarised from the ante-bellum Jim Crow laws of the US South) make plain Whose Who and who is Jew. I’m minded to join the football fans in their conversation, but one of their friends has fallen asleep drunk and has started to drool and seep vomit. The sole of his white trainer points at its foot-ball pattern at me: I see stiff, stilled, dead feet sticking out of a pile of corpses; the cuff of his hoodie says ‘Urban’ something or other, but it is half rolled up obscuring the stitched writing, at first my tied eyes read ‘Orbán’. Besides, even the faces of the articulate ones are flushed red with I’d estimate about ten pints. I’d undoubtedly come across as a wild man just escaped an atrocity exhibition, ‘Hold off! Unhand me grey-haired loon!’ This would be unlikely to end well. So I zone out and doze woke nightmares. East Croydon, getting there.
The train is hot and stuffy and smells bad. Then I think of that train, waiting in the continental climate summer heat, the people alighting, the dogs trained to tear out throats and disembowel. People who had taken a long, slow, hot enforced train ride to their destination, Death. That long ride, people who hadn’t taken a bath or shower in days or weeks, the train bereft of ventilation, sanitation or seats, those who got sick on the train, or died. The piss, the sweat, the vomit, the shit. The struggle to maintain dignity one and the same as the struggle to stay alive. The engine’s smell of hot oil and grease, burning coal and wood. The acrid stench from the crematoria, the sickly smell from the open sewers, the guard’s beer-breath, testosteroned-up body odour, their sweaty feet encased in jackboots, the dogs’ breath and farts. Enlarged as they may be, the images cannot recreate the stench.
I get up from the bench to walk around to try to get my legs working properly. I hear a snatch of the Hungarian man’s testimony again as I walk to a different part of the exhibition. To my left are the lavatories, I had a pee at the Victoria Wetherspoons, so I decide not to use. Then I see it. To the left there is an arrow saying ‘Women, Children, Disabled’, with appropriate icons; to the right ‘Men’. The simple human act of urination becomes a kind of self-selection, or perhaps more accurately that simple choice suggests what it is like to be selected on account of who you are, or present, or as seen as. I’m not sure this was deliberate. But it is art. I’m reminded of the icon on the Seeing Auschwitz tab for its webpage, it says starkly ‘SA’, when I saw it on my ‘open’ bar I thought: Sturmabteilung.
I am now wandering aimlessly. I’ve lost track of the sequence of the exhibition, and the audio-guide. I pass around bare-eared. A display reminds me that Auschwitz started of as a small concentration camp for the politically inconvenient and killable: not too different to camps the British Empire had established during the lifetimes of both Auschwitz’s perpetrators and soon-to-be-murdered. But the camp grew, it expanded in acreage and complexity of function, it was a project, a work-in-progress; it’s functions multiplied: concentration camp, industrial complex fed my slave labour, Death Camp, Extermination Centre. And holiday camp. Malech ha-Mavut, he took a bit of finding but I had resolved to try to find him unaided, stares at me from a spa camp about twenty miles from the killing camp. I look around, holiday camp photos: a group photo, bottles of beer and wine, accordions and guitars, men with arms around women and women with arms around men, sausage and bread, the birch trees, sunshine, fresh air. Auschwitz was a factory, a death factory, a production line where human beings are rendered into piles of useful things like shoes and cooking pans and stashes of human hair by the ton, fertiliser, rendered human schmaltz greasing the wheels of industry. Even the fat of their melting helped create a self-sustaining cycle in the crematorium ovens. The useless burnt bones, ground to ash, were dumped in the Vistula river. You can book a cruise up that river now: in all our decadence people die.
All this had a designer, a design team: the railway interfaces, selection, the gas chambers, the ovens; but also the fate of the living, or at least the minority where were later-to-die, the factories, the organisation of slave labour. Intelligent Design. It even had an HR dimension, stress management, employee wellbeing and mindfulness. ‘Sunny Lodge’ played a vital role in the death process. Smiling faces look back at me, relived by their holiday, by the music, the free food and drink, the opportunities for casual sex. And the fresh air. A stressful job, undoubtedly. But these people were convinced their work had a purpose, not just drudgery labour, but the opportunity to Make The World A Better Place, the demonic counter to tikkun ha-‘olam. Work Sets Free. Time Out.
These images of young people having fun, playing hard after working hard, are the most horrific in the entire exhibition. I am literally nauseated. All this was a process. But Auschwitz was not the only processing centre in this industry of death: the extermination centres at Treblinka and Sobivor made little pretence of being ‘camps’; Auschwitz was unique only in terms of the sheer scale of its killing, and that it combined the functions of an extermination centre with those of concentration camp and slave-labour-factory industrial production.
I wander more. There is a wall of mugshots, perpetrator’s images of ‘specimens’, data for the project management, a data-led extermination, Following the Science: a political dissident, a criminal, a homosexual (three different people, but one person could have been all three, these are perpetrators’ categories); a young woman with a veil is identified by the Z-word, what is to Romani people what the N-word is to people of colour; the word is still in use across Europe, sometimes in the official documentation by which the deserving are selected from the undeserving, those worthy of life from those less worthy, us from them. Romaphobia, anti-Gypsyism, our continent’s last ‘respectable’ racism. A young woman, crudely and non-consensually shaved, is simply labelled Jude. Enough said. She goes on to attempt suicide, but against all odds she survived the death camp.
Not all images are perpetrators’ images, but a different kind of data. In contrast to the data images there are a few smuggled ones, some sketches by a skilled hand show the camp at a quite early stage of its construction, the details confirmed by the perpetrators’ ‘data’ photographs. One shows victims, still in their civilian, off-the-train clothes, attempting to fight back. They are shot at with pistol and rifle fire; the artist has captured the moment of an SS thug bayoneting with well-trained parage-ground precision a man in a coat and hat.
Taken with a botched together camera homespun by the camp’s internal resistance, we see images of women stripped naked and herded into a gas chamber, I think the one in the Birch Grove. The ajar door of Crematorium No.5 provides a frame. The women’s corpses will soon me burnt in that furnace, and the Sonderkommando photographer will feed the fire and process the little that’s left, on pain of death. The photographs are crude and ill-framed, but we can see what is happening to the women, fear what will happen to the photographer if caught. One image is barely an image, the door-frame is at an angle, the camera facing up, jagged lines of a tree against the sky. It is an image of panic, of near discovery. Just visible, some women are being herded at bayonet-point.
In a 1946 series of ex-Sonderkommando sketches done from then recent memory, a trained artist captures in precise detail the inside of a crematorium. A shaved Rabbi, hiding his vocation, recites the Mourners’ Kaddish as he feeds the fire with the dead body of a toddler. His daily habit. Recites it in pain, on pain, if discovered, of being himself processed. Prayer as resistance, like a poem in the dark — escape into Oblivion. Involuntarily my eyes alight upon a drawing of a beautiful young woman lying naked on her back. It could easily have been the work of a skilled drawer at a life-drawing in Brighton class last week. But there is something not right: the line of her diaphragm is too deeply drawn for her to have been a living person. Her drawing breath against the gas had caused a spasm that the artist had faithfully captured – a death-drawing. Then I notice that the ‘dentists’ are about to set to work on her teeth. I feel deeply ashamed. My male gaze had been drawn to her body, not her face. Auschwitz makes perpetrators of us all.
My phone sounds. ‘How is the shopping going?’ The question angers me. I’m not even at Three Bridges yet. The train is hot, and sticky, and smelly. The bus will be worse. Passenger’s bodies crushed together. But the question is not unreasonable. I should have factored in the shopping, I hadn’t reckoned with the rail replacement bus on the way up and on the way down south, I had lost track of time in the exhibition. I hadn’t thought to phone ahead. Tonight’s called-in takeaway is a real treat this Saturday night. The Cost of Living. Crisis. My anger ebbs to irritation, and even that I hide. I reassure I shall be back soon, and all will be right. Auschwitz makes perpetrators of us all. You are my Angel.
There is another gaze on Auschwitz, the gaze of an Allied photoreconnaissance aircraft from 20,000 feet. The death-city is revealed like a map, in all the precision of its design. The structures I have just viewed in photograph and sketch are laid out in two dimensions. It was a very clear day. The railway line and platform (complete with train), the gate house, the barracks, the ovens and crematoria, the birch grove from where a plume of grey smoke rises to meet the aircraft halfway. Auschwitz was bombed, but only the slave-labour-fed factories. The strategic imperative was to destroy the Nazis’ military-industrial complex. All other considerations were secondary. I understand the deathly logic of warfare, of attrition. But. By the time this image was taken, human intelligence over what was being done there had been available to Allied decision-makers for a year or more. The intelligence had been coming in with ever greater intensity. But. The pilot flew on a given vector, took these images, and used the hight speed of his light, unarmed aircraft to evade interception on the way back. But. The photo analysts and targeting specialists were following orders: they had been ordered to identify industrial facilities not a death camp. Such a camp had never existed before, why should they know what one looked like? So they identified industrial plant, and passed their targeting recommendations up the chain of command. But, decision-makers had their strategic imperatives: factories, not death factories. But. If they knew about the death camp, was it ever a priority? Or were those about to die in it mere collateral damage? Might it even be that some did not entirely disapprove of what was happening there? I really don’t know. But. Auschwitz could easily have been destroyed. A fraction of the thousands of tons of high-explosive and incendiary bombs that Allied high-altitude day and night bombers pointlessly and murderously unleashed on Dresden would have consigned Auschwitz and its logistical supply chain to history’s mass grave earlier, saving hundreds of thousands of lives. If not less accurate high-altitude ‘area bombers’, Lancasters, Halifaxes, B-17s, by that stage of the War the Allies had long-range, high-speed, low-altitude fighter-bombers with proven ability to take out precision targets, the Mosquito, the Beaufighter, the P-38, the P-47. These would have made short work of the railway junctions, the gatehouse, the platforms, the administrative buildings, the barracks, the ovens, the crematoria, the perimeter fences.
Canisters could have been dropped to surviving inmates: food, clothing, medicines; arms and ammunition; forged documents, money. But this is counter-factual. For reasons of grand strategy, resource allocation, faulty appreciation of human and photographic intelligence; or for reasons of carelessness, neglect, or lack of empathy and imagination; or for reasons of prejudice, this did not happen. Auschwitz makes perpetrators of us all, even in our Finest Hour. I am dizzy, my limbs only partially obey me. I feel sick. I am alone.
The bus has arrived at its destination. I stretch my legs from the long, tiring journey and pull deeply on my vape. Sainsbury’s is the best bet. They have hugely increased their South Asian food stock. Not quite my plan, but I should get most of what I need from there. I walk towards the supermarket’s gatehouse-like entrance. I rush around with a trolley, gibbering, legs weak, hand shaking, stomach full of bile. I speed-shop and get everything, indeed more, than I need. The power of logistics and project management. I mutter some nonsense as I pay. I lock myself in the disabled toilet, throw up in it and pebble dash the pan. I clean myself up. I down a bottle of 8.2% cider in three gulps. I phone home, ‘I’m done at Sainsbury’s pick me up ASAP. Love you!’ I pull on the vape as I down another bottle. If I hit the kitchen running I’ve just got time to cook the pilau.
On the way out on my left are a series of small screens at eye-level. The idea is to make Auschwitz meaningful today. As if it could not be: it defined the modern day. The first is titled ‘Antisemitism’: despite Auschwitz antisemitism still poisons the world today. The video is halfway through, an Arab-looking man has set up a row of Israeli flags in forty-five gallon oil drums, he sets them on fire. I’m guessing it was from the West Bank, but I’m not sure. For the first and only time I feel manipulated: opposition to Israeli chauvinism, irredentism, racism, ultra-nationalism and expansionism is not antisemitism. Such opposition can be abused by antisemites for an antisemitic agenda for sure, but per se it is not antisemitism and it is dangerous to suggest it is. I didn’t watch the video in full, I was put off and couldn’t be bothered. So I can’t comment more. Perhaps there was a contextual reason for that image? The next screen was called ‘Hate’, or ‘Hate Speech’, I can’t recall which. It showed screenshots of online hate speech. Worthy to expose it, but already I’ve seen enough of that online to last me a lifetime. As I move on the screens get better as they present post-War genocides: Cambodia, Rwanda, the ISIS atrocities against the Yazidis; the genocide of Muslims is treated too: the massacre at Srebrenica, the plight of the Rohingya, genocidal Islamophobia from Bosnia and the Balkans to Burma’s border with Bangladesh. This is very well-presented.
But something is missing. I wonder why I couldn’t see anything about the Armenian genocide, as it has so many parallels with the Holocaust. After the Nazis’ defeat, SS men were not dignified with being treated as prisoners of war, as soldiers of a defeated enemy. No, rightly they were treated as what they were: gangsters, terrorists, members of an armed gang or death squad. In some regards, the Special Organisation, the Teshkilât-i Mahsūsa, anticipated the Schutzstaffel.
There was a similar resort to euphemism and subterfuge in the Armenian genocide, ‘deportations’, ‘resettlement’; the same genocidal logistical diligence, the imagined plausibility of the denial. Processing in a Hostile Environment. Armenia established in the fledgeling international law in the post-1918 world the idea of Crimes Against Humanity, for which some but by no means all Nazi perpetrators, rightly by the standards of justice of the mid-C20th, hanged after 1945. It established the superiority of Human Rights over National Sovereignty. Taking Back Control. Sovereignty. I’m put off the bugleme.
Perhaps the Armenian Genocide was too long ago to feature, but how long ago is too long ago? Will Auschwitz one day become too long ago? Is it becoming so now? Denial. This exhibition pushes back against that. Or perhaps covering the Armenian Genocide, what Atatürk would later call a ‘Shameful Act’, would have disrupted the exhibition’s time-narrative? Or perhaps it was covered in the exhibition, and I missed it. By then I was very tired, exhausted, on the edge.
But still: Something Was Missing.
I hand back my audio equipment. It comes to me in a flash. I stand still as I let the thought settle in, creating an obstacle to people exiting the exhibition. A greeter asks me if I’m alright. I say I am as I let the thought sink in.
‘We live in a society that has been shaped by ultra-nationalism, xenophobia and an intensifying ‘new racism’ for at least the past six years. Depraved Prime Ministers, depraved Home Secretaries, depraved ministers and MPs, a depraved mainstreamed far-right press, and a depraved large minority of the electorate celebrate creating a Hostile Environment here in the UK. Deportations, and the ‘processing’ of asylum-seekers has become part of respectable political-media discourse. This is not the Holocaust. Nor is it Cambodia, Srebrenica, Islamic State, nor Burma, nor Rwanda. Not remotely. But we are getting closer to Kristallnacht than we realise, and many don’t care if we do get there. This is how it starts. Kristallnacht was preceded by a German version of the Hostile Environment. And without Kristallnacht there could have been no Auschwitz, no Holocaust. We have a moral imperative to stop this. Niqāb-wearing women as ‘bank robbers’, ‘letterboxes’; picanninies with water-melon smiles’; ‘tank-toped bum-boys’. It starts like that. Some find it amusing. Der Strümer. If we do not truly we will all be complicit in what ever happens next. Auschwitz continues to corrupt us all.
This is the message that is burning my bloody brain. I try to explain to the people on the reception, but I fear they think I am disturbed. I am. At 17.15 I drift in a daze into the darkness, and share my secret with the couple smoking against the wall. I don’t think they got it. I march on apace towards South Kensington Underground station, and the crowded trains.
Dinner is served. The takeout was delivered slightly late, which bought me time. The pilau complemented the curries perfectly, as expected. I share some details of the exhibition with my family. And my secret. They agree. We watch some TV. They go to bed about midnight. I am writing this until 05.30, Sunday 13th November.
This important exhibition is the best photo exhibition I have ever seen in my life. It should be packed every day. Do see.
West Kent, The Long Hot Summer of ’76.
‘. . . What’s your problem, you fuckin’ Jew?’ Another workmate added, ‘Him, that Dibble, he’s worse than a fuckin’ Jew . . . .’ So corrected, I flashed the ash. ‘Sorry about that, mate; but something about you just gets on my tits.’
The long, hot summer of ’76 was nowhere near as hot as the summer of ’22. Denial. But, from a very secular, indeed hedonistic, family that summer awoke me to the realisation that however much one assimilates, however much one denies, the Nuremberg Laws (or their 2020s equivalents – refugees are being ‘processed’) will win out. If we let them. Our choice.