It was late afternoon in Poland, and although the shadows were beginning to lengthen, the Spring air was still warm. I was sitting on a wooden bench, ankle deep in lush grass, its green blanket scattered with bright yellow dandelions. Tall trees sported soft new growth, which cast dappled shade across the copse. Frogs were croaking from their grassy hideouts near the edge of a small, reed-fringed pond. I watched as a heron landed next to the water, poked around awhile, then lifted off again. After touring the main areas of the Birkenau Concentration Camp, and learning of the horrors that occurred there, it was a relief to find a patch of tranquil nature. There in the north-east corner of the Camp, away from the surviving buildings and large tour groups, it was quiet save for the sounds of the forest.
After a while I became aware of movement behind me, and turned to see a small figure approaching. It was a girl, who must have been about six years old. I was suprised as I had seen only a couple of kids in amongst the many visitors to Birkenau that afternoon. She was wearing a checked dress, a white hairband, and a pair of what looked like oversized pale-coloured boots. ‘Hello,’ she called out, walking up to the bench and plonking her little self down beside me. ‘Hello,’ I replied. ‘My name’s Hannah,’ she said. ‘Nice to meet you Hannah, my name’s Jim.’
Hannah started swinging her little stick legs back and forth, her big boots looking like pendulums as they skimmed the top of the grass. With her hands clasped together in her lap, she asked in accented but clear English: ‘Where are you from, Jim?’ ‘I’m from Australia,’ I replied. ‘Australia! But that’s so far away!’ she gasped, open-mouthed. ‘Everyone in Europe says that!’ I laughed. ‘Well yeah it is, but you just sit in a plane for ages and then you arrive. It’s not as if you have to walk.’ Hannah giggled. ‘Where are you from Hannah?’ ‘Poland.’ ‘Oh right! Where abouts?’ ‘Krakow.’ ‘I was just in Krakow. It’s a nice city’.
I looked around for Hannah’s parents, but there didn’t seem to be anyone else around. ‘Are you here by yourself Hannah?’ I asked. ‘Oh no, my family is here too.’ ‘Oh…ok…’ She seemed a very confident kid, but it was odd that her folks would just let her wander off by herself. Then Hannah stopped swinging, grasped the end of the bench with her hands, turned to me and asked: ‘Why did you come here?’ I was a little taken aback. It was an unusual question to be asked by a six – or something – year old. ‘Well…I…I think it’s important to know about history. And not just the nice bits. You’ve gotta know the bad bits too. Otherwise you don’t understand the whole story. What happened here was so awful…it’s important that we remember.’ Hannah blinked her dark eyes, then gave a little nod.
Her next question was also a little strange, but I guess it made sense in the context: ‘Are you Jewish?’ ‘No,’ I said. ‘But I’ve seen a lot of people from Israel here today. Many seem to have come in big tour groups; they are all wearing the same white polo shirts,’ I said. ‘I’ve seen some people carrying Israeli flags, too. Are you Jewish Hannah?’ ‘Yes,’ she replied, nodding. ‘Oh…’ was all I managed. ‘I….I’m…’ I looked at her and shook my head, unable to find any words, not even for a little kid. She gave a half-smile and nodded, freeing me from my awkwardness. We both looked toward the pond, where unseen little creatures were making concentric circles in the still of the surface.
‘I’m going now,’ announced Hannah, standing up from the bench and smoothing her chequered dress. ‘Oh, ok Hannah, it was nice chatting to you.’ She started to walk back along the narrow track, but stopped after a few paces, and turned around. ‘Don’t forget me,’ she said. ‘I won’t,’ I replied, thinking what a nice but odd little kid she was as I watched her disappear behind the trees.
I figured I should be making my way back too. I wasn’t sure when they closed the camp to visitors of an evening, but assumed it must be fairly soon. I stood up and walked back to the path, and found two information panels with text and photos which I hadn’t noticed when I arrived. The words began: ‘Jews selected for immediate death awaited in this clump of trees for entrance to the undressing room and the gas chamber’. Where I had sat enjoying the warm afternoon, hundreds of thousands of people had waited for the orders that would send them to an agonising death. With a heavy heart, I made my way back along the dusty, stony road, leaving behind the beautiful little copse and the ghosts of Birkenou.
The title of this post is taken from a poem by Wilfred Owen. Although Second Lieutenant Owen’s poem has a different theme, his writing came to mind when I was wondering what to call this post.
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