END OF STORY

Yesterday I went to one of the small cinemas in the bowels of the ship and saw Life Is Beautiful, a comedy about the holocaust. It was lunchtime, and there were about half a dozen of us scattered around in the big red armchairs. It was slapstick and farce to begin with - which made us all laugh out loud - then the tenor of the film changed, and it all became unbearably poignant.

The bloke sitting directly behind me, a deep-voiced Londoner, loved the earlier, slapstick part. If there had been a contest to see who could laugh loudest and longest at the jokes, he would have won it hands down. It was a bit irritating, his guffawing right in my ear, but he laughed only in the very obvious places, so I could see it coming and brace myself. I thought I detected a slightly patronising note in his guffaws, as though it was unusual for him to let himself go for a film with subtitles. Occasionally the floor sank further than usual, rolled, then rose again, to remind us that we were on a ship.

I once saw a film about the holocaust at a cinema in Auschwitz. It was a proper cinema; there were usherettes, carpets, comfy seats, exit signs tricked out with green lights. The film was a compilation of newsreel footage, shot mostly by the Russians when they liberated the camp. It was strange to sit there watching a film about Auschwitz with the clay mud of Auschwitz caked on my shoes. Strange too, to totter outside after the film find myself actually there, in Auschwitz, albeit with the now mature trees quite pretty in their autumn colours.

After I'd been to the cinema in Auschwitz, I went around the old detention blocks. One of the jokes we told each other at primary school was why did Hitler shoot himself? The answer was because he got the gas bill. Well, at Auschwitz you can actually see this gas bill. The invoice from the manufacturers of the Zyklon B pellets is there in a glass display cabinet for people like me, who used to joke about it, to have a good look at.

Upstairs there was a roomful of human hair. Seven tons of it, the guidebook said. While I was standing looking at the hair, an American tourist came in. He failed to see the hair at first. He thought the room was empty. And then he saw it and literally reeled backwards with astonishment.

"Jesus Christ," he said.

Then he pointed his camera at the hair and took a picture.

In another room there were thousands of shoes. They were piled up on either side of the room, and you walked along a valley made of shoes. I wasn't sure how I ought to feel walking down that alley. Depressed? Grief-stricken? Angry? Relieved? Perhaps all of those. Actually I couldn't take it in and merely thought that it was surprising just how little shoe fashions had changed in the past 60 years.

In other rooms there were immense piles of suitcases, spectacles, surgical appliances, hair brushes. It turned out that the shoes must have been just the adult's shoes, because later I came across a room full of children's shoes. I met the American tourist again in here. Though demoralised, he recognised me from the hair room.

"Jeez," he said to me, shaking his head. "That Hitler guy must have been some kind of a nut."

After I'd been round Auschwitz, I went up the road and had a look at Birkenau. It has been suggested that no one should be allowed to visit Birkenau, that it should viewed from afar, through powerful binoculars. But at the moment one is free to wander round. There are no exhibits at Birkenau. But if anything, the scale of this camp is more impressive even than Auschwitz. It's huge. Before I saw Birkenau, I hadn't realised that the Nazis were quite so serious. Too many episodes of Dad's Army, I suppose.

The Londoner sitting behind me was the last one in the cinema to notice that Life Is Beautiful had subtly shifted from farce to horror. His antennae were twitching for funny bits long after the hero and his son had been sent to the concentration camp. Finally it dawned on him, too, that there was more to this film than meets the eye, and his laugh was more discriminating for a while, and then he went quiet altogether.

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