Sunday 20 November 2011

Cheering for Oswiecim

I suppose it’s really much like any other town in southern Poland when the local ice hockey team is locked in a last-ditch effort for a spot in the regional play-offs. The stadium is electric with the expectation of a great game. People cheer when the team scores. They curse when the referee makes a bad call. They chant in unison to intimidate the visiting team, shaking the arena and its thousand or so chilly yet dedicated fans and inspiring their players to greater glory.

It’s all good-natured, exciting and fun -- everything you’d expect from a rink-side evening of sporting entertainment in a central European town on a dark November evening. Fans dress in the team colours (blue and white), naturally, and some wave banners with the team’s logo, proudly displaying that the history of the squad dates back to 1946: a year after the most infamous Nazi death camp was liberated just across town from the stadium.

Oświęcim is, of course, better known internationally by its German name, Auschwitz, home of the Auschwitz-Birkenau set of concentration and extermination camps.

At first it almost seems like sacrilege attending -- worse, enjoying -- an ice hockey game here. This kind of thrill is surely indecent so close to the former mass murder factory.

But it soon sinks in that Oświęcim existed before the death camp complex of Auschwitz-Birkenau, and the town has carried on after it. The accident of history that made this otherwise normal location a byword for industrialised genocide had nothing to do with the citizens of Oświęcim. It was simply chosen as a key part of the “final solution” for the extermination of the Jews because it was an important rail junction for central Europe. The Nazis were as practical as they were vicious.

The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and State Museum now safeguards the memory of the camps themselves, but the town is a living entity. People are born here, they go to school here, they have jobs, they buy homes, they get married, they have kids, they grow old, and they die sad but natural deaths. Locals grow vegetables in garden plots in summer, and they cheer their ice hockey team in winter.

However much one might want to avoid saying “life moves on”, one can’t help it, because it simply does. For Oświęcim, it started doing so rather a long time ago, in fact.

What was supposed to happen to the town of Oświęcim after the war anyway? Were people here supposed to stand still in shock forever? Or was the whole area supposed to be emptied for ten kilometres in all directions to mark the horror of what happened here and commemorate the dead? Or 100 kilometres? Or 1000? Is there any distance that could have been enough? Or done anyone any good?

Auschwitz-Birkenau belongs to all of humanity, and the people of Oświęcim can hardly be asked deeper questions about it, or be expected to behave any differently because of it, than any of the rest of us. If enjoying a night out is possible after Auschwitz at all, proximity to it hardly matters.

And in a strange sense that is at once inexplicable, disturbing and wonderful all at the same time, an exciting, yet mundane, ice hockey game like this and in this place somehow reassuringly represents the vitality of human existence. Those green shoots that appeared after the forest fire may have started in 1946, but they are strong trees now. The joyous energy of the Oświęcim fans, chanting the stadium down, is completely normal. Good thing too.

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