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3041 A Day Out In Canada

Added: Tuesday, March 20th 2012 at 12:06pm by fangio821
Category: Travel > Europe
Related Tags: war

Maybe, just maybe, one of these days I will learn to listen to that nagging little persistent voice at the back of my mind which tells me to do something different from what I am about to embark upon, or at least take precautions.

One of those days, and one of those times, was a few days after I had disembarked from a jet aircraft to step out onto the steep metal staircase leading down onto the tarmac.  There was no wind, but the cold air which ripped into my lungs like acid was almost as fierce as an Antarctic blizzard.  For this, I was totally unprepared.  At this point should I have looked and learned from these signs and stayed in my hotel?

Three days after arriving I sat in a single decked coach as it made slow large semi-circular sweeps into a rough gravel car park which was to all intents, empty, save for one other coach.  It was just two weeks before Christmas, and anyone with the sense of a flea would have taken the easier option and stayed in bed that day, it was so cold.  I chose to don the quilted three quarter length coat with the fur lined hood and queue with the rest of the people waiting to disembark from the coach. When the door opened, the Icelandic blast of air swept into the coach, raising gasps from the people who were queuing, and a collective reflexive backward shuffling away from the door.  It was too late though, we had paid our money, the driver had taken us on our two hour journey to the car park, it was now time to get off and enjoy ourselves. 

Whilst the muffled caterpillar like line of middle aged companions moved slowly to the front of the coach I stretch my neck forward and upward to try and look through the front windscreen ahead of me.  The sky above was grey.  A real Lancashire grey.  Wall to wall, thick and low, and without any semblance of shape to it.  I grimaced at the sight and joined the shuffling line of people. 

When my feet eventually touched the uneven gravel of the car park I joined the line of people walking alongside the railway track leading from the car park.  The cold air was something I had never experienced before, so hurriedly tried to zip up the long quilted jacket I had bought the day before to attempt to prevent the cold from doing me some serious and probably permanent damage.    The zip snagged and I swore once again to get the damn thing replaced as soon as I returned to England.  As I stood fighting the zip the crowd of people from the coach swerved around me like a flock of antelope in the African velt encountering a human being.  Soon I was stood alone in the car park fighting the zip and material.  Mind over matter won, and with a certain amount of warm triumphalism, I flicked the fur lined hood of the coat over my head.  The group was ahead of me, walking at the side of the railwayline towards the large building which was obviously the entrance to the place we had paid to come to visit.

I walked twenty very cold yards behind the group as it moved towards the station like building through which the railway line passed.  I stopped and reached into my pocked for the compact Canon camera.  Taking it out and turning it on reinforced to me how cold it was.  My breath fogged over the view finder so I rubbed it clear on the edge of the coat.  Lifting it to my eye I struggled at first to take in the wide expanse of the station building complex with its tall wooden clock like tower. It was too wide at first, until I reduced the focal length, and pressed the dimpled button once to focus it, then content with what I had in focus, I took the shot.

Frost sparkled on the gravel car park, and shone brightly on the wooden sides of the building.  It was minus something or other, and I was forced to walk a little bit faster in order not only to catch up with the group, but also to try and ward off the freezing cold.    I almost caught up with the group and then stopped as they stuttered to a half under the clock tower to listen to a guide.  I was out of hearing of the guide’s voice, but that really did not matter.  I could not understand the language they were talking, a fact which had been made clear shortly after I had boarded the board the coach some two hours before.  Whatever they were saying, and whatever the guide would have to say in the coming hours of the visit, would be Sanskrit to me.

The group walked through the clock tower and turned left to follow the small discrete signs which were placed two feet from the floor, I turned right, and stopped.  As the group walked further away from me to the left I took my pipe from my inside pocket and charged it with tobacco.  I tamped down the dark brown leaf into the bowl of my pipe and searched in my side pocket for my lighter and looked around.  The land was flat, without any sign of a hill to break its’ contour.  A thin greasy mist hung over the land way over in the distance, yet close enough to obscure anything other than the outline of a few sparse tall thin trees in the distance.  A few single storey buildings made of wood broke through the grey horizon.  What struck me though was the outline of the other buildings, no more than two feet high, which filled in the gaps of lines of buildings which were lost.  And in the distanceaclumpoftall Birch trees, alone in the feint mist which covered the flat featureless landscape.

The group moved off slowly to the left with their leader, I moved off quietly to the right, to explore, without interference, the land I saw before me.  It was flat, and cold.  The air blew out of my mouth and nose in white clouds, the only sound being that of my breath, and my feet on the path.  As I walked slowly around the perimeter of the site I noted the low brick foundations of the buildings which had once risen above them.  Lines and lines of them, silent as only stones can be.  Maybe there were several hundred of the skeletal remains.   The further I walked, the more alone I became.  A creeping sense of sadness and fear overtook me until I was almost fearful myself.  There were no trees.  In the alleys between the foundations of the buildings there were no living things.  No birds disturbed the still quiet of the site, no birds, anywhere.  

Imagine the shape of the site I was visiting as being almost square.  The entrance I came in through is in the middle of the bottom side of the square, and by this time I had walked around to the far right hand corner, where I came eventually to a large oval tranquil pond.  Nothing stirred the surface and only a very few stray water plants pushed their way through the water.  Obviously man made, obvious because of its smooth shape.  Along one side were a few Birch trees, silver and slim and stretching their slender branches  to the sky.  I smiled ruefully when I saw them.  They were all that I had imagined of Canada.  Long and slim, with a sheaf of silver leaves shooting out from a mass of slender silver branches.  Despite the cold, despite the snow, despite the frost, this was Canada.

I walked slowly toward the pond and at the beautiful setting it displayed.  I had been raised amongst the hills of Lancashire and the Lake District of England, this was a different place, but it was tranquil, or so it seemed, other than that slow onset of the feeling of menace.  I stopped and looked around at what I saw.  A stand of last year’s rushes at one edge of the pond moved as though a breeze had caught it, yet there was no breeze.  Perhaps it was the December cold which caused my arms and neck to suddenly raise in goose flesh.  I became aware of a vast encompassing feeling of sadness and guilt, and looked again around me.  Still there was nothing.  Yet there was a feeling of a presence of people.  For a minute or more I stood in silence, neither making a sound nor hearing any, just the sadness.  I shivered and with a feeling of relief forced myself to walk on.

I carried on where the path of small grey stones directed me, to the edge of the pond.  Some fifteen feet from the pond was a line of five white granite plinths, no more than three feet high.   I walked down from the gravel path to the secondary path which traced a line in front of the granite stones.

They were all inscribed, but out of four I was unable to read the inscriptions.  The fifth one read.

“Near to this place was the area of the camp the prisoners called Canada.  In this place the prisoners sorted the clothes and belongings of those who had been murdered in the gas ovens.  When the ovens were working too hard for the ashes of the dead to be disposed of, they were thrown into the pond which stands before you.  “

This was Birkenau.  The day before it had been a visit to Auschwitz.  These are places our young should visit, not to foster hatred of the men and women who did the monstrous things they did, but to demonstrate, and add as a reminder, of what can go wrong with our society if good men to do not stand up for what is right.

The main gate, Birkenau

The pond near Canada, Birkenau

User Comments

Very moving piece.  Odd that you thought of Canada, or maybe it was fate? 

I liked the last sentence, about good men standing up for what is right.  How very true.

The reason I used the name in the piece was to try and throw readers off the scent as to what the place was, and where it was.  

It worked.

I like that last sentence too.

Thank you Brad, glad it worked.

'I will learn to listen to that nagging little persistent voice'---me, of course, even back when!

'anyone with the sense of a fle'---then there is you! LOL

'if good men to do not stand up for what is right.' I've been standing for 64 years--I get a little tired but there are those out there willing to stand with me and, sometimes, hold me up.

We have 'survivors' of the Holocaust who live in South Florida and they go around to the schools talking about that time in the world--whether it be children listening or adults the inhumanity to man shown by man evokes tears from all.

I think one of the most evocative things I recall from the visit was the groups of Polish school children being shown around the place.  It is part of the national curriculum to understand what happened.  I was very impressed by the behaviour of the children I saw.

Were/are they told how the Polish people behaved during that time?

Not sure.  I think they probably were told the whole story though.  Many of the people I met on my visit seemed to be aware of all that happened, and their part in it.

In October of 1969 I visited Dachau, near Munich, Germany.  It was a sobering, melancholy experience.  It is important that places like these be maintained as a reminder of what man is capable of.  It is incredible to come face to face with the unimaginable cruelty and utter disregard for other human beings.  Good read, Dave, you had me way off course.

Glad you enjoyed it, and the fact that you were thrown.  I agree with your sentiments about these places.

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