Holocaust tourism

By Alexandra Levine

A number of telephone poles around Kraków are plastered with a large, bright blue flier advertising trips to Auschwitz, the largest Nazi German concentration camp and death camp of World War II. The woman in the ad—smiling ear to ear, eyes wide with excitement—poses in front an ominous, barbed-wire fence that 70 years ago would have been so electrified it could kill a prisoner on contact. Behind the fence, we can see an empty watchtower where Nazi perpetrators kept an oppressive watch on prisoners. “The Experience of Auschwitz,” the flier reads, promising a fun tour of the place where Nazis murdered some 1,100,000 victims between 1940 and 1945.

Alex photo for dispatch

Advertisement in Kraków for a tour of Auschwitz. (Alexandra Levine/FASPE)

As we pulled up to Auschwitz on May 31, the parking lot was filled with more than 20 buses and swarms of tourists, some slurping chocolate ice cream cones and playing music on their smartphones as they waited in line. Inside, under the iconic Arbeit Macht Frei sign (“Work makes you free”), tourists with selfie sticks snapped photos from just about every angle. Young children ran between the barracks, the gallows and the blocks where prisoners were tortured to death or shot against a wall. If you didn’t know you were in a Nazi concentration camp, the scene might’ve resembled elementary school recess.

Holocaust tourism is on the rise. The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, located in rural Oświęcim, Poland, now brings in between 8,000 and 10,000 visitors a day, according to one of the museum’s press and public relations officers, Pawel Sawicki. The 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz this past January drew global attention and press coverage, and resulted in even more visitors than usual, Sawicki added.

This is hardly new; people have been visiting Auschwitz for decades. They “come for a variety of reasons—to see if it could really have been true, to remind themselves not to forget, to pay homage to the dead by the simple act of looking upon their place of suffering,” wrote the late A. M. Rosenthal in 1958, when he was a correspondent for The New York Times.

In 2015, this still holds true. But today, with the recent spike in Holocaust tourism, many visitors and scholars question what tourists’ motivations are. Critics wonder whether the boom in such tourism is helping or hurting our education about and remembrance of the genocide.

Some of the FASPE fellows find Holocaust tourism highly problematic, justifiably concerned that the experience has been cheapened, that Auschwitz and the nearby camps have become something of a Disneyland. One FASPE fellow questioned whether, when people implant themselves at Auschwitz for a few short hours before escaping back to Kraków by sundown, they are really learning anything or are merely checking a box off a must-see list. Another fellow talked about “war porn,” suggesting that some tourists’ morbid curiosity or thirst for doom-and-gloom stories fetishizes the horrors of Auschwitz. I too wondered whether the visitors with selfie sticks were paying attention to Auschwitz and its story or to themselves.

Maybe the answers don’t matter.

Many of us realized during our two days at the camp that a visit to Auschwitz means different things to different people, and perhaps it’s wrong or ignorant for any of us to judge one “reason” for visiting as more or less legitimate than the next. Having explored all kinds of ethical and professional questions around the Holocaust in the week leading up to our visit, the FASPE fellows developed what we hope is a deeper, more well-rounded understanding of Auschwitz and its larger context. This intellectual approach at first made it tempting for our group to feel more prepared, more respectful and, to an extent, more entitled than other visitors.

But ultimately, I realized that this attitude is not fair. The need to bear witness to the Holocaust and to its camps is one of the most important factors in keeping the story alive, particularly in the next ten years, when the last Holocaust survivors may pass. If visiting Auschwitz is one person’s way of bearing witness, perhaps it doesn’t matter whether it’s “Holocaust tourism” or something more “profound.” Perhaps the tourist who arrives, selfie stick in hand, is not taking the Holocaust any less seriously than the tourist who shows up with a notebook, camera, or prayer book.

In one room, mountains of human hair—chopped and shaved off prisoners’ heads after they were murdered in the gas chambers—were preserved behind glass. Piles of children’s shoes, hundreds of suitcases and colorful kitchen bowls, and thousands of eyeglasses were on display too. We touched the gallows. We walked inside the gas chambers and stared at the blank, chipped walls. We gaped at the sheer size of the machinery in the crematorium—machinery used to burn the gassed human corpses. Now we can say we saw it, that we toured Auschwitz. Some of us walked away with photos and some of us walked away with nothing more concrete than terror, anger, sadness, or confusion. Most of us had no words.

At the end of the day, we, too, were Holocaust tourists. But we came to understand that in return for seeing Auschwitz as tourists–70 years later, from a place of safety and even privilege–we’ve now assumed the responsibility of sharing its tales and disseminating its history, whatever the medium.

(6/3/2015)

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