Some of you have followed my "Prison" Diary series over the last year. That is a story whose ending is not yet told. The process of writing them is difficult, and I'm sure you will understand why.
However, a tawdry fraud in the nineties was not the first time I saw the inside of a prison.
For that we have to go back to June 1973, a few short weeks before my fourteenth birthday.
I don't have any original pictures to go with this tale. I did take some. My Mum gave me a Kodak 110 Instamatic for the trip, and I took lots. Forty years, two marriages and a change of continents has meant that some of my personal stuff has been lost along the way .... maybe they'll turn up in a family attic for my kids to find one day. Meanwhile, I'll have to try to do this justice with words.
Correction: After writing this I found the photographs and so you will be able to see a few of them. I had to re-photograph the old, small prints so please excuse the quality and composition. When I snapped these pics nearly forty years ago I didn't anticipate publishing them on the internet - my bad! Mouse-over for captions and click for larger images.
As children we, my brother, sister and I, did the things kids do. Part of that involved youth groups. We tried the Scouts and Guides, we even went to Sunday School although I rather think we went because Mum had better things to do on Sunday morning than entertain us for a couple of hours.
I did okay in the Scouts. I am a conformist at heart, and a maverick by training ... so I was good in the Scouts, but I didn't much like it. Too many "attitudes" grafted on to me by my parents. Too much Marx, Lenin and Trades Union activity to ever fit into a militaristic and religious based organisation. I asked too many questions and shared far too many unfiltered opinions. I was good with my fists, I had to be.
Around the age of twelve my Mum and Dad discovered a youth organisation that better fitted their political leanings, and their atheism. It was a small group called the Woodcraft Folk. They still exist in the UK, and still, as far as I know, do the same good work with kids in a tolerant and accepting environment.
Broadly, the Woodcraft Folk are a progressive youth group that is activity based. They wear a casual "uniform", and earn badges just like the Boy Scouts. What is missing is all the crap kids don't need (my opinion), and what is available is much freedom of expression and encouragement to explore the world around them free of judgement. The only real requirement was that the adults and children alike were expected to treat each other with respect.
In 1973 we were living in Sheffield and the Sheffield Woodcraft Folk Group were to attend the International Camp in Poland. Like all these things, cost was an issue. The deal, as I remember it was that the Polish Government were footing the bill, but that we had to get ourselves from Sheffield to Berlin. Once we crossed the border into East Germany the cost was met. The train fare from Sheffield to Berlin was thirty pounds (UK), a weeks wages for my Dad. This was a major expense that they somehow met.
It was to be a twenty four hour train ride, with a ferry to Holland in the middle. We took sandwiches for the trip and ten excited kids with a couple of adults made the journey. It was my first time abroad and we were going all the way to Poland! The political significance wasn't so much lost, as buried under the emotion of a wild adventure. We were young teens, and we were going to do all the things young teens do. Well we hoped we were. In reality the hope, as usual, was greater than the actualite. Well that is what I told my Mum, and so that is what I am telling you too :)
The Camp was way beyond anything I expected. We were a small group in the UK. Very much a minority among youth groups of the type. In other countries, and particularly in Eastern Europe, the affiliated groups were much larger, and generally State sponsored. The East German Pioneers had five million members, and there were tens of millions in the Soviet equivalent. Kids from thirty five countries and six continents were represented including a refugee group from Vietnam. The camp itself held about five thousand.
We spent the first week at the central camp in Katowice, we had a week in a hotel in Warsaw and a week in a mountain cabin near Krakow before returning to Katowice for the final week. It's hard to remember the details, but I remember the dancing ... I remember the singing and the parade of nations. I clearly remember the introduction of the delegation from Vietnam, partly because of the cheers of the kids as they walked in with their flag, and partly because I was trying to slip my arm around the shoulder of a young Italian girl ... who was gracious enough to allow it to rest there for a few moments.
Young Italian girls aside, my most vivid memory of that evening was five thousand voices, in dozens of languages all singing "The Internationale", in unison. This is a song I loved, but had never heard it sung by more than about ten people before. "Arise ye starvelings from your slumbers", as necessary today as it ever was.
The week we spent in the mountain chalet near Krakow was an eye-opener. The cabin was wonderful buried, as it was, deep in the mountains. Poland was not a wealthy country and the sight of goods being moved by horse and cart was something new to us all. These people were poor. Their relative poverty did not prevent them from unbounded friendliness to English kids playing in the street.
The peacefulness and beauty of the mountains was shattered by a day trip we took to a museum in a small town to the West. The town was Gmina Oświęcim and we were going to visit the Auschwitz Museum. This place is not a "Holocaust Museum". It is where a significant part of the Holocaust happened.
There are many estimates of the numbers of prisoners who died here. The best estimate, and one of the more conservative numbers suggests that of 1.3 million people transported to this place, approximately 1.1 million were murdered, a crime so vast in it's scope that it defies rational explanation. Many of the others died later either on forced evacuations, or in other camps. The fields surrounding Auschwitz - Birkenau now grow crops, and wildflowers. I can still remember the guide telling us that they are so fertile because they are many feet deep in human ashes.
The Nazis attempted to destroy some of the evidence as they retreated. They blew up gas chambers and crematoria at Birkenau (right next door), and looted anything valuable stolen from those they murdered. But they were in a hurry, and there was just too much "stuff". We saw warehouses stacked with clothing, shoes, suitcases that the victims brought their things in. Whether they were rich or poor they knew they faced an uncertain future, so they brought with them anything of value, items that were stolen to fund their own murder.
It's almost impossible .... it is impossible for a young mind to comprehend the scale of the horrors perpetrated here. You get some idea when you see a small mountain of glasses, a larger pile of artificial limbs, containers still full of small shoes. A tin of Zyklon B in a glass case ... label fading a little but still clearly legible. This tin has never been opened and it is kept safely behind glass, because if it is opened the contents will turn to a gas, and they will kill everyone in the room. Not quickly, not painlessly, but effectively.
We wandered the halls of Block 11, first used as a makeshift gas chamber, then later a punishment block. Even at that age the idea of a "punishment block" in this place seemed a bit farcical. Next door was Block 10 where the infamous Dr Mengele conducted his grotesque experiments on human subjects, including children.
In between the two blocks was the "Black Wall". This was the end wall of a yard joining the two blocks. It is here that prisoners were shot for a variety of trivial reasons. Our guide told us that anything up to fifty thousand people were executed against that wall. Whatever the number, we stared at it with the fascination of teenagers. I live now in a town of around thirty five thousand ... so that is everyone, and then some.
We spent most of the day wandering the various buildings and exhibits. We went over the road to Birkenau and held a small memorial service at the granite monument erected to the victims ... complete with flags representing the nations of people who died there. So many flags and yes, there was a Union Jack.
We were there for about five or six hours. That is all the time that would have been needed for a train arriving at Birkenau to be emptied, and the thousands of folk arriving on it to be processed and killed. It's hard, on a warm and sunny July afternoon in 1973, to imagine the horrors that happened here. We were young and filled with our own dreams and hopes for a brighter future, yet we were in a place where the future for more than a million people ended, abruptly and before their time.
There are moments in all of our lives that inform the paths we will choose. For me this was clearly such an event. Stark and horrific as it was, it is only one event and I added the experience to all the others that would make the man I became.
What I am clear about though is simply this:
It was not Communism that caused this tragedy. It was not Socialism or Liberal values that inspired these killers. It was fascism!
National Socialism and Fascism that led directly to the worst example of man's inhumanity to man that we can recall.
So pardon me if I do not suffer the foolishness of those who do not know the difference between these political and social philosophies. Forgive me if I am somewhat less than kind to anyone attempting to conflate these principles.
I am still "useful with my fists", but I am older now and wiser. I will, however, eviscerate with my tongue and with my keyboard anyone, and they are usually the Right Wing Stupid that have no idea what they are talking about, that tramples on the memories of the ghosts I left behind.