Auschwitz Today: Respect or Selfies?

I sat last night with one of the other guests at my bed and breakfast in Toronto.  He’s a Polish fellow living in Ireland.  On a visit home recently, he visited the Auschwitz concentration camp, where Nazi soldiers killed over a million Jews, gypsies and members of other groups whom they deemed “sub-human”.  My new friend was “devastated” by the experience, overwhelmed with the pure evil, and with the suffering endured by men, women and children.

I asked myself how I’d ever cope with seeing the horrors of Auschwitz.  I shut my eyes and went to bed.  I knew I wanted to write about this, but my fingers, mind and heart had nothing left to give.

This morning, I went to Google, looking for more details about Auschwitz.  I didn’t know what I wanted to say but I knew something would come.  What showed up was a YouTube video spoken by Patrick Ney.  I don’t have to say anything more.  Patrick knows the way.

I first went to Auschwitz concentration camp in 2012.  And as somebody who had read a lot about the history of that place, and had watched a lot of documentaries, it was something that I was dreading.  But I was also in a kind of way looking forward to it.  To go to a place where the absolute worst things that humans have ever done to other humans, was an honour.  But unfortunately my abiding memory of visiting that place isn’t actually about what happened.  It was the behaviour of the people who were there with me.

As we walked into the crematoria at Auschwitz 1, a couple that were in the group that I was in, decided that it would be a good moment to start kissing each other.  When we walked into one of the barracks where shoes of the Jewish victims at Auschwitz concentration camp were displayed, our guide asked us not to take any photos, and not to take any photos of the shoes or the human hair or the suitcases, because these are the possessions of people who have been murdered.  And the first thing that every single tourist that was in my group did was whip out their phone and take a photo.

And unfortunately, to my undying shame, I said nothing.  I did nothing.  I stood there disgusted and angry, more angry even at their behaviour than at what I was actually witnessing.  Because it was so horrible to see the way that people coming to this place, this terrible place, treated it, almost as if it was an amusement park.

So in recent months where news reports have shown how people have been “ticking off their bucket list” by visiting the Auschwitz concentration camp, taking happy, jolly selfies – people from all sorts of different countries – regardless of where they’re from, you just feel absolutely sick to the stomach.

I went to Auschwitz recently to record a film about a Polish priest who sacrificed his life for that of a stranger.  And unfortunately, on that visit as well, spending two days at that camp, I saw exactly the same behaviour as I’d seen on my first visit.

And you know what?  If you can’t behave in the right way when you go to Auschwitz concentration camp, or any other place where the mass extermination by the Nazi Germans during the Second World War took place, don’t go.  If you can’t treat that place with respect, if you can’t focus all of your energy and your effort on the victims, the people who were tortured and murdered in the most bestial way, then don’t go.

If you don’t have the empathy to understand what happened at these places, you don’t deserve to go there.  It’s not a holiday.  It’s not a special treat.  And it certainly isn’t ticking something off your bucket list.  It’s your obligation as a human to the human race.

Amen.

***

Here’s a sampling of the comments people posted about Patrick’s video and Auschwitz:

1.  It just astounds and shocks me that a human being could do such evil to another human being.  It’s so very heartbreaking.  We can never let this happen again.

2.  Where is the proof that 6 million people vanished from the face of the earth or is it something we were told to believe?

3.  Great video, respectful and informative and difficult to watch at times.  Thank you.

4.  Even as a tourist, tourists piss me off.

5.  Nothing is like seeing it in person although this comes close.  There is something about it.  Like there is a powerful energy that’s extremely depressing.  You can get very emotional if you feel things deeply.  But it was a moving experience.

6.  And how did they get about 24 million tons of coke or coal into the camp?  Where did they store it?  How was it moved around the camp?  Never see any pictures of any coal trains, mechanical shovels, fuel bunkers, do you?  Where is all the ash?  And if the transport trains were in the camp, how would they get the coke in to burn 8000 bodies a day?  Maybe a bit of critical thinking instead of bullshit might go a long way here.

7A.  Everyone’s got it all wrong about Hitler.  He was made to look like a villain because he went directly against Zionism and freemasonry, so they decide to make an example of him.  More that half the shit we’ve learned in school is a completely fabricated lie.

7B.  You are a complete moron and a wannabe goosestepper.  Garbage like you keeps hate alive.

8.  We visited Auschwitz on my school trip at the beginning of 2017.  My classmates normally behave quite childishly and make jokes throughout the classes all the time.  It truly was a shock to me how respectful they all were.  No one looked on their phones, nobody talked loud, etc.  Just looking around, thinking and talking with each other about the events that had taken place in a very mature way.

Handed

It’s time for standardized Grade 3 and 6 testing in Ontario.  EQAO stands for “Education Quality and Accountability Office”.  The kids are far more creative that that, however.  How about “Evil Questions Attacking Ontario”?  I like that better.

Today I was assisting a young man who needed the Math questions read to him.  “Jeremy” tried so hard on every single page.  Often the student needs to show his work and I watched Jeremy sort out his thinking on the page.  While he was writing, there wasn’t anything to do.  So I decided to watch his hand.

He holds a pencil pretty much like I do and was quite deft in his strokes.  But I was fascinated … he was lefthanded.  I had never before watched a lefty do his or her thing.

I thought of my left hand and how its fine motor ability is not much at all.  Any previous attempts to use the beast merely produced a series of illegible scrawls.  So here was a kid who needed some help, easily doing something that I didn’t have a hope of matching.  Hmm …

I consider myself a smart person, sensitive to other people’s needs, funny in my better moments.  But look at Jeremy go.  He’s no better or worse than me.  We both have strengths and weaknesses.  And actually the whole comparing thing is a waste of time.

Jeremy is thoroughly Jeremy
Bruce is thoroughly Bruce
And Planet Earth is delighted to have us both

Speaking

I woke up yesterday morning and opened the pages of The London Free Press, our local paper.  There was an article about Art Boon, a 90-year-old World War II veteran who had participated in the liberation of Holland.  For all these years the Dutch people have revered Canadian troops for giving them their freedom.

Art has been invited to participate in the 70th anniversary of this momentous event and he wants his son Rick, an elementary school teacher in Stratford, Ontario, to accompany him, to share in the celebration and also assist with Art’s physical needs.

Rick’s school board has turned down his request for a 6-day unpaid leave.  And the media storm has stretched across Canada.  The article mentioned that there would be a town hall meeting on Thursday evening in Stratford to discuss the situation and possible solutions.  I put down the paper and realized … I’m going.  It felt right.  It also felt strange.  I have never been very political.  But Art and his fellow veterans need to be honoured and to be allowed to stand beside their family members in Holland.

I arrived in Stratford and was advised to go to Bentley’s Restaurant for a good burger.  I sat at the bar, beside a fellow who was on the edge of being drunk.  Also, he appeared to have a memory problem, as he told me over and over again about working in a plastics factory in the 1970’s.  But I enjoyed his company.  I paid attention to him.  I wonder how many people do that.  What I was doing was nothing special, just honouring a fellow human being.

Chairs were set up in a large room at Stratford’s City Hall.  On the stage, eight people took turns speaking: Art, a veteran of Bosnia and Afghanistan tours of duty, two representatives of the school board, an historian, a lawyer, a professional singer who lives in Stratford, and the chairman.  We also heard from a 16-year-old student and the mother of one of Rick Boon’s students.  I thought they all spoke well, with great sincerity and respect.  It’s so tempting to look at this issue as “I’m right.  You’re wrong,” but that’s not it.

I knew halfway through the proceedings that I would speak when the audience members were invited to do so.  It was a natural sureness.  No tension.  Later, I stood in a line at the microphone, waiting for my turn.  Now I was nervous, but I was fine with that.  Long ago, I learned that the best public speeches are real.  They don’t need to be polished, “professional”.  They just need to come from the heart.

My turn.  In the past I’ve often obsessed about how far my mouth should be from the microphone.  Just a wee bit of obsession last night.  Here’s approximately what I said:

“My name is Bruce Kerr.  I live in Union, Ontario.  I don’t really have an affiliation.  I read about this meeting in this morning’s London Free Press, and I wanted to come.

There are two perspectives here, and I think that they’re both valid.  However, one perspective can be “senior” to the other one – more valuable.  I’m a retired teacher.  I know something about collective agreements and I’m sure that working with them is difficult for school board members.  I know that with my former board, the phrase “exceptional circumstances” showed up in our agreements.  The other perspective focuses on the incredible gift that the Canadian troops gave to the Dutch people, and the value of father and son celebrating that together, and celebrating their love for each other.  Also I understand that Rick assists with some of Art’s physical needs.  I think this perspective is more valuable.

And I have a question: Concerning this issue, what are Rick Boon’s students learning?”

It was a rhetorical question.  I sat down.

I’m glad I spoke.  No fanfare.  No reporter asking me afterwards for further comment.  Just a natural speaking.  I said hi to a couple of people, walked out the door, got in my car Hugo, and drove home.