At Auschwitz a call to remember includes a call to preserve

The enormous tent dwarfed the camp gate, while inside it the survivors sat alongside world leaders on row upon row of plastic chairs.

January 28, 2015 17:35
3 minute read.
SAM SOKOL works on Tuesday in the press tent set up just outside Auschwitz

Sam Sokol works on Tuesday in the press tent set up just outside Auschwitz. (photo credit: SAM SOKOL)

OSWIECIM/KRAKOW – As I crunched through the snow outside of Auschwitz, the path trodden into mud by hundreds of pairs of feet, I reflected that it was ironic that I had come all this way and was not allowed inside the death camp.

The assembled journalists, some 800 of us I was told, grumbled and complained as we were relegated to a massive heated tent in the parking lot, about 100 meters away from the one stretching over the Auschwitz- Birkenau gatehouse and guard tower. In the heated press tent, Jews, Poles and Germans were united in their frustration that they had come so close but were denied entrance to the main event.

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Those who had arrived in Poland on Sunday had been given the opportunity to explore the camp, but those from the Israeli press delegation, which only arrived a day later, were unable to experience it ahead of Tuesday’s commemoration’s of the 70th anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation.

In the hour before the ceremony began, journalists were herded into the main tent in groups of 100, to stand at the back and stare at the brick tower under which the inmates of Auschwitz traveled on, what was for most, their final train ride. The tracks under our feet were covered by flooring installed as part of the massive structure protecting the now fragile survivors from the harsh winter elements.

The enormous tent dwarfed the camp gate, while inside it the survivors – many of them wearing kerchiefs with the colors of their camp uniforms – sat alongside world leaders on row upon row of plastic chairs. Standing in the back, I noted that the contrast between the tent, its sides luminescent from the floodlights, and the gate to the concentration camp itself, reduced the once intimidating structure into something of a parody of itself. It was hard to connect it to the crimes that had been committed just beyond the borders it delineated.

Desperate to speak with some of the survivors at the site, instead of back at their hotel, I ducked under the rope separating the members of the fourth estate from those invited to the main event.

“You have to go back,” I was immediately informed by a Polish official, leading me back to the confines of the press area.

Speaking over coffee the next morning, one photojournalist complained that the Poles had turned Auschwitz into a theme park like EuroDisney, with millions of annual visitors and even a souvenir shop outside.

It was hard to feel an emotional resonance to the ceremony while sitting in the parking lot, watching the speeches on large flatscreen televisions and listening to simultaneous translations over headphones, even for those of us whose family members died on the blood-soaked ground of wartime Poland.

Journalists who had visited the site in the past remembered more freedom of access – and more emotional connection.

“I could deal with it yesterday because I was there before, but if I hadn’t I would have been more upset,” said one Jewish journalist. “There was very little way to connect with the place and the people.

“Ten years ago I was here as a journalist, and we journalists got to the site early and we had the choice of sitting inside and walking outside and I walked around Birkenau partly alone. There were 7,000 people there that day, but you could walk and be alone with the place. I walked into a barracks; there was snow falling through the ceiling. I could think about my cousin who survived it. Then I walked outside and saw survivors surrounded by journalists next to the ruins of the crematoria.”

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