It is cold, very cold and the show is lying heavily beside the roads, on the rooftops and on the pavements.  Krakow in Poland is a beautiful city and in the throes of a cold winter when the clear blue skies allow the sun to glisten on the long icicles that hang from the rooftops there is tremendous magic in the place.

Today, however, is a grey, misty day with no sign of fresh snow.  The fog seems to simultaneously rise from the ice and snow and drift down from the sullen sky.  Today is the day we are visiting Auschwitz, the concentration death camp operated by the Nazis in the Second World War.  We climb into the bus and are driven through the snow blanketed countryside.  The few people that we see as we move swiftly along the road are bent against the cruel wind and wrapped up in layers of clothing to keep them warm.  It is a day for reflection; to observe, listen and then to feel.

The car park is filling up as we arrive and we pull up beside another bus; this one is disgorging a crowd of students from another part of Europe – they are in high spirits as they wait to be organised.  We enter the visitor area and buy tickets.  Not for us the guided tour, we want to be apart from the crowds, to have some space to feel what happened there.

The cold is biting, clinging to our faces, dragging at our feet.  It is a welcome relief to go inside to view the exhibition of shoes, of human hair and to read the stories of those that were killed, see the photos of the imprisoned and their guardians.  Steadily the horror seeps into the brain:  here is the place people were put up against the wall and shot;  there are the gas chambers; these are the furnaces where living children met their end;  these are the workers dormitories, cold wooden and concrete; this the end of the railway line, where life finished before death came.

Walking out in the snow they can be seen, shuffling along, leaving no mark.  In the icy air their breathing creates the mist that clings.  My body is cold, uncomfortable, in the silence that still holds the ghosts of the dead.  It is warmer in the gas chambers and where the furnaces once reduced so much flesh and bone to ash.  A new horror emerges as I read about the cold efficiency of the factory of death and my mind slips unbidden from the shock of the killing to the lives of the killers – I become aware that I have more in common with them than the ragged skeletons.  Like many of these men who stare out from their photographs I am well-educated, privileged, with my roots in the dominant professional middle-class.  And it begins to dawn on me that I have within me the capability of cruelty, the level of fear and the lack of compassion to be part of such an institution of torture, destruction and death.  All I need is to be convinced of the rightness of the cause and to separate myself from the existence of other living beings.  I have done it; I could do it now – for I have learnt well, though I cannot remember the lessons.

We return to the car park at the same time as the students; they are returning to their bus in small groups, bowed by the cold and what they have seen and heard concerning the capabilities of the human race.  I sit with my wife and eldest son; I cannot speak as I look back and remember within the walls such echoes of violence, courage, desperation, misery, arrogance and sheer horror.

I ask the question: what is the road we can take that means that we are compassionate rather than cruel; even to the point of facing death rather than destroying another?