Wednesday January 27 marks the anniversary of the liberation of the Nazis’ most horrific extermination camp – Auschwitz Birkenau. It is also International Holocaust Memorial Day. Religious and Political Commentator Dr John Coulter, recalls his own nightmarish pilgrimage to the notorious camp in Poland and how it sparks the question - how far to the ideological Right do you have to go until you are classified as Far Right?
|Shoes – Religious Commentator Dr 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.|
Having been a journalist reporting on Ireland, north and south, for over 40 years, it never ceases to alarm me at just how politically astute the so-called Far Right can be at developing an agenda which is used to hijack causes.Indeed, last November, I penned an article for The Pensive Quill on my experiences reporting on the Far Right.
President Biden may be safely installed into the Oval Office in Washington, but while I’m not a gambling person, I’d put heavy money that a lot of his domestic policy will have to deal with confronting the ideology of Trumpism. As one Irish republican politician once noted: “They haven’t gone away, you know!”
Likewise, whilst my article on The Pensive Quill dealt with my experiences reporting on the Far Right in Northern Ireland, an excellent article by Christine O’Mahony has exposed the dangers of the Far Right in the Irish Republic,
However, if there is one lesson that I have learned as a Presbyterian minister’s son during my own personal spiritual journey, it is that the tongue can be a deadly weapon. Words spoken can lead to devastating actions.
And as we approach International Holocaust Memorial Day, if ever we needed a lesson on how radical words can result in catastrophic Far Right actions, we need only take a pilgrimage to Auschwitz. For me, yes, it was a pilgrimage, not a trip or a tourist event. That would be an insult to the memory of those butchered in that camp.
I’ve talked about this nightmare pilgrimage before - I make no apology for talking about it again, given past scenes we have witnessed in the United States where Far Right activists have clearly infiltrated Trumpism.
Just imagine the 3,500 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.
Wednesday marks the anniversary of the liberation of the camp by the Russians in 1945 during the final months of World War 2.
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 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.
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 as a reporter since 1978, 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 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 ash pit 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 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 - and how the rhetoric of a wee Austrian corporal became a blueprint for Far Right genocide.
But folk need to be on the alert today. Hitler and many of his Nazi thugs may be long since dead, but his ideology still lives on. The Far Right is always looking for causes to hijack.
Some try to slip in via the pro-life stance; for others, it is about the Covid 19 pandemic restrictions.
Indeed, there have even been allegations the Far Right is trying to target the LGBTQ+ community via the new generation of street evangelists given the coronavirus restrictions on places of worship.
|Follow Dr John Coulter on Twitter @JohnAHCoulter|
Listen to Dr John Coulter’s religious show, Call In Coulter, every Saturday morning around 9.30 am on Belfast’s Christian radio station, Sunshine 1049 FM, or listen online at www.thisissunshine.com