The face of tenderness on the road to obliteration

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AUSCHWITZ - It was getting dark by the time we reached Oswiecim on an evening of biting wind and black ice. We had become lost in the forest near Lipiaz, our map a spaghetti of tangled roads and lanes. At a crossroads, we spotted a young Polish couple. "Which way to Auschwitz?" we asked. The girl pointed back along the road we'd travelled. "Oswiecim. That way." We drove into town past the big Opel dealership and the grey blocks of flats and railway yards. In the distance I could make out the towers of Buna-Monowitz, the synthetic-oil factory set up by the German company IG Farben during the war and where Primo Levi worked as a slave labourer. Taken over by the Poles after the war, the plant is still operational. By the time we met up with our guide Magdalena Urban, the Auschwitz state museum had officially closed for the day.

But Magdalena offered to take us across to the main camp at Birkenau. She was a native of Oswiecim. Her grandparents had been moved out by the Germans when they began to build the camp. But after the war the family came back. Now Magdalena worked at Auschwitz. For two years she had been conducting tours of the gas chambers and crematoria, the barrack blocks and the museum where the hair, spectacles, shoes of the murdered are stored. Though it was dark, she offered to walk through the deserted camp with us. We crossed the railway bridge and drove up to the gate of Birkenau.

Auschwitz-Birkenau. Here, a million and half people, most of them Jews, were murdered by the Nazis in three years. Magdalena pointed to the archway with its forbidding watchtower. On either side, the barbed-wire fence and yet more watchtowers stretched into the night. "That is the Gate of Death", she said. I recognised it from countless photographs and films. The "Gate of Death". It seemed a melodramatic, cinematic name for such an ordinary pile of bricks. But Magdalena was being no more than exact in her description.

For this was the gateway through which the Jews of Europe entered a world where hope ended, where in Primo Levi's haunting words: God was dead. I am surprised by just how much of Birkenau remains. The acres of barbed- wire fencing, the watchtowers, the barrack blocks where all the doomed prisoners were crammed, the gas chambers and crematoria dynamited by the SS but whose ruins stand dark and forbidding at the end of the railway track. Nearby there are some photographs mounted on a stand. They are the faces of women and children captured by an SS photographer in the last minutes before death. They are Hungarian Jews who have just been separated from their men. They are staring at the camera, at the photographer who is their captor and controller. What were they thinking at that moment when the shutter blinked?

What is the saddest thing to see here? Not the gas chamber, or the ovens where the dead - and sometimes the dying - were burned. Not the execution wall. Or the places where they were whipped and beaten or tortured. Not the infirmary where Mengele and his cohorts performed their experiments. None of these, though they all mortify the soul. No, the saddest thing is an image from one of these old photographs. It isn't a face as you might imagine, but the hand of a mother grasping that of her child as they both of them stepped towards obliteration. Why is it that the expression of tenderness in this place of nightmares should be the saddest thing of all? It is because that small instinctual gesture, that most universal of all gestures, reflects what is good in our human nature: the desire to protect and nurture, to cherish and love. And in a few minutes we know those two hands have walked together into history.

I asked Magdalena if she ever encountered survivors of Auschwitz. Some came from time to time, she said. And did many Germans come, I wondered? A lot of young students came and wanted to know exactly what happened. There were also older Germans who would have been alive during the war. They told her they had no idea that such things were happening. And what about the Poles who lived here, who lived in a town called Auschwitz? Magdalena said that people looked on the place as a giant cemetery. Some of the locals came regularly and put flowers down. In post-communist times there has been a much greater effort by the authorities to recognise the suffering of the Jews here. In the old days they were not mentioned by name, the memorials merely referring to "the men, women and children who had died at the hands of the Nazis".

Later that night, as we walked through the town, two Polish students approached us. They asked where we came from. We told them and they shook our hands. "And now let me ask you," one of them said, "do you think our town is the worst town in the whole world?"

I managed not to answer. Or rather to give a non-answer. "Well we've only just arrived tonight. We couldn't possibly make a judgement." They shook our hands again and walked off up the road. And is it the worst little town in the world? It is almost certainly the most notorious. It is certainly the repository of the greatest evil humankind has ever known. But it is also an unremarkable place. An ordinary little industrial town in an obscure part of eastern Europe. It is the very ordinariness of the place that makes it so chilling. Like those dull Nazi bureaucrats who organised the schedules of killing. Unremarkable. The Hotel Glob where we stayed is next door to the railway line. All night the trains rattled past, the voices of station officials droned over the loudspeakers. Sleep was impossible. And so I took out Primo Levi's classic account of Auschwitz, If This Is A Man. It is a book of devastating power, never more so than when Levi describes the attempt to survive, to avoid drowning in the evil that was all around.

"Our language lacks words to express this offence, the demolition of a man. In a moment with almost prophetic intuition the reality was revealed to us: we had reached the bottom. It is not possible to sink lower than this; no human condition is more miserable than this, nor could it conceivably be so. Nothing belongs to us any more; they have taken away our clothes, our shoes, even our hair ... they will even take away our name; and if we want to keep it we will have to find in ourselves the strength to do so, to manage somehow so that behind the name something of us, of us as we were, still remains."

Of us as we were.

This was my last journey abroad before the Millennium. Most of the others had taken me to current conflicts. Rwanda, the Balkans among others. And now I was finishing my year with a journey to a place whose horrors happened 16 years before I was born. And though it may sound very strange, I was glad to have made the journey. Glad for the reminder it gave me, for the affirmation of what I believe in. And so every time I hear some wise man warn against intervening to help victims of human rights abuse, every time some snivelling appeaser warns us that we have only "national" interests, I will remember those two hands clasped before the eyes of death at Birkenau.

Fergal Keane's report on genocide in the 20th century will be broadcast on BBC's `2000 Today' on New Year's Eve