There are events in your life they say you are never likely to forget. The death of a parent. The birth of a child. An unexpected act of kindness from a stranger. A visit to Auschwitz/Birkenau. This last was an experience which now hides within a small pocket of my memory, like an unwanted but necessary souvenir. Every now and then I begrudgingly take it out, examine it and place it back. Every now and then I wish I didn’t have to.
Growing up in Portadown I had not the slightest idea what a Jewish person actually was. And yet my best friend was one. I knew she was generous, kind, beautiful, loyal; all those traits that can make for an enduring friendship (plus she owned a guitar that I coveted greatly) but religion played no part in an affinity that has lasted now the best part of fifty-five years. Sue was simply someone who shared with me an interest in music and boys, and whose family welcomed all of us with ever opening arms. The only thing that set the family apart, I suppose, was that they owned the local clothing factory and this, in my head anyway, elevated their social position a good notch above my own working class background. That, and the fact that Sue’s lovely dad spoke with a rather charming foreign accent. So the Jewish side of things was never an issue between us. It wasn’t then. It still isn’t now.
In many ways we have our schooling to thank for much of our open-mindedness. For seven years, during what were some of the worst years of the ‘Troubles’, we attended Portadown College. Essentially a school made up of children from Protestant homes, the ethos even then was one of tolerance and integration and my fellow pupils included Roman Catholics, Sikhs, Hindus and of course, Jews. Mr Woodman, the then headmaster and a man ahead of his time I now realise, expected each of his charges to have self-respect, but equally to respect others and there were certainly penalties if you didn’t. He saw that children learn by example and whether that was having good manners, achieving academically or on the sport’s field, or simply having a social conscience, then that was what was encouraged. Yes, religion was important too but in a much more secular way that what you might have expected at the time.
When I eventually completed further education a few years later and began my first job as a teacher, it was to a historical backdrop of shop incendiaries, body searches, car bombs and intimidation. I lived in a small bedsit flat where every morning before school, I checked the underbelly of my car for an explosive device. I loved my work. I played hard and enjoyed a kind of surreal lifestyle that only we, who lived in Northern Ireland during that time, can fully understand. I got on with living in a divided society which somehow became increasingly nonsensical in its religious divide as I got older. So I took the chance to leave.
New York beckoned with the opportunity to have a bite of the apple and to broaden my thinking. For a year I worked as a nanny for a family who were Kosher Jews, with rules and regulations that I, as their employee, accepted as part and parcel of the job. They treated me respectfully and with generosity and I learned a great deal from them, as I had done previously with my homespun Jewish family. But it was a revelation to me that Jews, like Christians, could practise their faith in very different ways.
Towards the end of my time in the States I met my prospective husband – another learning curve because he was an Iranian Muslim. Did it matter? Of course it did but not in the way some might imagine. It mattered because being human beings came before being anything else and our mutual recognition of this told me that the relationship was probably worth pursuing. In all honesty, I think that coming from Northern Ireland and Iran respectively only strengthened our resolve to make things work, as neither of us wanted to allow the stereotyped images of our homelands to triumph.
Since then I have experienced the death of my parents, the birth of my children and many acts of unexpected kindness. And added to these was my visit to Auschwitz/Birkenau some years ago.
Although you may think it, nothing prepares you for what you experience there. Nothing that you have seen on television or read in a book or listened to on the radio, can help you value the stark inhumanity of it. Nothing. You enter the gates of the Auschwitz camp as the guides begin their narration of the endless horrors you cannot quite allow your mind to accept. You witness places where the most heinous of acts have been carried out and still you cannot really believe. You tread freezing, soulless corridors where dead-eyed faces stare at you from picture frames, the dates beneath the photographs telling you that some were only in Auschwitz for a single day. Your feet shuffle their way past the glass-fronted rooms containing the hair, the shoes, the spectacles, the almost everything, of those who died. There are no words. No words.
The bus takes you then a short distance away to Birkenau, a place if it were possible, more haunting because of its starkness. The gas chambers lie rubbled into the flat earth alongside barracked huts where conditions were wholly intolerable for all forced to exist there. In the distance are woods, the trees reminding us that nature regenerates itself and there is still a kind of hope, even amongst the horrors of the concentration camps. But there is no getting away from it as you make the walk that must change every visitor in some fundamental way; the knowing that those who died in that terrible place were once the same as us. People – people with faults, desires, talents, ambitions, beliefs and sheer ordinariness. That they were defined in another way is something we should all think about.
There is a word ‘Thumos’ which means, in part, ‘the human desire for recognition’. It is an all-encompassing word that surely most of us can identify with in some form or another. Regardless of our religious or non-religious beliefs, the need to be accepted as human beings, with all our failings and weaknesses, is inherent within us from an early age. I wonder sometimes where and why that empathy and understanding gets lost. I wonder too, when I take from that pocket in my memory, the unwanted souvenir of my visit to Auschwitz/Birkenau, why it is we continue to learn so little from the lessons of the past.
It makes me weep.
Lynda Tavakoli’s poetry and prose are widely published.