Graham Carter - the voice of age and experience

AS a journalist there haven’t been many times in my life when I have been lost for words, but last week was one of those times.

My wife and I went on a short break to Krakow - our first ever trip (but not our last) to Poland.

And because this charming and beautiful historic city is within easy reach of Auschwitz, like most visitors we took the day trip to see where history was made.

It was here that more Jews were murdered than anywhere else during the Second World War, in a death camp that was eventually capable of killing and then disposing of more than 4,000 innocent men, women and children every day.

Those who arrived there and were deemed unfit for work usually perished in gas chambers before the end of the day, while the rest were put to work and, on average, were dead three months later.

Auschwitz is actually two camps, the former Polish Army barracks (Auschwitz I) where Polish intellectuals who might have led resistance were the first to enter the gate with its infamous motto overhead, telling inmates ‘Arbeit macht frei’ (work makes you free).

This part is effectively a museum, while the other (Auschwitz II), which is a five-minute bus trip away, is more of a memorial.

Its infamous tower and gateway, through which trains packed with victims were brought to their deaths, is iconic, and the camp is vast.

Our visit coincided with a snow storm, and with snow already on the ground the utter desolation meant it was difficult to imagine there could ever be a more godforsaken place on earth.

We were in a group of about 30 people and our guide started the tour by explaining that we were welcome to take pictures, but asked us not to take them of each other, and especially not selfies.

Later on, he also pointed out those buildings where we were asked to be silent as a mark of respect, such as the single intact gas chamber we all filed through (the Nazis blew up the others to try to hide the evidence). There was no need to ask for quiet.

A visit to Auschwitz takes three hours, not including the journey, but throughout that time, barely anyone spoke, apart from our guide.

This was partly out of respect and the need to concentrate on a subject that any normal human being struggles to comprehend, but also because I doubt any of us would have been able to find the words to express what we were seeing.

It was only later, back in the comfort of Krakow, that we started to talk about the part of the tour that made the biggest impression.

For many it is the room containing two tons of hair, cut from the corpses of Jewish women, which the Nazis used as the raw material for soldiers’ socks. For me it was the realisation that Auschwitz not only existed to eliminate the Nazis’ enemies, but also to ensure they suffered.

Our guide, who seemed to do his job as a kind of calling, finished the tour by listing other genocides that have taken place since the Holocaust.

Auschwitz, he said, is therefore about the future as well as the past, because the road to it begins with the persecution and deliberate provocation of minorities.

And, no doubt sensing that we were dumbstruck by what we had seen, he reminded us that it is the duty of all of us to find the words to challenge persecution when we see it.

Or, as a wise man once said: all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.