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.