Art is fuelled by egos. Whether it’s music, film or literature, ego is the driving force.
Greg Ginn– the founding member and driving creative force of the legendary hardcore punk band, Black Flag. A man whose work as the Flag guitarist guarantees him a place as one of the most influential musicians of the last 30 years. So influential in fact that Rolling Stone named him among the 100 greatest guitar players of all time.
When Ginn formed Black Flag in 1976 (first known as Panic) with Keith Morris no one would have predicted that he would go on to change the face of underground music. In the blink of an eye Black Flag morphed from a band that sounded a little too much like the Sex Pistols into a snarling, raging beast that became the standard bearer for the burgeoning hardcore scene. Black Flag was more than just a punk rock band, it was the rallying cry for the youth rebellion that was taking place across Suburbia, USA as misfit kids railed against the sterile 80s mainstream culture that shunned them for not fitting into the ideal American middle class family.
Take a closer listen to Damaged, arguably Black Flag’s magnum opus. Made in 1981, Damaged, with its chainsaw double guitar assault and howling vocals, became the blueprint of hardcore punk that nearly every other band would spend the next three decades copying. Thirty years later, Damaged remains the pinnacle to which all other punk bands aspire. Tracks like “Depression” and “Damaged II” are such visceral, seething pits of self loathing and angst that few artists have come close to matching their intensity.
Yet Black Flag’s and Ginn’s legacy extends far beyond one solitary LP. Bored with the hardcore sound he had helped forge, Ginn crammed more musical evolution into the final five years of Black Flag than most other bands could even dream of. Their punk sound grew to include metal, think metalcore before anyone was scene enough to coin the term ‘metalcore,’ before branching off to incorporate jazz and breakbeat elements into their final records.
All the while, behind the scenes Black Flag lurched from one crisis to another. Ginn had to deal with a band line up that was in a constant state of flux, 16 different people played in the band over ten years, police harrassment (stories of Los Angeles police showing up at venues to shut down Black Flag gigs and assault anyone who dared turn up are legendary), a record company that reneged on a deal to distribute their album, tour van robberies, a decade of living in perpetual poverty and a fan base that gradually turned on the group. Considering all the drama that engulfed Black Flag, the achievement wasn’t that they influenced countless other bands, it was the fact they survived as long as they did.
The reason for their longevity? Greg Ginn and his Do It Yourself work ethic. Venues black listing the band? “We’ll book our own tours around the country and overseas.” Record label won’t distribute our albums? “We’ll create our own label and distribute it ourselves.” Not enough people listening to our records? “We’ll tour so relentlessly and play so many shows in two bit dives around the world that Satan himself couldn’t hack our brutal tour schedule.”
Today’s underground music scene owes a great deal to the trailblazing work of Black Flag and their tireless work ethic. Each and every band that organises its own tours and distributes its own records is following the path that Greg Ginn established thirty years ago without the help of little things like the internet or Facebook to help spread the word, instead relying purely on word of mouth, letters, fan zines and flyers.
Clearly, Greg Ginn is an icon of alternative music. A man to whom many extremely wealthy musicians owe their fortunes to for paving the road that would lead them to riches long after Ginn’s time had come and passed. Ginn’s achievements should be celebrated. So why is Greg Ginn disliked by so many of the people that should be honouring him?
“My War, you’re one of them, you say that you’re my friend but you’re one of them.”
The very talents that made Ginn such a trailblazer of underground music- the DIY work ethic, the unique vision and artistic drive- are the same traits that gradually alienated him from everyone around him. Chuck Dukowski, Flag’s founding bass player and most charismatic spokesman in their early years, was kicked out of the band as soon as he began to no longer fit the sound that Ginn was striving for.
The passing of time is hard on everyone but it has been particularly hard on Ginn. While the legacy of Black Flag has grown substantially over the years as the band is more popular in 2011 than it ever was in the 80s, Ginn’s aura has been drastically diminished. The shallow answer for this is the rise and rise of Henry Rollins from Black Flag’s vocalist to poet, writer, actor, spoken word artist and radio DJ has led to some revisionist history that has swept Ginn under the rug. It’s often stated that Rollins joining Black Flag signalled a change in the band’s sound and image becoming heavier, darker and more macho. But it was Ginn who was the catalyst for this shift. Ginn was already moving in that direction and he brought in Rollins because he thought he would suit the sound he was going for. When it came to Black Flag Ginn was always the engine, the steering wheel and the driver, everyone else was confined to the backseat, even Henry Rollins. In reality Ginn’s post Black Flag demise can be traced back to the fall of SST Records.
SST Records was the label that Ginn created in 1978 as a means of distributing Black Flag’s releases, however Ginn’s lofty ambition and prodigious work rate saw the label grow into something much greater. Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr, Husker Du and the Minutemen all got their start on SST and by the mid eighties SST had become the main hub for the underground music scene in North America.
Although the end of Black Flag in 1986 was mourned by few since the band had by that stage fallen into a turgid milieu that left many scratching their heads, Greg Ginn and SST Records seemed poised to continue promoting and nurturing the nascent underground music scene that they’d spent the last decade building. Instead within a few years, thanks to Ginn’s incompetence, SST was reduced to a footnote as it was overrun by upstart indie labels like Sub Pop.
“Beat My Head Against the Wall.”
For all Ginn’s talent at identifying and promoting young bands, he also had an uncanny knack of alienating those same musicians as soon as they began to experience success. Sonic Youth, Husker Du and Dinosaur Jr all left the label citing difficulties working with Ginn and unpaid royalties that had been withheld from the bands by SST. Years later Sonic Youth and other acts would sue SST to reclaim their master recordings and the unpaid royalties they were due.
By 1988 the rot had set in at SST. Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr and Husker Du had all since quit while the tragic death of D.Boon meant the Minutemen were no more. In their place, Ginn signed a plethora of awful jazz groups while his new band, Gone, a prog rock act, never gained any traction and quickly sunk along with the once mighty SST.
The 90s Grunge explosion is the greatest irony in the fall of SST. Despite what Rolling Stone and mainstream media would tell you, grunge didn’t simply emerge out of nowhere. It was the culmination of years of blood, sweat and tears from unheralded musicians like Greg Ginn who established a scene and culture from nothing. It would have been just rewards for SST to cash in on its hard work by becoming a key player in the 90s grunge scene but 1991 it had already fallen into the mire, its title as the premier indie label long since faded.
Today Greg Ginn and SST Records remain a shadow of their heyday. SST infrequently awakens from its slumber to put out another interminable jazz record that absolutely no one cares about while Ginn is occasionally coaxed into an interview about the Black Flag days and the 80s hardcore scene.
Yet despite receding into cultural insignificance, Ginn still has his knack for infuriating the people who would otherwise look up to him. Earlier this year, Ginn, through SST Records, issued a copyright complaint against all users who had uploaded footage of Black Flag live sets to YouTube. Within days the video website was stripped of all Black Flag clips except for a handful that SST uploaded. In an age when musicians use sites like YouTube to promote their work, Ginn’s decision displays a distinct lack of business acumen. How are fans and potential customers supposed to hear Black Flag if they can’t find it on YouTube? No one buys CDs any more and besides, SST discs are difficult to find considering the label hasn’t exactly been keeping their albums in stock. If this was 2001, you could almost forgive Ginn on account of not understanding new technology and its impact on the consumption of music, but this is 2011 and even a disconnected Greg Ginn should be smart enough to see the writing on the wall.
Business and marketing perspective aside, this decision stinks from a cultural standpoint.
Black Flag are one of the most important and influential bands of the last thirty years, their work has shaped the sound of rock music. Forget about the technicalities of copyright laws, this footage belongs to the people. In every art form, whether it’s film, music or literature, there are cultural touchstones that everyone needs to experience. In the field of rock n roll Black Flag is one such cultural touchstone that should be available at all times to all fans, especially today when the vast majority of music is so deplorable that garbage is celebrated and mediocrity is lauded as genius. It seems depraved to think such essential footage could be locked away in a cardboard box somewhere in Greg Ginn’s garage and never see the light of day.
The footage will undoubtedly resurface on some blog or forum, such is the way of the internet but it shouldn’t have to be like that. This is footage that needs to out there in front of the next generation of musicians so they can see what the real stuff is all about. One can’t help but wonder what 1980s Greg Ginn, that young punk who pioneered DIY work ethic to get his music out there, would think if he saw his older, burned out self stepping on kids for daring to share his music?
He’d probably shake his head and mutter;
“You bet we’ve got something personal against you…”
Voiceless City: The Broderick and Promises Unfulfilled
It shouldn’t have ended this way. The Broderick are one of the best hardcore bands to emerge from Australia. The musician’s hardcore band.
On Saturday June 15 2013, Melbourne hardcore band The Broderick played a 20 minute set at Bang nightclub. The weather was harsh, the crowd was disinterested and The Broderick were a band at the end of their rope. After seven years together that had seen them perform with some of the biggest bands in hardcore including Poison The Well, Converge and Misery Signals, yet had somehow yielded only one full length record, The Broderick were winding down. A week later they would be flying to South East Asia for their very first overseas tour after which they would call it a day. This would be The Broderick’s last Melbourne show. The venue was half empty but overrun with Mall Punks that were too drunk, too stupid and too ignorant to fully understand the significance of what was unfolding on stage. Instead the faux punks, decked out in basketball jerseys and eye liner, moved in hair straightened packs to survey the scene and after quickly realising that it was too unpalatable for their saccharine tastes would sneer as they scurried to the adjoining room to listen to a DJ spin lame 80s metal tracks.
This was to be The Broderick’s last Australian show and it was to take place at Bang- the lowest dive in Melbourne that was renowned for attracting only the most vanilla kids that would go to great lengths to dress up in their “punkest” outfit but actually knew nothing about the music or the scene except that you were supposed to swing your arms into people and make the devil horns during each song. To add insult to injury, The Broderick weren’t even the headliners. Instead they were wedged in between a hair metal tribute act on one side that was fronted by long haired freaks that were so serious and earnest that their performance bordered on parody and on the other side was IExist– a sludgy hardcore band from Canberra with a degree of popularity but nowhere near the quality of The Broderick.
It shouldn’t have ended this way. The Broderick are one of the best hardcore bands to emerge from Australia. The musician’s hardcore band. One of those rare hardcore bands to successfully wed heavy, brooding guitars and beautifully melancholic lyrics to create a whirlwind of emotional intensity that didn’t need the hollow thrills of breakdowns and mosh parts. News that The Broderick were calling it a day should have been greeted with sighs of disappointment and fond farewells. Instead their final moments were spent in a plastic dive in front of kids that could barely suppress a yawn as they waited for the next cheap trick to entertain them. Yet for all their undeniable talent and brilliant music, The Broderick never really got the recognition they deserved. The reason for this injustice? The Broderick.
“TELL ME AGAIN WHY MY THROAT IS CRIPPLED IN PAIN WHILE EMPTY FACES STARE A HOLE THROUGH ME.”
Think of 21st century Australian hardcore and the names that immediately come to mind are Carpathian, Parkway Drive, Miles Away, Break Even and 50 Lions. Over the last eight years The Broderick played with all of these bands and was better than each of them. Tragedy crippled Break Even before they could properly take flight. 50 Lions’ bro mosh schtick wears thin after you turn 24 and realise that swinging your arms around and fly kicking the air isn’t a particularly impressive feat nor a great way to impress women. Miles Away are a strong outfit that always play hard but are too generic to really stand out from the hundreds of other hardcore bands out there. Carpathian’s greatest success, Isolation was loaded with emotional gravitas that put them in the same mould as bands like Modern Life is War and Have Heart, but Carpathian could never properly transfer that emotional punch into their live shows, instead meandering through dull 30 minutes sets that sounded just like the record but without the same intensity. And Parkway Drive, despite reaching a staggering level of international fame and success that no other Australian band has matched, were always just a bunch of surfer dudes that belted out crunching metalcore riffs that were fun to listen to but were ultimately bereft of heart and substance.
The Broderick had all of these bands covered. They were aggressive like Parkway Drive but had an emotional centre that gave them meaning. The Broderick’s slow build ups combined with chaotic, frenzied finales gave them an edge that separated them from the generic pack, unlike Miles Away. In terms of angst and emotional intensity, Carpathian and The Broderick were similar but the fact that The Broderick became more intense and captivating on stage elevated them above their Melbourne counterparts who tended to leave their audiences feeling underwhelmed.
The Broderick’s ascent to the best Australian hardcore band was slow and almost didn’t happen. In 2008 they released Illusion Over Despair, a six track EP that was distributed on Washed Up Records. Illusion Over Despair, with its frantic, distorted guitars was well received within the local scene, cracking the vaunted Short Fast Loud Top 40 Hardcore Albums for 2008. Listening to Illusion five years after its release it’s clear that this was the work of a talented young band still finding its feet. Although the vocals veer too closely towards the throaty, growly, incomprehensible side of the scale, the seed had been planted; their chaotic brand of hardcore was in its embryonic stages and The Broderick was a band to watch out for.
Illusion Over Despair pegged The Broderick as an act on the rise and they soon landed coveted support slots touring with the likes of Poison The Well, The Ghost Inside and Carpathian. Doors were creaking open and all The Broderick had to do was step forward. Instead The Broderick sank into a creative black hole that can happen when you’re five guys in your early twenties with no direction or idea about what to do with your lives. Disagreements broke out, apathy festered and stagnation reigned supreme. The Broderick had hit a wall and the shows dried up. Sure, they still played the odd show at The Arthouse, but it was never enough to build an audience. Like most things in life, the artistic process is all about momentum- you need to be constantly moving forward, to be perpetually building, writing and creating however as soon as you stop, the rot sets in and apathy takes hold. But when you’re bunch of young boys figuring things out, putting one foot in front of the other every day can be the hardest thing in the world. The Broderick were rapidly overtaken by more organised acts and it seemed as though something which had started brightly would burn out.
“I FEAR THIS ANOMIE RUNS THROUGH MY VEINS.”
The next three years would be difficult for The Broderick. They entered a state of almost permanent hibernation; questions about a debut album were usually answered with a shrug or look of disappointment. Infrequently they’d awaken to pick up a support slot for a bigger band or to play a set at Bang or Next, the only two venues that paid a decent appearance fee but only attracted the shallow fans that didn’t care for the moody, atmospheric sound The Broderick were striving for. Creatively the band hit a wall. They knew what they wanted to sound like but the process of actually getting to that sound seemed a long way off. As vocalist Logan Fewster commented: “We found it really hard to write songs. We’d all bring our ideas to practice but we could never agree on anything. Each time someone put forward an idea, the rest of us would criticise it and pay him out. It was a tense environment we created for ourselves and it became difficult to do anything.”
Meanwhile, as The Broderick stagnated, the Australian hardcore scene was changing. New bands were emerging. Melbourne’s Hopeless took the scene by storm with their stellar full length Dear World. Carpathian called it a day and Break Even were dealt a cruel blow that permanently stopped them from getting to where they seemed to destined to go. “Other bands worked harder than us and were more committed. We knew we were as good as them but when it came to actually putting the hard yards in, we kept falling over.” Suddenly The Broderick had transitioned from up and comers to aging underachievers, destined to be discarded and forgotten.
“VOICELESS CITY… REMINDING US OF WHAT WE ARE.”
Out of all music genres, hardcore is most certainly a young man’s game. Hardcore bands are relatively easy to start – all you need is a group of friends, secondhandinstruments and an amp. As long as you’re willing to live rough, play hard and deliver breakdowns, you’ll always be able to pick up gigs. It’s this ease of entry that is hardcore’s greatest strength and weakness. It allows for a never ending influx of new acts to emerge and constantly regenerate the scene, however most of these new bands, for all their enthusiasm, lack the most important and intangible ingredient of all – talent. At the end of the day, energy can only take you so far before repetitive, droning breakdowns bore most listeners and drive crowds away. Although the hardcore scene remains forever young and vibrant, it’s swamped with mediocre acts that mask the real talent and perpetuate the myth to outsiders that hardcore is nothing but a hangout for thugs, knuckleheads and angry young males.
In this high turnover, limited talent environment most hardcore bands live a short existence. The rump of mediocre groups break up once the novelty of playing shows wears off. The lucky few bands that gain a following, crank out a few records, generally of declining quality, and live in the back of a van as they ceaselessly move from gig to gig. The elite hardcore band, that is the one with seeds of sophisticated talent, usually outgrow their humble roots and evolve into a much more accomplished group, shedding their hardcore skin and reaching for a broader audience.
The Broderick fit none of these categories.
Far too talented to belong with the chump bands, nowhere near successful enough to sustain even a meager living from touring and their sound, though sophisticated and evolving, was not gaining new admirers too quickly. To compound the problem, The Broderick were old. To be in your mid to late twenties in hardcore was to be as old as Moses. Being in a hardcore band means putting the rest of your life on hold. Family, friends, work, education, money. All of these things take a backseat when you’re in a hardcore band. When you’re 19, getting a good job or buying a house feels trivial and the thrill of the stage is all that matters. But as soon as you hit your mid twenties, that excitement has dissipated and instead all that’s left is the grind- the grind of another set played in front of small, disinterested crowds. The grind of underpaid, part time jobs to make ends meet. The grind of watching your friends progress with their careers while you’re still sitting in vans.
The Broderick had reached that stage. Still in the scene but outside of it as well by the dint of their age and the fact that the next generation had already usurped them. The Broderick had reached a fork in the road. Quietly disappear from a scene that had always given them an underwhelming response and wonder what might have been or launch one final assault. One last statement of intent to remind everyone of what had been under their noses this whole time.
After much debate and consternation, The Broderick decided to take the latter option. One last roll of the dice. The band knuckled down and sensing that this was to be their epitaph, summoned up a level of determination that up until now had never shown. Months of toil in the studio culminated in Free To Rot, Free Of Sin. The Broderick’s magnum opus and one of the best records produced by an Australian hardcore band.
“I AM FRACTURED. I SEE THE RUIN IN ME.”
From the first strains of opening track, Black Lung, it’s clear on Free To Rot that The Broderick had hit their stride. The potential for greatness that laced Illusion Over Despair finally blossomed on this 10 track record. The frustration from years of waste and ignorance had boiled over and had manifested itself in this maelstromic album.
Marc Harpur’s dissonant guitar that blends hardcore aggression with progressive soundscapes gives Free To Rot its unique flavor and provides the soundtrack to mid youth breakdown. What separates Free To Rot, Free Of Sin from its contemporaries wasn’t its aggression or its epic choruses, of which there are many, but its quieter moments. Harpur, showing expert craftsmanship, uses these quiet moments not as lulls in the action or the cost of doing business before returning to more breakdowns, but as opportunities to build the tension. Any band can deliver a crunching riff but very few understand that what transforms an album from just a random collection of songs into a cohesive whole is the ability to weave a narrative and mood through each track so that each song builds on the last and bleeds into each other without the listener even realising it. Harpur’s moody, atmospheric guitar provides that continuity. Even the interlude tracks add to the atmosphere. On “Unseen” muted guitars combine with Ash Denman’s superb drumming to create a feeling of dread and impending doom. As the volume gradually rises, the tension becomes almost unbearable as the listener strains for a release, setting the stage perfectly for the explosive opening to “Low Sky.” Instead of allowing the listener to catch their breath, the quiet moments of Free To Rot, Free Of Sin, close the walls around the audience, squeezing the air out of their lungs as they grasp for respite.
If Harpur’s guitar is the engine that propels this stellar record, it’s Fewster’s pained vocals that elevates this record into rarefied air yet simultaneously grounds Free To Rot with an emotional hold that almost strangles the listener with its ferocity. Fewster, fuelled by his own self loathing and insecurities, becomes a snarling beast desperately trying to exorcise his personal demons. On “Low Sky,” the standout track on a standout album, recounts the final days of a doomed relationship as both parties attempt to keep alive something that had died sometime ago: “We will talk, pretend and reflect / Of course you can’t go through another night like this.” Fewster’s decision to use The Broderick as his confessional is by no means revolutionary but it’s delivered with such sincerity and passion that the listener cannot help but be moved. Such is the level of despair in those pained howls that by the time closing track “Diving Bell” begins to fade and Fewster mourns that “I am empty skies,” the listener will be physically and emotionally exhausted by the significance of what has just been imprinted on their conscience.
“HOW COULD YOU LET GO?”
Free To Rot, Free Of Sin was the best hardcore album of 2012. It garnered positive reviews from all corners and those that heard it commented on its sophistication and power. The Broderick had arrived. Their ambitious vision for a progressive, moody hardcore album had been achieved, yet as soon as Free To Rot… was released The Broderick began slowing down once again. A national tour took place, support slots for touring overseas bands were picked up but it was all half-hearted window dressing. The Broderick couldn’t even be bothered to produce a film clip to promote the record for fear of being laughed at and seen as desperate, even though their teaser trailer rapidly generated over ten thousand hits. Even with a masterful album in tow, The Broderick still couldn’t muster the will to get out and push the record into the hands of those who needed to hear it. The haphazard touring schedule resumed and momentum was squandered. Fewster later reflected that “we didn’t promote Free To Rot properly… we knew it was a great record and were proud of it but as soon as the album was pressed we’d all stopped caring.” It was as though the effort required to produce Free To Rot had drained the band of all their remaining energy and now that their last great feat was accomplished were simply going through the motions of touring and support which as a band they were expected to do but the intent was gone.
The key ingredient that made Free To Rot so powerful was its maturity. It was the work of seasoned musicians who knew what they were doing and were determined to see the vision come to life. A band in their teens or even their early twenties could never have produced an album of such sophistication and gravitas. Yet it was this maturity that was now The Broderick’s undoing. Having been through the meat grinder of touring before, they no longer had the stomach to do it again.The problem for The Broderick was that they’d peaked too late. If they’d managed to produce Free To Rot when they were still full of youthful vigour, they may have found the strength to build themselves into what they should have become. Instead they were here. At Bang. In front of an audience that didn’t know who they were and nor did they particularly care. They were old men struggling to keep up in a sport meant for the young.
When asked to assess The Broderick’s legacy, Fewster is reluctant to give an answer but there’s no doubt that he’s proud of the band. “We accomplished a lot, more than most other bands from the scene. Free To Rot is something I’ll always be proud of and grateful to have been a part of.” At the same time, after repeated questioning Fewster can’t hide the pangs of disappointment. “We should have been bigger than what we were. We didn’t reach the level we should have. That’s probably our own fault.”
Talking to Logan Fewster about his band is like trying to hold water. He’s hard to pin down and reluctant to say anything, even to those close to him. After careful prompting he finally offers an opinion on why The Broderick never made it to the level he believes they should have- “We fought a lot. Nearly all of us quit the band at some point and we were lazy.”
At that point Fewster’s evasive skills take over and he has nothing more to say but perhaps it’s what he didn’t say that matters most. The Broderick failed not because they weren’t talented enough or because they couldn’t get that lucky break. The Broderick’s ultimate demise was because they were too frozen by the fear of failure to give everything.
“TRACE OUR STEPS AND MAP OUT OUR DESTINATION / WE’RE NOT MOVING, WE’RE STATIONARY.”
The final Bang show began just after 11pm. Close friends of the band, knowing that this would most likely be their last show, turned up to show their support. Parents came along. As always The Broderick play hard and Fewster radiates an animal magnetism that commands attention however the show is a disaster. The sound mix is poor and the vocals are completely inaudible. Ten minutes into the set the bass amp blows up bringing proceedings to halt. The band exchange tense, resigned smirks as they stand awkwardly on stage waiting for a new amp to be set up. Eventually after an unbearable pause, a new amp is found and The Broderick play one last song before exiting the stage. The audience is confused. The crowd is waiting.
We’re still waiting for The Broderick.
Death Camp Tourism
If these three words create the same reaction in you as they do in me, then all this writing has been unnecessary: Death Camp Tourism.
Only after arriving in Poland did I learn that visiting Auschwitz is a tourist staple for any Contiki style visit to Krakow. Something you tick off the list, like the Eiffel Tower in Paris or Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.
Learning this put me off more than slightly. The idea of tour companies scrapping each other to ensure your money, fed by swathes of backpackers who visit the death camps by day and then pub crawl by night; it seemed odd. Still, if I was to do one offensively touristy thing then surely I – a student and lover of 20th century history – should choose this one. Besides, it must be quite unique. It must be a change from the other, somewhat tarnished, milestones along the European tourist highway.
That’s the kind of frame of mind I was in. I arrived to Krakow at 7 am and booked a day-tour which had been advertised at the hostel as soon as I got there, before I could even check in. In fact I had already been offered a trip to Auschwitz earlier: outside the train station by a dubious man with a tattered pamphlet offering to give me a ride. And the largest poster on the window of the closed Information Centre had read: ‘Aushwitz-Birkenau Tours Daily.’ So not exactly hard to find. I paid 109 PLN to the hostel reception.
I was picked up outside the hostel one hour later by a man in a suit and black dress shoes called Peter. He drove me, and a British couple he had picked up from a different hotel, to Oscwiecim – the Polish name for an old town outside Krakow better known now by its German label, Auschwitz. For the first five minutes the British couple were clarifying the price of the tour with Peter.
“It said 46 euro, I don’t want to pay more.”
This says a lot about the modern Auschwitz experience: something in the holiday budget, to be ticked off the list, then to continue with the rest of the itinerary.
So far what I have written has been vague. But I just want to try and evoke how I felt before the experience. Is this really a memorial? I want to create for you the same sense of scepticism I held before going there. A scepticism I hoped would become a good literary counterpoint to the solemn and sobering experience of the camp itself. But here comes the kicker… that binary balance never came. This initial feeling, of falsity, of insincerity, has either remained or been heightened following my visit. I do not wish to point the finger of shame at anybody. I’m not saying this should be done better or differently. I do not know how that would be. All I am saying is that something is not quite right about the Auschwitz experience. Something about what it reveals of the human psyche. Maybe these three words can evoke for you the same sense they evoke in me. If so, then this entire preamble will be redundant, and you could just keep the image that forms in your mind when you see these three words. I read these three words on the cover of a book, something like New Eastern Europe, at ‘Massolit’ book store in Krakow. If these three words create the same reaction in you as they do in me, then all this writing has been unnecessary:
Death Camp Tourism.
Simple as that. Usually my account of a historical tour would circle around historical facts and interesting information. Since much of the history of Nazi death camps is well known, and since they present you with a saturation of the history when you are at Auschwitz-Birkenau, too much to remember, I will avoid most of this. But let it be noted, that they did have a lot of informative, readily accessible history presented at the memorial. That is not what I am writing about. I am writing more about what is not there. What cannot be printed on a board alongside some photos and simply told to you. What has to be felt. What has to be experienced. The reactions. These feelings, experiences, and reactions, sadly, do not result from a visit to Auschwitz.
There are few mantras I believe in more fully than this: those who ignore history are bound to repeat it. So in one regard it is good there is a popular, well established record of this dark chapter in human history. But there is a very stark difference between remembering history and manipulating history. To remember is to feel something, to have a personal reaction to and realisation of; to link a private emotion with a particular event in the past. When I stroll by a WWI memorial, I remember the stories of soldiers who lived through Hell on Earth in the name of Who Knows What. When I walk through the infamous gates at the entrance to Auschwitz I – “Work makes you free” (rough translation) – I no longer remember the stories of the men who passed under it, for whom anything but was the truth. I do not think of the young mothers and helpless children who fell out of wagons onto the railway platform at Birkenau, underneath its iconic watchtower, unaware that they would only leave its barbed wire confines through one of the chimneys. I do not remember those terrible tales of those tragic people. Instead, upon hearing ‘Auschwitz,’ I remember the three food kiosks and two book shops you pass between the bus-laden car park and the entrance to the camp-memorial. I remember the clicking of turn-styles as you begin to climb the stairs of the Birkenau watch tower. The buildings and paving stones are largely untouched since 1945. The snow is on the ground and the flimsy wooden walls of the cramped wooden huts let in the same fatal chilly draft. The piles of shoes, of spectacles, of children’s clothes, of hairbrushes, lie in piles. The history is right there in front of me. Yet I remember none of it.
It is not my aim to depict Auschwitz merely as a tacky touristy spot. To be fair, it is still treated with decorum and respect. People are silent and solemn, often wide-eyed and open-mouthed. There is no food, drink, or smoking allowed anywhere inside. But something is not quite right.
The majority of Jewish people taken to ‘Auschwitz’ – the colloquial collective name for Auschwitz I (the original camp), Auschwitz II-Birkenhau (a camp built in 1941, 30 times the size of the first camp) and Auschwitz III – were Hungarian; 430,000 of these died. The name of the houses where Nazis stored stolen valuables from prisoners was ‘Canada.’ These are a few random facts. The numbers, the names, everything is a bit overwhelming. So eventually they lose their impact. The statistics, names, numbers, only confuse. If you want to remember the victims, do not be confronted with an over-abundance of material details. Remember history, don’t choke on it.
Just before the tour started I was thinking of techniques I could later employ to describe the lack of feeling I got upon arrival. I could see the buildings and fences, and still felt like I was nowhere special. Again, I expected this to form an initial sense of disappointment, which when written down would contrast with and exaggerate the great wealth of sadness brought on from my actual visit. That did not happen. After 3 ½ hours in Auschwitz I and II-Birkenhau, those initial thoughts remained. I walked in silence along the road from the Birkenhau platform to the ruined crematoriums – the walk which for so many new arrivals to the camp was a death walk. On the same road. And I still could not imagine I was anywhere powerful or significant. I stood in the very same dark chamber where a group of Soviet prisoners were the first to be killed en masse by the use of Zyklon B gas–an experiment proving so successful that it became the standard method of execution throughout the Holocaust.
I stood in that room where it was first tried. That stuffy, concrete room. I looked up and a drop of rain fell on my nose. A drop of rain that had dripped through one of the wooden openings down which a small handful of SS men had dropped the first bundles of Zyklon B and waited to see the effects. The same hole through which hundreds of thousands more such bundles would be dropped. A raindrop from that very opening. And still I was unmoved. I did not cry. I tried to well up. I could not. It was just a raindrop. Instead of filling with disgusted thoughts of how mankind could treat itself, my mind was filled only with the urgency to move forward and not hold up the stream of people behind me. My ears did not hear the imaginary screams of people who stood on this very spot, naked, wailing as they realised, having been fooled right to the end, by the fake showers mounted on the walls, by the Nazi troops telling them to remember the number of the hook on which they hung their clothes so they could pick up the correct ones after their shower, realised for the first time, that this is the spot on which they would die. I only heard the annoying crackle of static through the headphones of my compulsory audio guide. The Nazis embroidered different markings onto their prisoners for identification purposes. The group leaders used stickers to know how many of their group have remembered to meet at the right times. I always had to look out for my group, to catch up with them. If I could see another person with the same sticker, I felt comfortable – I could not be lost.
I did not smile throughout my entire visit, as expected. There was one time, however, when my lips tightened and almost turned upward. It was a vague sense of irony I got as we ended the tour. I think the irony was lost on all those who either work or visit Auschwitz, but perhaps somebody else felt it.
Tourists come in waves to the site of Auschwitz. They do as a guide tells them, unable to think for themselves. Prisoners from minority groups brought to Auschwitz were forced to speak German. English, the tourists’ lingua franca, is now the most prevalent tongue there, and almost compulsory if you want to understand the signs and placards. It is hard to be inconspicuous when you are forced to wear a sticker labelling you as a member of a certain tour group – an initiative designed to help your guide keep you under better control. My sticker was blue. I saw big orange ones, square yellow ones. The Nazis embroidered different markings onto their prisoners for identification purposes. The group leaders used stickers to know how many of their group have remembered to meet at the right times. I always had to look out for my group, to catch up with them. If I could see another person with the same sticker, I felt comfortable – I could not be lost. All these subtle ironies bubbled up into the half smile I talked about once I got to the end of the tour of Auschwitz I: we had to line up and hand back our audio guides. First, we were told, you had to unplug the headphones. Then we had to hang these on a metal rack, just like the person in front of and behind us. Then we had to hand our radio receiver box, after we had switched the channel back to 5 and turned it off, to an expressionless man with a badge around his neck. Of course we all did this without question or complaint. It’s easy to follow somebody else. Then we were told to go and wait by the white van in the car park, so we could be counted. Everybody had to be there. Everybody was. The van took us to Auschwitz II-Birkenhau.
In noticing the unintentional parallels between then and now I at first almost chuckled. Then I realised how sad this really was. The only part of the visit not designed to make me remember this terrible history, was the only part which did so. Only through this comical irony did I remember the sad story of those victims of mankind, and realise also the sadder story: that this dark chapter of history is not an anomaly. These victims are a by-product of humanity, a result of how we think, act, and treat each other, just part of a tragic production line that started long before any of us were born, and will continue to operate long after all of us have disappeared.