On Holocaust Memorial Day, I look back at my harrowing visit to a former Gestapo prison in Kraków in May 2012.
I visited the former Gestapo facility at Pomorska Street in Kraków in May 2012 whilst on my way to Western Ukraine. This was my first visit to Kraków and I was aware that many visitors go to the nearby Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum. I was travelling by myself and decided, therefore, that a visit to Auschwitz would be too distressing without a companion. I also tend to prefer small museums, unknown and unusual places, off the beaten track.
I was surprised at how ordinary the establishment at Pomorska Street appeared from the outside. It is an unremarkable building in a largely residential area, away from the city centre tourist spots and near a park where families and children enjoy fun activities. The entrance, as I recall, is via a service area. I was the only visitor in the building and the staff did not speak good English, but I needed no translator as the story tells itself; the floor to ceiling glass cases of suitcases, clothes and personal effects stripped from those incarcerated by the Gestapo; the chilling soundtrack of a reconstructed interrogation, the photos of ordinary men and women who joined the resistance to help the local Jewish population, and photos of the cruel Nazi officers who presided over torture and death.
I was struck by the fact that the building had previously been an educational establishment dedicated to the teaching and promotion of local culture. Of course, it was no accident that Hitler's devotees would wish to stamp out all traces of local distinctiveness; culture and identity threaten those with a master plan to impose a homogenous society.
As I left the building a woman sitting by a stairwell leading downstairs to a basement motioned that I should follow her. I had no idea what awaited me but rounding a corner I suddenly realised that I was in the actual cells where the Gestapo had tortured and imprisoned their victims. The cell walls are inscribed with the names of brave prisoners and messages are scratched into the surface. I was overwhelmed by being in close proximity to the very place where such cruelty had been meted out. The photographic portraits I had seen in the museum displays on the floor above were suddenly alive for me. Real people who had stood firm in their anti-fascist beliefs had paced these cells, sick with anticipation, listening to the screams and cries of their tortured comrades. Real men and women, of all ages, had lain bleeding and broken on these stone floors, yet still unwilling to reveal their compassionate accomplices. And real men whose minds had become twisted and whose hearts had hardened had presided over a monstrous place of terror, instilling fear into the local community.
I was desperately upset. The woman who had ushered me inside gave me a tissue and stroked my arm. I guessed she was used to visitors losing their composure. Despite the distress I experienced I reflected later that I was glad that I had visited Pomorska Street.
I won my place in the European Parliament in the May 2014 elections, standing against the racist, fascist Holocaust denier, Nick Griffin of the British National Party, now greatly discredited. At a time when Europe once again seems on the brink of a human catastrophe we need reminders of the worst excesses of nationalism, populism and extremism. 'Never Again' must mean exactly that."