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.

There were more than 2,700 columns, we later learned. So many that my first thought was: you could lose your children here. Ours had already disappeared into it, meanwhile. But before we could panic, I noticed that the columns were a perfect grid. So even though the surfaces of the alley-ways between them rose and fell like waves, you could see from one end to the other in every one.

The other thing that struck me – as our kids, and indeed groups of holidaying teenagers, scampered around it, playing hide-and-seek – was that there was something rather sombre about this as a play-place. Blank and geometric as they were, the columns had an unmistakably tomb-like quality. Was this some very elaborate art installation, perhaps? Yes and no. It was, we discovered, the Berlin Holocaust Memorial. And as such, it was also the overground expression of an underground museum on the theme, for which people were queuing on the far side of the square from where we started.

Asked if there was a minimum entry age, the man at the top of the stairs said no, but that they didn’t recommend it for children under 14. So here was the Auschwitz dilemma, after all. We thought about it a few moments: then decided that our 13 and 12 year-olds should probably see it, and that the seven-year-old wouldn’t understand much.

It’s a superb museum, telling the whole, appalling story in words and pictures, but with enough restraint that I didn’t regret bringing the kids. The older ones took it in their stride. The younger one asked me afterwards only about the photograph of the “nude women”.

This was indeed the one picture I had to hurry him past: showing part of what was maybe the most infamous massacre of them all, at the Babi Yar ravine in Ukraine. I don’t think my seven-year-old son noticed that all the nude women were dead, or about to be. I hope not.

Later, back at street level, we resumed our search for the wall. It too had caused much suffering in its time, of course. By one count, 254 people died trying to cross it. But it was also, at least on its western face, the world’s longest art gallery: a fact reflected by some of the surviving sections, which feature comic scenes and a portrait of Marilyn Monroe. Compared with what was under the maze, the wall represented the lighter side of 20th-century European history.

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