“Capture That Auschwitz Moment:
Tacky tourism becomes part of the concentration camp landscape”
By Darren Garnick
Originally published Oct. 26, 1998
The Jerusalem Report
OSWIECIM, POLAND — The tourist from Japan is on his stomach, straddling the main train tracks that bisect Birkenau. Meticulously resting his camera on the railroad ties, it first appears as if he wants a low angle shot of the camp. But he wants more. Clicking the camera’s self-timer button, he scrambles a few meters forward and sits on the tracks. He now has a better photo: himself crouching in front of the SS “Gate of Death.”
Off to the side, two other visitors take turns posing by the barbed wire fence. At nearby Auschwitz, an American stands stoically for his wife’s camera in front of canisters of Zyklon B, the same ones the Nazis used to gas people to death. The great concentration camp photo-op is too tempting to pass up.
Containing the ashes of 1.5 million victims — 90 percent of them Jews — Auschwitz-Birkenau has the sad distinction of being the world’s largest cemetery, a cemetery that doubles as an international tourist destination. On a scorching late-summer afternoon, the parking lot is filled with tour buses. One reads: “Regular Tours: Salt Mine — Wieliczka/ Auschwitz-Birkenau EVERY DAY.”
One of the throngs is Jeff Lavie, a Los Angeles public school teacher who says he is here to find out more about the deaths of relatives of his maternal grandparents in the camp and to satisfy a “curiosity to understand where my relatives stood.” But, he says, it is frustrating trying to find somewhere to pray among the streams of tourists. “This is a grieving place, but there is no place set aside to pray,” Lavie says, adding that he would like to see a centralized spot more conducive to leaving flowers and candles.
Lavie says most of his fellow visitors were respectful, but also harried by their guides. “Most people were rushed through here. Auschwitz was just ‘Stop B’ on a lot of places to get to that day.”
James E. Young, chair of Judaic Studies at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, has visited Auschwitz-Birkenau more than 30 times for his research on Holocaust memorials. He says he has witnessed numerous tourists who see the trip as a “vicarious thrill.”
“It is a very slippery line. At what point does a pilgrimage turn into entertainment? I don’t know where the line is drawn, but I know it when I see it,” Young says. “I know when people are playing Frisbee with their shirts off that something is wrong. It doesn’t happen often, but it happens.”
Young says he believes that most inappropriate behavior is not motivated by disrespect. In the case of overzealous photography, he suspects most people just want proof that “we were there. There’s such a thing as unintentional descrecration,” he says. “Even survivors my unintentionally violate the sacredness of the camps.”
Sometimes, tourist behavior can enhance the memorial. Rocks with Stars of David and “Yisrael” written on them left at the edge of the Birkenau tracks by Jewish youth groups may be regarded as more poignant that the official monuments.
As custodian of the camps, the Polish government is often in a no-win situation. If it promotes the camps too much, it will be accused of exploitation. If it stays too low-key, it could be accused of ignoring the Holocaust. According to Young, the most positive change was when the post-Communist government stopped renting out the camps as sets for movies and TV programs.
In 1989, the American producers of “Triumph of the Spirit” (a movie about a Greek-Jewish boxer forced to fight fellow inmates for Nazi entertainment) left papier-mache gas chambers propped up at Birkenau directly over the dynamited ruins left by the Germans. Says Young: “The last thing I’d want is to see a Holocaust denier show up and see a fake gas chamber.”
But fears of commercializing the Holocaust will always loom at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where the differences between the terms “gift shop” and “book store” are subtle. The shops, located right in front of the main entrance, so far have avoided items like T-shirts and key chains; postcards of the “Arbeir macht frei” (“Work makes you free”) gate and the Auschwitz fence at sunset are the closest things to souvenirs now available.
A mini-mall — complete with a visitor’s center, bank, post office and restaurant — is scheduled for completion next February. This is a scaled-down version of a planned larger center, including a supermarket and fast food restaurants. And in an attempt to minimize offense, the mall, which will be located across the street, will be a neutral color and contain no large advertisements.
While the controversy and tension over the crosses placed outside Auschwitz-Birkenau recently by Catholic extremists assume a higher international profile, it may be the identity struggle between tourist destination and Holocaust memorial that will never be resolved.
“When the graves of your family become the historical curiosities of others, the conflict begins,” says Young. “Here’s the choice: Either we put the sites off-limits to everyone but historians… or we end up with kiosks selling mementos. There is no way to win this.”