Don's Diary

April 19, 1996

SATURDAY. Heathrow. LOT flight to Warsaw. A strange journey indeed. Read Primo Levi. Reflect on his words about being so preoccupied by power and money that we forget our essential fragility - "forget that all of us are in the ghetto, that the ghetto is fenced in . . . and not far away the train is waiting". Met at Warsaw and whisked to Central station for the train to Crakow.

Will this grey, flat landscape yield up its secrets and help me understand better those questions which led me to study theology 35 years ago? Crakow. Meet up with Andrew (Charlesworth, reader in human geography at my college) and students with whom I have been studying the module "holocaust landscapes" under Andrew's tuition. They have been to Auschwitz for three days and are subdued. I feel as if I have arrived from another planet.

PALM SUNDAY. The market square in Crakow is magnificent, bathed in morning sunshine. The bugler plays from the cathedral tower his call of peace over the city. Worshippers crowd into the church carrying Poland's equivalent of palm branches - brightly-coloured fronds of artificial flowers. Midday visit to the concentration camp site of Plasow. Barking dogs, chickens and children play outside the camp commandant's house immortalised in Schindler's List. Visit the city's Jewish ghetto depopulated during the Nazi occupation. Sense area awakening as tourists follow the Spielberg trail. Standing room only at the cathedral's evening mass. We emerge to a blizzard. In the bleakness, snow obliterates the coloured palm branches on the flower stalls.

MONDAY. Fax college and Teacher Training Agency. Recall my appointment as from today to the chair of the regional health authority: a daunting task set alongside my college role.

It seems appropriate to go to Auschwitz on my own private pilgrimage. Andrew gives me high energy food bars for well-being. Enter the gates of Auschwitz 1 with their inscription "Work means freedom". I reflect on my work (ever increasing) and the labour of those who have passed through these gates since 1939. I chew an energy bar.

The scale of the Nazi machine overpowers me as I see block after block and eyes stare at me in sorrow across the years. Quick cup of tea for lunch before the 2km journey to Auschwitz 2 Birkenau, the death camp. Efficiency, effectiveness and recycling take on a new meaning as I hear that human hair was used for cloth, skin for lampshades, fat for soap and ashes for fertiliser.

Suck energy bar as I return to Crakow. Switch on television and, by a strange irony, hear that it is ten years since Chernobyl, that a team is investigating war crimes in Bosnia and that British beef is to be incinerated. Talk by a second generation survivor. The air is emotionally charged as he recounts the story of his mother, sheltered by a Polish Roman Catholic family.

TUESDAY. Threatening morning Crakow skies: thick snow on the ground. We change our plans. No visit to the Chelmo camp. Travel on an unimaginably slow coach to Warsaw. Students worried. How can Andrew assess personal diaries?

Reach Warsaw with its grey socialist architecture. Visit vast Jewish cemetery where nature is taking over. Our guide opens up a sewer grating and a pungent smell is unleashed. He was told by a survivor that some of them escaped from the ghetto via this hell-hole.

We see a memorial to Janusz Korczak who wrote Ghetto Diary and ran an orphanage until 1942. It still exists. He refused to abandon the young ones. Then it was for children with no parents. Now it is for "social orphans", says our guide.

Our hotel is spartan and I await a call from college with the day's events.

WEDNESDAY. Warsaw snow again. Turn up to breakfast. Andrew is remonstrating with the guide about the inedible dinner at the hotel: thank goodness I am a student on this trip. One student is ill and will stay in bed for the day. Another has a swollen eye so we call at the state hospital. It is basic: more white coats than patients and no grey suits in sight. The waiting students and Andrew are surprisingly good-humoured as we return to the coach two hours later. Treblinka. We arrive along snow-covered forest paths beside the inevitable railway tracks which brought their human cargo. The extensive monument, with its standing stones representing the 800,000 who died, is powerful. As snow begins to fall we gaze on the ambiguous words cut in stone: "Never again."

THURSDAY. Enter Warsaw airport 7am. Students the worse for wear after their all-night vigil at a nightclub. Spend the return journey to Heathrow reading Levi and reflecting on ghettos, camps and virtuous men and women. How can one make sense of the Holocaust? I can now better explain the events of war, but not the ultimate questions. I reflect that today Christians commemorate the institution of the Last Supper: "This is my body broken for you. This is my blood shed for you."

GOOD FRIDAY. Canterbury with my family. The day seems peculiarly bleak despite spring sunshine. Easter seems a long way off.

JANET TROTTER Director of Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education.

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