Incident at Vichy, a one-act play by Arthur Miller, condenses and multiplies his usual sense of foreboding. It’s 1942 in Vichy France and an assorted group of suspected Jews and ‘asocials’ have been detained by Nazis in a makeshift prison. One hysterical young man has had his nose measured. The drip-drip-drip of rumours and panic start to build as the waiting game continues.
Miller’s play is a window into French deportations of Jews, which took place between 27th March 1942 and 17th August 1944. 77,000 deportees from France lost their lives at Nazi death camps or concentration camps, and 1/3 of these were official French citizens.
Today marks Holocaust Memorial Day and, for as long as I can remember, this leads to annual news stories not just about commemorative events, but about the ignorance that a lot of us have around the Holocaust and everyone affected by it.
For a prime example, see the idiotic posers at the Berlin Holocaust Memorial, called out by the brilliant Yolocaust web project, which has now been taken down after mixed but generally positive feedback.
Sadly, anti-Semitism has never totally disappeared. There have been reports of Holocaust survivors being abused in the street and, in a cruel modern twist, Jewish Twitter users being targeted and mercilessly trolled because of their religion and heritage. Even Google search results have been manipulated by the far-right.
Patarei Prison is certainly strange, but overwhelmingly sad, rather than creepy, in the evening light. It’s silently and slowly decaying, the once proud fort that’s now shedding its last layer of skin, generous flakes of Soviet-era oil-based paint in muted colours. Tallinn’s formidable sea fortress no longer keeps anyone from the outside world: instead, it’s full of weeds, rust and damp.
Sadly Patarei was permanently closed to visitors from 7th October, as it’s become too unsafe, but it’ll reopen in the future with full access and hopefully a museum in place. In the meantime, you can see the exterior from Beeta promenade, but I want to share why the site is so important.
You don’t decide to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau on a whim, so it’s crucial to make the most of your time there. In my last post I covered the emotional impact of visiting the two camps, but now I’m focusing on the practical side.
Do you want to take the bus, the train, a pre-booked coach trip (with or without a tour included), or would you rather hire a driver? When you arrive, would you prefer to wander alone or join a group? If you’re indecisive, or a bit confused by conflicting opinions from other travellers, take a deep breath, grab a cuppa and we’ll go through the options.
There’s so much to tell you about visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau that I’ve split this into two posts: first the emotional side of things, then the practical side. It’s important not to let logistics overtake the reasons you’d want to visit: to learn, to pay respects, to remember, and to pass on what you’ve seen.
My mum and I arrived on a cold but sunny March morning and joined a group tour with an official guide. This was what we discovered under bright blue skies.
What to Expect
Auschwitz I looks less like a traditional camp and more like a forlorn housing estate, because it used to be an army barracks, whereas Birkenau’s low wooden buildings were stables for horses before they housed people, and the brick buildings came later. Life goes on around the camps, with houses and businesses on their very fringes, and signs directing you to KFC. Monowitz-Buna, one of the satellite camps, was based further away and doesn’t exist anymore, but our guide pointed it out from Birkenau as laying beyond the two industrial towers in the distance.
How do you save people from concentration camps when there’s a war raging across Europe and beyond? It’s a big question, but the answer sounds scarily simple: in the case of Scandinavia, you get permission from Himmler himself, then commandeer some buses, ambulances and trucks, collectively called the White Buses. You use a volunteer network to drive them from Theresienstadt, Dachau and Ravensbrück through war-torn Europe to the safety of Malmö’s medieval castle.
Last year I went to Malmö and saw the extraordinary place where those liberated spent their first weeks of freedom. Unsurprisingly, it gave me the research bug.
Hermann Goering called it escape-proof… he was badly wrong. Colditz Castle has been immortalised in films, books, TV shows and even in a board game, as a place where brave Allied prisoners kept guards on their toes with pretty much constant escape attempts during WWII. Part tactical distraction, part desperation to get home, it was a full-time occupation for the men held here. I visited the castle to see inside the prisoners’ world, right down to their tunnelling tools and forged documents.
Calavera (Span. feminine noun) = skull. A travel blog with a love of culture, dark tourism and the unconventional.