The birch field
- Correspondence to Dr John Launer, London Deanery, Stewart House, London WC1B 5DN, UK;
The field is huge, roughly the size of 300 football pitches. Despite its size, it is entirely surrounded by a fence. The fence is only interrupted at one place, by an imposing brick gatehouse with an arch. Somewhat incongruously, a railway line runs under the arch. The railway continues some way into the field, and then comes to an end in a siding. There are dozens of large huts, or block houses, laid out regularly across most of the field, some made of brick and others wooden. At the opposite end from the gatehouse there are also some collapsed buildings. They look as if they once served some industrial purpose. Apart from these structures—the gatehouse, the railway, the huts, the ruins—the field is fairly ordinary. In the local language, the name of the place is ‘birch’, which was the name of a village that once existed here. A long time ago, before the village itself, there were presumably birch trees growing here, although none are evident now.
The field may look ordinary, but for 3 years in the last century, from early 1942 until late 1944, this was one of the world's killing fields. In Polish, the name for the birch tree is ‘Brzezinka’. Translated into German, it is ‘Birkenau’, the name that people generally use for this place. Close by is the small town of Oświęcim, or Auschwitz, with its old barracks. The chief advantage of the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex was that it lay at almost exactly the centre of Europe, near the confluence of two large rivers, and at a junction for …