This is the most asked question since my return. People expect horrors. They expect emotion. They've heard that the birds never sing there, even to this day.
Websites endlessly recite the fact that it's the most haunted place on Earth, without once providing the ghost story to go with it. My friends know that I once fled Culloden, because I couldn't stand it. How could I then cope with Auschwitz-Birkenau?
I have to admit that the thought crossed my mind too. Particularly when my step faltered in approaching the main gate.
I'd already asked around amongst people whom I knew had previously visited Auschwitz. They gave me such a mismatch of emotions that I understood well enough that nothing can prepare you. It's no good assuming that you will feel in any particular fashion. Steven Spielberg once famously gave way to self-loathing, because he 'didn't cry buckets' after his tour. The simple fact is: there's no etiquette of emotion for a place like this.
None of which prepared me for how I felt at Auschwitz.
I stopped believing in it. I'm not entirely sure when it began, but I recall walking towards the gas chambers knowing it. The tour guide pointed out a huge gallows, where half a dozen people could be simultaneously hanged.
"No, they weren't." I thought, dismissing it with a glance. It didn't happen.
Suddenly all that research went. The eye-witness statements, the photographs, the testimonies of the Nuremberg Trials, everything fled my rationality like so much dust. I'd looked Eva Mozes Kor in the eye - and many others after her - yet all that had gone. Beyond consideration.
In its place was hatred for the tour guide. The only academia my mind could throw up was the names of revisionists, like David Irving. I became utterly determined to read again all that they'd said about the Holocaust being a World War II fiction. It seemed feasible. None of this had happened.
Then I turned my head and we were walking alongside the Roma museum. The sight of it hit me like something physical. As a great cerebral rush, my emotions caught up with all I'd studied for my dissertation. Yet not without any coherent facts.
"Were the Roma here?" I gushed out. I think I meant in that particular barracks, though I knew damn well that the gypsies were all in Auschwitz II. I wonder, in retrospect, whether the question was more generic. My rational self trying to tear through the sneering denial.
The tour guide launched into a sales pitch about Porajmos tours being separate. I'd signed up for the three hour general tour of Auschwitz-Birkenau. The Roma are not covered on that one. There's too much else to fit in. But I could buy another tour from the main office.
I understood perfectly. The Roma were not at Auschwitz. Then I went into the gas chamber.