A group of young Spaniards at Auschwitz

What did you see in Auschwitz?

Every year more than a million people visit Auschwitz. In the run-up to International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which commemorates the liberation of the camp on 27 January, Télérama wonders: Is this mass tourism not to some extent a profanation of memory?

Published on 26 January 2012 at 16:20
A group of young Spaniards at Auschwitz

“Maybe a package tour would be more convenient..."

"... You’re right, it would take less time.” They are a couple in their fifties with an attentive way of speaking to each other. Stopping over in Cracow in the course of their holiday, they do not want to miss out on the one item that is at the top of the region’s to do list: a visit to Auschwitz, which is 60 kilometres from the city.

The employee at the tourist office politely provides the required information. Every year he sees thousands of couples like this: people with only three days to visit the region who want to see “the camp.” Today Auschwitz has more visitors than the splendid city of Cracow, for which it has almost become the leading attraction.

Tourists travelling to the city face a constant hail of solicitations: even at the airport, the taxi drivers offer to take you directly to the camp. Tour operators propose day trips: a total of three hours on the bus, and two hours at the site for an all-in fee of 100 zlotys, the equivalent of 20 euros. “Auschwitz is the tour that is most in demand, especially from foreigners,” says Tomas Stanek, the manager of Cracow City Tours. Last year, 1.3 million people visited the camp.

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It is a well-oiled machine: one of the agency’s staff picks you up from your hotel and drives you to Szczepanski Square, where the mini-buses leave for the site. Before you get to Oswiecim, you start seeing signs for “Muzeum Auschwitz,” a term that is as carefully neutral as possible. The buses park in a pay-in carpark, where there are toilets, also pay-in, and money changing machines. The pictograms tell you that dogs, swimwear, smoking, eating, and pushchairs – a rule that a lot of young parents choose to ignore – are banned at the site.

“There are too many people for us to feel anything”

At the entrance, there are covered stands selling books and drinks. Two drunk men holding cans of beer, are lounging with their backs against a bollard and rucksacks at their feet. In the cafeteria located in the ticket office building, three youths are rushing to finish their hamburgers, are grumbling because no one told them eating was banned at the site. In theory, there is no entrance fee: but all groups must be accompanied by a guide (38 zlotys per person), and individual visitors are not allowed in between 10 AM and 3 PM.

On the day in question, 8,000 tourists accompanied by 250 guides, speaking 14 languages will pass through the site. Our group is led by a slightly crabby looking woman called Doro­ta, who conducts three two-hour visits a day: 90 minutes in the Auschwitz labour camp and just 30 minutes in the Birkenau extermination camp.

The group comes to a halt. A couple with a baby are the first to take out a camera in front of the sign that says Arbeit macht frei (“Work makes free”). We regularly have to wait or move out of the way to allow other tours go by. Some of the guides carry open umbrellas so as not to lose their visitors. There is very little in the way of emotion: as though it was held back by the crowd. In the third room five people decide to break away on their own.

One of them, a French man explains: “There are too many people for us to feel anything. The truth is the guide isn’t telling us anything we don’t know already.” “And it’s too slow,” adds his wife, before following him. A thirty-something French man, who is apparently of Kurdish origin, is holding forth on the subject of genocides – in Armenia, Algeria and Rwanda – for the benefit of his neighbours.

Limits of decency are regularly tested

When we alight from the shuttle at Birkenau, other buses are already parked in front of the massive tower that awaited the trains. There are visitors picnicking on the grass. But we are running short of time because the weather is about to change. So we hurry. A video maker, who is carefully filming, announces to his camcorder: “This was the women’s camp.” Another man takes out his mobile to call a friend: “Just thought I’d say hallo.”

In front of the ruins of the gas chambers, the first drops begin to fall. The rain is cold, and having been lulled into a false sense of security by the morning sunshine, hardly any of the visitors have brought rain gear. We run to take shelter under a canopy, while the rain grows thicker: “Like this, we can feel something of what they suffered,” solemnly remarks the Kurd.

Is all of this shocking? No doubt it is. The limits of decency are regularly tested. A few years ago, a woman started to remove her clothes in one of the gas chambers in a bid to understand what “they” felt. In 2001, pressure from American Jewish associations finally resulted in the closure of a nightclub that was a kilometre from Birkenau. Five years ago, a clothing company company submitted a request to hold a fashion show at the camp. The “Arbeit macht frei“ sign was stolen in December 2009. And a few months ago, the YouTube video of an Australian survivor dancing “I will survive“ with his grandchildren at the site where he had suffered so much was at the very least perplexing.

But inevitable? This is also true too. “Among intellectuals working on the genocide, there is no debate on the moral implications of turning Auschwitz into a destination for visitors. The tour buses are a consequence of the massive drive for remembrance,” explains French researcher Jean-Charles Szurek, who is also the author of La Pologne, les Juifs et le communisme (Poland, the Jews and communism). “Even if the idea of day trips from a European capital appears absurd, the young people who come here laughing are probably destined to learn something before they leave.” The principle of being open to tourists is only really contested by deniers like England’s David Irving, who has accused the Polish government of turning Auschwitz into a “Disney-style” tourist site.

“We are not in Auschwitz”

For their part, historians have criticised the presentation of history at the site, “which does not distinguish between Poles, Russians, political prisoners and Jews – the latter being the only ones, along with the gypsies, to be subject to 'selection' and extermination,” explains Italian historian Marcello Pezzetti. ”Visits to Auschwitz that allow so little time do not enable people to understand what happened. The fact that the tourists are coming is not shocking, what is shocking is what they are shown...”

These debates are closely followed in Oswiecim, whose Germanized name is Ausch­witz: a predominantly grey town with a few yellow painted houses that do not succeed in brightening the atmosphere, which has been made even grimmer by 16% unemployment – a rate that is well over the national average and that has forced most young people to move away. Auschwitz has created some jobs in Oswiecim – nearly all of the camp’s 250 guides live there – but tourists hardly ever stop in the town.

“We don’t exist. And when people see us, even those of us who were not born at the time, they are always thinking: “How could they have let it happen?” complains resident Mar­gareta Szeroka. Do the townspeople also want to take advantage of the huge masses of tourists? “This is the town of Oswiecim. We are not in Auschwitz,” points out former local mayor Janusz Marszalek.

In Cracow’s Kazimierz district, however, the “success” of the camp has prompted a remarkable Jewish “revival”. Anna Gulinska, is not Jewish, but the 27-year-old brunette fell in love with Jewish culture “at school and university,” and completed studies in Yiddish. Today she is in charge of programming at the city’s Jewish Community Centre. “We are here to serve a community, “ she says. “Jewish Poland is not just a big graveyard.” And Auschwitz? “We would like the tourists on their way back from the camp to come through here. We live in the shadow of what happened there, but we have to look beyond that.”

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