Karussell Europa

Each day,
Each day says our tour leader
- we must move one seat forward in the bus
- on this second day of the Cosmos tour of Central Europe
Starting in Germany - around in a clockwise cycle
To Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Austria, Czeckia, and back to Germany
All this in a spinning 15-days
- and our bus next heads east
from Berlin - through this new state of Brandenburg,
passing through remnants of the collapsed DDR
as we head across the River Oder
crossing a gulf of bureaucracy into Poland.

And as we stare out at this depressing landscape with its remnants
Of another failed great experiment, I notice chimneys
Belch black smoke - chimneys - but why note them ?
Why here ?
But you see I also
Travel through my own mental landscape
And it juxtaposes Germany and chimneys in a tricky way.
From the conditioning of my lifetime.

 

In southern Poland we approach Krakov,
With an afternoon detour
To one village named Oswiecim by its people;
But which we better know by its German name
- and this you see, is Auschwitz.

When I was eight years old
In a shopping arcade in my home town, Auckland
- a small exhibition named
I think The Chamber of Horrors
It featured old and dusty exhibits: medieval tortures, the Inquisitions,
And in its then-newest part
How man had progressed since.

At eight I gained my first awareness of this system,
Which my newfound (and smartarse) language skill
Now correctly calls Konzentrationslager - KZL;
To recognise the German habit of concatenating
Their wondrous long and compound nouns.

And at that age I think I wondered at the business,
Despite my daily boyhood games of death and destruction,
To maim or kill was normal play, but it seemed I
Could not understand this, not quite grasp
This manufacture of death
Despite its trademarks,
Its symbols of MASS, of MANY-NESS
Of NUMBERS Uncountable

Of the unknowable individuality within these heaps,
Despite the tangible piles of teeth and spectacles, small mountains
To signal something separate and distinct for our History
To record, to mark, to convey that we,
The human race had this wondrous century extended our achievements
In many ways, and also
To acts which our minds and hearts struggle yet
To image for our selves.

Some years later, 1964 and I am in Melbourne: aged 23,
Visiting a cake shop in Acland Street, St Kilda - my arm outstretched
To pay, and beside mine, another - of a woman, perhaps 40 ?
And her arm turns and I see a tattoed number
With a crossed-seven, European-style: and I know its meaning
Even before my mind has formed the word,
Victim. It is no longer abstract.
Yet I have nothing to say, even to think.

Now I am fifty-five and have through the intervening years
Seen again and again the undepictable pictures,
Read the undescribing words
Of numbing accounts
Tried to convey it to myself
Repeatedly. Yet could not.

So now I am fifty-five, a tourist
Passing through a gateway, under an arch
Marked Arbeit Macht Frei - and you see we were not involved,
Well, not directly.

And yes I too knew how this German acronym: KZL
Or Konzentrationslager, was first translated
From the English term, and concept - it first gained coinage
From the British as they struggled
With new problems of informal and unchivalrous war
In one of their colonies: Concentration Camp
the phrase with deeper bite perhaps
If you were an Afrikaner
South African.

Then forty years passed,
and the title translated: Konzentrationslager;
but each of us is German to some extent,
Sharing this world.

So here we are today,
Another forty-two years on and wondering
What to find,
What to sense,
What to feel.

And outside, the structures, brick and wood so much still erect;
Surprise me at their durability - although of course this village
Is depressed. They must make money somehow,
So why not in refreshing history here ?
Where the ground we tread beneath
Is deep-ingrained with ash,
And its grass so green.

I join a silent shuffle of visitors
Through a modest gas chamber.
This is not much larger than a billiard parlour,
And which, we're told, was only temporary
- it was far too small, you see. Soon replaced
By something more
Professional.
It became a shelter, from any air raids.
Look up the internet now and find
A host of entries on this topic.
All the detail you might need on the five larger chambers;
Supplemented in due course
With four large gassing rooms.

Another of them tabulates the arguments since
Over numbers, without any augmentation or increase in my
Feeling or understanding.

It quotes the range of numbers, unresolved;
Here Jewish deaths, somewhere between one million and one-point six:
Can you get this point ? And for Gypsies another range,
Between two hundred thousand and five hundred thousand.
Of course homosexuals also feature here,
Another target group - but not their numbers, in KZL Auschwitz;
Not even guessed at in the final insult
Of non-tabulation. Of non-history.
- not even for later debate,
Nor mediating on ranges.
And not far away
By two surviving ovens, the doors yawn open;
A small grove of candles flicker.
By one of them, set in memory and defiance
A paper Star of David.

Then in another room we find a glassed-in pile
Of human hair: almost all grey or white
I notice, three tonnes of it, and wonder at this colour
- grey or white
And my mind trickles away in some small rationale:
It seeks a cause
- like age; or poor nutrition; or simply daily fear ?

And I sense a problem with our numbing
To the impact
Of this place - we had been warned about
Such an anaesthetic reaction, so I half-expected it,
And yet
Surprise my self when turning a corner I find
A small display case of tiny clothes, childrens' clothes
And I hear one sudden sob
- it is my own, and I am stunned.

It was not new information,
Yet somehow pierced one small gap
In my shielding expectations.

Next day
Our Cosmos bus continues on,
Around this clockwise path, and within
We dutifully move, round one more seat each day,
Our small internal orbit;
Then,
At a later point in our trip we sight-see
In southern Germany
Another castle, another remnant of some older history
When suddenly our group
Becomes immersed, surrounded by thrusting hands
And wheedling voices,
And babies squeezed into crying on demand:
Already warned we clasp our coats and wallets
And bags with credit cards and travellers' cheques
- the Gypsies
Have found us, and we hiss them away
And sigh in fear and irritation, and someone in our party says:
Something should be done about them.

Something should be done about them.
Moving on I reflect at this response,
With which I cannot honestly deny
Some level of sympathy, even if unvoiced:
I think he was American - but then are'nt we all ?
To some extent.

Something should be done about them

Indeed, and in my own lifetime
Once and finally something was:
A final solution.
So our bus moves on, circling through Bavaria
Clockwise we move,
Around again for this bus, and Europe turns
And the world turns
Within this lifetime,
And I wonder what we learn, what do we learn.

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 copyright G D Bolton 1997 - all electronic rights reserved