And No Bird Sang
It was a bitterly cold 2 degrees – warm for Poland in February. The freezing, unforgiving rain drenched Auschwitz Birkenau, where one and a half million people had their lives brutally ended by Nazis during the Second World War. The chilling sign, 'Arbeit Macht Frei' (Work sets you free) is a sudden visual assault because it is a lie and always was a lie. You must prepare mentally for Auschwitz. This is not a tourist attraction. But a place to reflect, pay your respects, and mourn.
They say the birds don’t sing at Auschwitz. Is it true? I don’t know. They didn’t sing the day I was there, in the depths of winter. There are no coffee shops, or stalls selling souvenirs. Nor should there be. Visitors do not smile here. They barely talk. The sheer desolation of the place is overwhelming. To see it in photos or films is grim, but in person it is utterly harrowing and wrong. It is a devastating reminder of the atrocities and the evil, depraved things that human beings once did to one another. A sober reminder that evil still exists, because the frightening thing is that Auschwitz wasn’t built too long ago.
Poland is a beautiful country, steeped in history. She is a gentle country, bombed to bits, controlled by communism, invaded over and over again, home to the most soul-destroying museum in the world, yet she survives to tell her sad tale.
After a very early flight from Dublin to Balice airport, I took a bus straight to Auschwitz, just 60 kilometres away. You can purchase a bus ticket from Krakow bus station, but make sure you book your ticket to Auschwitz Museum in advance to secure entry. Be warned, this is a visit that will penetrate your soul. Here I was taught things I did not think I needed to know. Now, I’m the sort of person who can’t watch the news without crying; seeing a stray dog on the street is enough to drag me into a deep depression, So with the feeling of over a million desperate souls hovering in the heavy grey air, I felt every ounce of happiness drain away from my being. Even the most hard-hearted of creatures would find it hard to walk away from Auschwitz unscathed.
Everything about this concentration camp is horrific; from the room full of human hair which had brutally been hacked off doomed prisoners’ heads, to another room full of suitcases. on which the soon-to-be murdered had carefully written their names and addresses. It was as though the victims simply thought they were going on a short trip – and not to their execution. There were rooms full of broken reading glasses, boots, baby shoes, and toothbrushes. There were baby clothes – cute little knitted tops that might have fitted a two-year-old. A two-year old that was never allowed grow up. There was a doll with its face smashed. That broke me.
There were photos of skeletal prisoners queuing for death, despair in their faces. They knew they were doomed. There was no hope left. The walking dead. I cried and cried and then got back on the bus knowing my perception of life had changed a bit, and not for the better. It sometimes gives us comfort to think that there’s a little bit of good in everyone. To find out this really isn’t the case, is devastating. The memories of Auschwitz do not subside. Every time you see a photo or hear a survivor story, you relive the trip, and feel that awful, bereft revulsion towards mankind. I felt guilty for walking out of the bleak concentration camp – the death factory, which had taken more lives than any other concentration camp. I simply walked out of a place where they could not. I closed my eyes and felt their terror. It was not so long ago. Our grandparents remembered. But we must not forget.
MEET THE AUTHOR!
My Ireland: Marita Conlon-McKenna (bestselling author of The Hungry Road).
‘My favourite part of Ireland is West Cork. I love visiting there and just chill and relax the minute I get on the road out west. We had a great launch for The Hungry Road in Skibbereen where the book is set, which was so special to me. There is nothing better that sitting on the square in Baltimore, looking out over the water eating some freshly caught fish. Schull and Crook Haven and Lough Hyne are just great places to chill and gather yourself in order to wind down in a very busy world. In Dublin city, the legendary and literary Davy Byrnes pub on Duke Street is a must-visit. Good atmosphere and bar food, and it is always fun. I also love Neary’s pub. In the city, I always enjoy Dunne and Crescenzi for lunch or dinner, or even breakfast! The atmosphere is nice and relaxed and they serve great Italian food. Cliff Townhouse and Peploe’s are great eateries too.
One of my favourite Irish books is James Plunkett’s Strumpet City.
The Hungry Road, by Marita Conlon-McKenna is a gripping, fascinating read that will appeal to all lovers of Irish historical fiction. The bestselling novel, set in West Cork, took Marita three years to write and the result was long worth the wait. Read it and pass it on!