Bring­ing my son to Auschwitz

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - FRONT PAGE - FERGAL KEANE

ALL night the mos­qui­toes whine, elu­sive and ma­lign, my hand claws at the air in half sleep and I won­der if this will be the trip where cere­bral malaria strikes home.

The heat is of the evil va­ri­ety. It fills the air with the rank odour of blocked drains and rub­bish dumps. When the dawn fi­nally comes I rise and find I am drenched in sweat. So is the pil­low. So are the sheets.

Some­where in the mid­dle of the night the mos­qui­toes were joined by ghosts of old hor­rors. No sur­prise. Walk­ing to the win­dow I look out and see the brown soup of an equa­to­rial river me­an­der­ing through the morning haze. Out there liv­ing and dy­ing has al­ready be­gun. No­body with any power to change things cares much about what it is go­ing on here. I am in a place of butch­ery and de­spair. Of this place I will write on an­other day.

The world is di­vided into the fol­low­ing cat­e­gories: the places where peo­ple vote, have rights, earn a liv­ing, have some kind of so­cial wel­fare sys­tem, go on hol­i­days, spend too much time on their mo­bile phones, see too lit­tle of their kids, fear death in a long-term ab­stract kind of way, ar­gue about Brexit, fear Trump and North Korea and worry about ter­ror­ism.

Then there are the places where peo­ple have some of the above rights and some of the same op­pres­sive pre­oc­cu­pa­tions but are ruled by gov­ern­ments that be­lieve in shrink­ing lib­erty and who help them­selves to just enough of the pub­lic wealth to avoid be­ing classed as klep­to­crats; and there are places where peo­ple can live or die at the whim of gun­men, where gov­ern­ment ex­ists in air-con­di­tioned of­fices, re­mote and con­stantly re­pres­sive, ve­nal and care­less, mon­strously cor­rupt.

There is the world of no choices and there is the beau­ti­ful city from which I have just ar­rived. I am strug­gling to con­nect the two. That is never wise. Places are too dif­fer­ent. The dis­tances in miles and mind are too great. But I have the kind of mind that claws at con­nec­tions be­tween worlds. I long still to be­lieve that while our hu­man ex­pe­ri­ences are very dif­fer­ent, our hu­man­ity is univer­sal. I think long ex­po­sure to war makes you ei­ther very cyn­i­cal or a per­pet­ual pris­oner of hope.

I ended up a hope­less hoper.

A few days ago I was walk­ing with my son through the streets of Krakow, where its na­tive poet Czes­law Milosz de­scribed re­turn­ing “from the big cap­i­tals/To a town in a nar­row val­ley under the cathe­dral hill/With royal tombs. To a square under the tower…” It was late au­tumn and the parks were deep in brown leaves and full of fam­i­lies en­joy­ing the sun­light.

The Pol­ish gov­ern­ment is less than lib­eral these days but the coun­try is free and the cit­i­zens are free to vote out their lead­ers if they choose. In Krakow of the el­e­gant squares and cof­fee shops we walked and talked and en­joyed each other’s com­pany. This city bears lightly, out­wardly at least, the marks of suc­ces­sive in­va­sions: the Mon­gol in­va­sion of the 12th cen­tury, the Aus­tri­ans, Bon­a­parte, the Nazis, the Sovi­ets. The at­mos­phere has been shaped far more by mit­tel Europa, the easy go­ing, tol­er­ant mi­lieu of late Aus­tro-Hun­gar­ian, than it has by the in­flu­ence of tyrants and dic­ta­tors.

But there is a per­ma­nent shadow over Krakow. It is haunted by prox­im­ity to the most no­to­ri­ous char­nel house of any era. We drove in the rain to Auschwitz, about an hour along the mo­tor­way and then on smaller roads through drab towns and vil­lages, pass­ing patches of for­est un­til the rail­way line pointed in the di­rec­tion of the iconic gate. My son is of an age when the death camp rep­re­sents some­thing more than an atroc­ity ex­hi­bi­tion. He is alert, keenly so, to the moral voids from which such hor­rors emerge and watches for them con­stantly in our own time. I love his ques­tion­ing mind. He is far sharper and wiser than I was at his age. I be­lieve he will need to be.

His gen­er­a­tion knows, or has the ca­pac­ity to know, far more about the atroc­i­ties of the world than mine. But so much knowl­edge can be over­whelm­ing. The dead pile up ev­ery­where. They scream silently from YouTube, draw forth cus­tom­ary ex­pres­sions of sym­pa­thy and sor­row.

For all our ob­ses­sion with ter­ror­ism the dy­ing is mostly done in the other world, the one from which I am now writ­ing. And the more we know the more ex­hausted we be­come. Knowl­edge of atroc­ity is no longer a call to ac­tion. It is a heavy press on world-weary brows. What is to be done and how can we do it, we used to ask. No longer. That is what fright­ens me most. The gap is not merely be­tween the lived ex­pe­ri­ence of Krakow and the cities of war — it is be­tween knowl­edge and the will to act. So we watch the United Na­tions di­min­ished by the ruth­less self-in­ter­est of the great pow­ers while a new au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism rises across the globe, jus­ti­fied in the name of sta­bil­ity. I have of­ten in these pages preached the mes­sage of op­ti­mism. I am not so sure now. The global vil­lage is not smaller thanks to tech­nol­ogy. Worlds are drift­ing apart.

I go back to Milosz, No­bel Lau­re­ate, mas­ter of the hu­man soul, and great poet of Krakow, who wrote: So the Earth en­dures, in ev­ery petty mat­ter And in the lives of men, ir­re­versible. And it seems a re­lief. To win? To lose? What for, if the world will for­get us any­way.

Too many are for­got­ten. Driv­ing back from Auschwitz in the dark we be­came briefly lost. It was in a part of the coun­try thick with forests. High trees loomed over the road. Sud­denly I had this sense of his­tory press­ing in from all sides, an op­pres­sive crush that left me empty and dispir­ited. Then we found the high­way and saw the lights of Krakow and re­turned to the world, our world.

‘My son is far sharper and wiser than I was at his age’

HAUNTED BY ITS PAST: Krakow, Poland, is just an hour’s drive from Auschwitz, where many died in the Nazi con­cen­tra­tion camp

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