Monday, 18 November 2013

Is it morbid to visit Auschwitz?

Tourism to Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Museum has been under the spotlight recently. The former concentration camp had a staggering 1.3 million visitors last year. A debate has been raging over how best to preserve the site, which slowly begun crumbling. And concerns continue about how travel agents promote tours to the site, and how tourists behave when they get there.

The notorious 'Arbeit Macht Frei' sign above Auschwitz's gate - 'work will set you free'.
Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr stream.
Auschwitz is the site where an estimated 1.1 million people met their deaths. It has attained a grotesquely mythic significance, so it's no surprise that visitor numbers continue to rise. Some go to trace the history that shaped their own families. Others are grimly curious to see the Second World War's most notorious site. Plenty of visitors arrive on educational school trips, and still others might visit on a dark day trip from Krakow. And undeniably there are visitors who are simply fascinated by the Holocaust.

A sign reading 'Stop!', warning prisoners that they'd be shot if they advanced any further.
Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr stream.
For me, there can be no question that visiting commemorates the atrocities committed at the camps. I've never met a visitor to Auschwitz who didn't emerge powerfully moved. But its emotional impact is still only a shadow of the brutal experiences of those who were incarcerated, tortured and murdered there - which leads some historians to believe the site would be better left to decay.

Empty cans of Zyklon-B.
Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr stream.
For camp survivors and their descendants, there can be an uncomfortable disconnect between the pain of Auschwitz's prisoners, and vicarious sorrow experienced by travellers touring the site. Do some visitors treat Auschwitz like an emotional theme park where they can gawp at a tragic past they're untouched by, before returning to Krakow to hit the beers? Is visiting Auschwitz just plain morbid?

A tangle of prosthetic limbs, all stolen from prisoners killed at Auschwitz.
Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr stream.
I sympathise with discomfort about visitors who rubber-neck, rather than pay tribute, but the distinction isn't clear-cut. Visitors navigate a complex emotional maze when they explore the site. On my own visit, I went from thoughtful contemplation to grim fascination; Auschwitz made me furious, and then hopelessly sad. The arbitrary factors dictating survival or non-survival of the war - location, luck, or the flick of a camp commandant's wrist - were chilling.

'Hunger' statue at Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Museum.
Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr stream.
The sympathy and sorrow of visitors to death camps is a whisper of the suffering experienced by those who went through the camps, but most visitors complete tours of the site in a thoughtful and reflective way (in my experience at least - although I did see one individual taking a grinning selfie in the gas chambers). And the vast majority of tour operators seem to get the tone of visits just right.
Seemingly endless corridors of prisoner photos on display at Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Museum.
Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr stream.
But what about those who are riveted by Holocaust history? There's a dark corner of the human brain that just can't look away from horror; why else would there be endless re-runs of documentaries about Nazi atrocities, a churn of books about the 'Final Solution'? There's a thirst to learn every detail of the ghastliest crimes of the Second World War.

Barbed wire fences inside Auschwitz.
Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr stream.
Critics would call it history porn, but while it's outwardly unsavoury to want to pore over the detritus of a death camp, it's a mistake to dismiss it as morbid. Gruesome fascination is always accompanied by questions: what happened? Who caused it? How could it happen? Why did people let it happen?

Watchtower on the fringe of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr stream.
Groping for answers to these questions is uncomfortable, and picking through what's left of Auschwitz isn't for the meek. But dismissing visitors to Auschwitz as morbid rubberneckers - or worse, allowing the site to crumble into dust - won't lay the past to rest. It would silence our urgent interrogation of human cruelty.

1 comment:

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