Into The Heart Of Darkness

January 27 marked the anniversary of the liberation of the Nazis’ most horrific extermination camp – Auschwitz Birkenau. It was also International Holocaust Memorial Day. Political commentator, Dr John Coulter, uses his Fearless Flying Column today to outlines his own emotional and nightmarish trip to the camp in Poland as part of those commemorations. 

In 40 years of being a journalist, I have ever only been made physically ill by an assignment twice in those four decades.

Prison hair – a memorial of hair of many of the 1.5 million slaughtered at Auschwitz.

Once was after a fundamentalist pro-life group showed a film of a termination just after we had enjoyed a complimentary supper meal in a church, but that’s a debate for another day. The other was during my visit to the Auschwitz Birkenau death camp in Poland.

I had seen the terrible footage in documentaries about the Nazis’ Final Solution, but to actually be present in one of those camps was a radically different experience. I knew to expect an awful feeling. That had stemmed from my family’s friendship with former Ulster Unionist Party leader, the late James Molyneaux.

He was a frequent visitor to our house, and whilst he could talk openly about his experiences in the Second World War, the conversation would rapidly be changed once the topic turned to his experience at the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany in 1945. It soon became a taboo subject of chat. 

Shoes – Political columnist John Coulter stands inside one of the Auschwitz buildings where a memorial composed of the shoes of many of the camp’s 1.5 million victims has been erected.

Back in Ireland, when telling audiences about my visit to a death camp, I’ve tried to explain the numbers in terms of comparing it – rightly or wrongly – to the Irish Troubles.

Just imagine the 3,000 people who died in the Irish Troubles being slaughtered in 30 minutes – that’s what the Nazis had perfected in their death camp in Poland, Auschwitz Birkenau.

January 27 marks the anniversary of the liberation of the camp by the Russians in 1945 during the final months of World War Two.

Although it was only operational for a handful of years during that war, an estimated one and a half million men, women and children were slaughtered in at Auschwitz using gas, firing squad, torture, horrific medical experiments, hanging, starvation and illness.

In terms of the Nazis Final Solution to eliminate Europe’s Jews, Auschwitz was Hitler’s jewel in the crown of his murder machine.

Execution wall – floral memorials now stand at the notorious execution wall beside the Nazi officers’ quarters where victims were murdered by firing squad.

Hitler’s SS thugs set up two types of concentration camps – a labour camp to supply slave workers, and a death camp, which had only one aim; mass murder.

The tour of the Auschwitz camp lasts around four hours. It will be a roller coaster emotional journey to hell and back again.

Having covered the Irish conflict for more than 30 years, I wrongly believed this experience would prepare me for visiting Auschwitz.

I even watched blockbuster movies on such camps, such as Schindler’s List, starring Irish screen legend Liam Neeson; The Boy In The Stripped Pyjamas, as well as the renowned documentary series The World at War.

Our hotel was an hour’s drive from the camp, but I became engulfed by a dreadful uneasiness as we approached it. Then it hit me.

As I walked through the gates with the notorious metal sign – Work Shall Set You Free – in German, I had to run out again to vomit in the visitors’ centre. My own personal Auschwitz nightmare was underway.

It was a bright, sunny summer’s day and thousands of people were visiting the camp. But this is not a tourist attraction; this is a memorial to man’s inhumanity to man. Indeed, a visit to the camp is more like a pilgrimage to gain a clear feeling of the depths to which man can sink when it comes to the slaughter of fellow humans.

Out of respect for the murdered, we don head sets to enable us to hear the whispers of the tour guide as we visit the various areas of the camp.

No one shouts; no one even talks loudly. Every building is a piece in a jigsaw of mass murder. And the emotional turmoil for the visitor deepens as we visit each cell, each room, each corridor, and each execution yard.

Even inside the buildings I wear my sunglasses to prevent people see me weep are I walk the corridors lined with photos of the victims. Then I realise many others are weeping too at the horrors which out tour guides unfold to us.

It is not merely words – it is clear images; the suit cases of the victims piled high; the hair cut from the victims; the execution wall where people were shot.

Eventually I am composed enough to get my photo taken with the shoes of tens of thousands of victims behind me.

Worse follows. We travel to the Birkenau section to see the beds where victims were held before slaughter. The Nazis tried to cover their tracks by blowing up some of the gas chambers. We see the ruins as they have been left – alongside the ashpit where the remains of the dead were dumped.

Even worse follows. We are taken into a gas chamber. Although it contains a massive memorial wreath, I look skywards to the vents as if I was expecting people to drop the poison gas pellets down.

Then the door slams behind me and for a few terrifying seconds, I experience the petrifying sensation that this is not a shower room, but a room of death. Thankfully, the door is opened and we walk out to see the crematoriums – except the victims’ bodies would have been carried out.

Only one aspect of the camp is off limits – the house of the camp commandant for fear it could become an iconic symbol for neo-Nazis.

But unlike one and a half million other humans, I walk out of Auschwitz. In spite of the warm summer afternoon, my gentle dander becomes a steadily hurried rush as I almost race towards the bus to take me back to the hotel.

And unfortunately, for some neo-Nazis, a trip to the gas chamber has an inhuman meaning. During the time I was there, two young men had their photos taken beside the crematoriums – complete with sick thumbs-up gestures and beaming grins.

But I had been given a glimpse of a man-made Hell. I still have nightmares every January around the commemoration of International Holocaust Memorial Day.

In spite of the nightmarish experience, it is one pilgrimage which I recommend everyone takes at least once in their lives. It will leave you in no doubt about the evils of racism.

John Coulter is a unionist political commentator and former Blanket columnist. 

John Coulter is also author of ‘An Sais Glas: (The Green Sash): The Road to National Republicanism’, which is available on Amazon Kindle.

Follow John Coulter on Twitter @JohnAHCoulter

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Anthony McIntyre

Former IRA prisoner, spent 18 years in Long Kesh. Free Speech advocate, writer, historian, humanist, and researcher.

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