An Irishman's Diary
HAVING VISITED the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam recently, en route to Poland, I made a vague promise to go to Auschwitz later in the trip. That was in Poland too, after all. Then I had a hard look at the map and realised that, from where we were staying, it might as well be in Slovakia.
Auschwitz is within easy reach of Krakow, which – outside of Euro 2012 – is most Irish visitors’ first point of contact with Poland. But from Poznan, it would have been an epic, day-long drive, in both directions. Even by train, Krakow was seven or eight hours. We would have to do it some other time.
In the circumstances, therefore, I didn’t have to wrestle with the dilemma of whether Auschwitz was a place you would bring children. Not under 14 is the official recommendation. Which, strictly speaking, would have ruled all of ours out, although two are near enough that age to have read John Boyne’s wonderful book, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, and to know what it’s about.
But a gently-written children’s story is one thing. So is Anne Frank’s house which, awful though her fate was, appeals to younger readers in innocent ways. The idea of the secret annexe is naturally fascinating to kids. And even though Frank’s life ended in Bergen-Belsen (after a period in Auschwitz), the posthumous fame of her diary gives the story the nearest thing it can have to a happy ending.
The prison camp would be something else again, though. So truth to tell, I was relieved to avoid it this time. But then again, as we were to discover, when you’re touring Germany and Poland, the horrors of that period are never very far away.
On the way back from the Euros, for example, we spent an afternoon in Berlin. Mostly we were just tracing the path of the now all-but disappeared wall, which these days makes an entertaining detective game for children. In fact, it was amusing to be reminded that a whole generation of Berliners has now grown up not knowing where the wall was.
Outside the Reichstag, a young guide pointed us to a street nearby, down which the infamous structure had run. But when I asked which side of it the parliament building had stood, she was confused. “The east. No, the west. Or was it the east?” she wondered aloud. Then she referred me to an older colleague.
Anyway, it was in search of one of the wall’s surviving sections that we turned a corner and saw what the children immediately decided was a “maze”. And it did indeed look like a maze: a vast one of rectangular stone columns, many of them much taller than people, stretching over an entire city block.