Poland was still behind the Iron Curtain then. It was the summer of 1972, and I was travelling to that country with student colleagues. Our tertiary course involved Marxism, and we wanted to see something of its implications in practice.

Entering East Germany en route, I felt a certain sense of excitement; I had not penetrated the ‘Berlin Wall’ before. ‘No-man’s Land’ and the ugly prison defences separating East and West Germany were chilling.

Even more chilling was the concentration camp of Auschwitz in southern Poland. I saw hair, spectacles and teeth piled high, and the gas chambers where thousands of victims were mercilessly destroyed. It was summer, but the birds did not sing. There was death in the air. A Polish boy who acted as our guide whispered, ‘My grandparents died in this camp. It is my duty to let people know what happened.’

Underlying question

Three years later, my wife and I went to visit an East German pen-friend, Dorothea, who was not allowed to visit us. Once again, we traversed ‘No-man’s Land’ and went beyond the Berlin Wall—this time feeling very vulnerable.

We have been many times since. On one occasion we asked our friend, ‘Do you ever see the situation changing?’ The answer was a short ‘No’, but her resigned look of despair spoke more eloquently.

I trust you can imagine, therefore, the tears and the joy that flowed in November 1989 when the Wall came down. The prison doors had broken open, and our friends were free!

Yet lingering beneath the surface was a question that would not go away. I had seen the horrific impact of Nazism on the life of a nation. I had then experienced the similarly grim effect of a different ideology—Communism. Why had such enormous evil been unleashed upon so many people?

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