Broadcaster Nick Ferrari was shown around Auschwitz by Shoah survivor Arek Hersh, for a series of pieces to be aired on his LBC show next week. This is his personal account of a harrowing day…
NOTHING. Absolutely nothing on this planet, or probably any other, can prepare you for a visit to Auschwitz.
Forget even the darkest, most ghoulish offering Hollywood has ever produced.
Look at the grim watchtowers, the railway tracks now mercifully empty, save for one rusting cattle truck left as a permanent reminder, or even walk the rough, uneven cinder path that was to be the last walk on earth for more than one million victims in this desolate and forbidding corner of Poland, and soon you become aware this is truly beyond the stuff of nightmares.
There are many books about the Holocaust and about Auschwitz, written by learned professors, scholars, historians and, in a few cases (unsurprisingly), survivors.
As someone who had read some of them and studied to a degree this period of history, the time I was to spend being taken around Auschwitz by someone who was there and survived, was to show that nothing you can read, watch or in truth even imagine, comes close to capturing the brutal, heartless, sadistic and ruthless efficiency that was brought to running the death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Last Sunday’s trip was to record a series of pieces to run on my LBC radio breakfast show and, to ensure listeners got as much of an insight into the horrific set up as possible, we arranged to have Arek Hersh as a tour guide.
Born in Poland, Mr Hersh was taken to his first concentration camp when he was aged just 11 and was moved through several more before arriving at Auschwitz.
By a bizarre twist of fate, we were to take him back to the camp on the very same day in January he had managed to walk out of the gates exactly 70 years earlier, and started out on what became known as the death march.
As we arrived at the gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau and got out of our cab, it was a bracing zero degrees in temperature and snow lay on the ground.
Acutely aware of the weather and his age (although he totally belies it and left me trailing in his impressive wake in our time together) I politely asked Mr Hersh if he was comfortable to tramp over icy tracks and snowy fields, and his gentle reply was to instantly set the tone for the entire day.
“Of course, thank you, I’ll be just fine. But you might need to wrap up. The day I got out of here, it was minus 22 degrees, there was thick snow and I was in just those thin, striped suits they made us wear,” he said.
Next happened something that matches anything I can recall in a journalistic career that spans more then three decades and includes meeting two US presidents, most of the British Royal family, including Princess Diana, more politicians than is probably healthy and just about every big name star including Elizabeth Taylor and Madonna.
At the gates to the camp, we were behind a group who had travelled from Argentina and it was immediately apparent had been denied entry.
Mr Hersh spoke urgently but politely in Polish and within minutes had charmed the guard into allowing us through the gates.
So, for the next four hours, this extraordinary man with his loving granddaughter, my producer and I had an Auschwitz shrouded in a chilling mist all to ourselves.
We stood at the very spot where he had managed to sneak from the line that was destined for the gas chambers into the line of those deemed to be of use to the Germans.
“I had learnt by watching at other places never to get in the line with elderly people and young children. I was put there at first, but managed to dodge across to the other line with a friend when the SS guards seized a baby from a young mother’s arms so they could keep her and have the baby muddled,” Mr Hersh explained.
We went into the processing room, where the only photographs he had of his family had been torn from his grasp by SS officers.
We toured the barracks, the gas chambers and the area where the looting of the Jews’ sole possessions took place the minute they arrived, and we went to a site where a mass grave had been dug before the Nazis perfected their vile practice of burning the bodies.
He told me how one friend was forced to dig his own grave, along with others, and then shot in the back of the head and rolled into it. He recounted how prisoners would be forced to stand for hours in the snow waiting for a roll call that sometimes never came.
The stories came as thick and fast as the snow that had fallen all those years ago. But the most striking aspect of my time there was the sheer scale of what went on. The Auschwitz sites were spread over an area of about 25 square miles; the barracks went on as far as the eye could see; and this wasn’t the act of one, or even a handful, of evil guards or commanders.
This was systematic, detailed ethnic cleansing devised by a group of people that at the time was the most enlightened, cultured and, tragically, technologically advanced on earth.
They brought all their planning to the heinous act and they actively conspired in their tens of thousands and shrugged and looked away in their millions.
It is truly beyond belief and can never, never, be forgotten. Over five hours across the two camps and probably three miles, Mr Hersh kept up his commentary and every word struck home.
While this might sound perverse, it is a day I shall always treasure for what I learnt from such a skilled and giving teacher. Arek Hersh is one of the few who managed to get out of Auschwitz. He’s one of an even smaller number who chose one day to break back in – and for that I shall be eternally grateful.
• Listen to Auschwitz: A Survivor Returns on the Nick Ferrari Breakfast Show on LBC on Holocaust Memorial Day, 27 January.
A Detail of History, by Arek Hersh, is published by Quill, in association with The Holocaust Centre.