Tag Archives: Holocaust memorials

The Holocaust Skateboard Park

As I witnessed at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where tour buses list the Nazi death complex as just another sightseeing attraction, genocide commemoration and vacations often don’t mix.

There is a world of difference between walking through the actual historical site (or more accurately, a mass-murder scene) and seeing a well-intentioned memorial site thousands of miles from where the Holocaust took place. As scholar James E. Young points out in his phenomenal book, The Texture of Memory, putting a memorial in the public arena is a confrontational act. It forces people to think — even for a moment — about a time and place where bloodthirsty psychopaths set the rules determining whether you live or die.

And when Holocaust memorials are located in the tourist areas of Paris, Rome, Berlin, Budapest and Prague, they happen to be on the same streets where Jews were dragged from their homes and stuffed into cattle cars.

Boston, of course, has no such direct connection. But I’m still horrified when I see people treat the New England Holocaust Memorial like an ordinary piece of modern art. Teens sometimes skateboard through the glass towers, which represent the deathcamp chimneys. And I saw a birthday party held there DURING a memorial ceremony with Holocaust survivors present.

I believe there is very little intentional disrespect in play at the Boston memorial, which is only steps away from the city’s tourist epicenter of Faneuil Hall.

Nonetheless, more can be done to prevent it from becoming a glorified skateboarding park.

Next week is Yom Hashoah and Holocaust Remembrance Week. What do you think can or should be done to educate pedestrians about the meaning of Holocaust memorials or any monument commemorating tragedy?

Without ambushing them.

Check out my suggestions at “Learning, Laughter & Light,” my wife Stacy’s Jewish education blog.

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More Deathcamp Dorks: Who stole the “Work Makes You Free” sign at Auschwitz?

I fully understand the political implications of stealing the Auschwitz gate sign that cruelly promised more than a million soon-to-be-slaughtered victims that hard work would set them free. And I understand the twisted gleeful symbolism that Neo-Nazis would embrace if one of them hung this sign in their dorm room.

But there is something deeply ironic about Jews worrying about protecting the original logo of the top Nazi deathcamp. For me, some of the most stirring scenes in World War II newsreels are when the US Army blows up giant swastikas decorating the top of Nazi buildings.

When/if the Polish police recover the Arbeit Macht Frei sign, they should leave it on the ground for visitors to urinate on it.

And as for the Polish security officers “guarding” the camp, it’s a damn shame they weren’t working as the original Auschwitz guards.

From the Times of London:

“It seems that a gang of perhaps three people unscrewed the sign between three o’clock and five o’clock on Friday morning,” said Dariusz Nowak, a police spokesman. “They must have used a ladder and had a car waiting for them.”

“Police said that they were reviewing footage from a surveillance camera that overlooks the entrance gate and the road beyond, but declined to say whether the crime was recorded. The sign appears to have been dismantled in six minutes flat — corresponding to the time it takes for the museum guards to change their shifts.”

Also fascinating how the Times calls them “Museum Guards,” like they’re sauntering past Dorothy’s red ruby slippers at the Smithsonian.

As I discovered when I was in Poland, people quickly forget the difference between a deathcamp and a tourist attraction.

UPDATE: Sign has been recovered, but was cut in three pieces. Police say the thieves were common garden-variety thieves “commissioned” by a foreigner.

CHILLING FLASHBACK: Check out this recently discovered photograph of young female SS groupies pretending to be sad when they ran out of blueberries at snack time. Apparently, their boyfriends’ deathcamp jobs didn’t seem too upsetting to these people.

From the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum:

“A full-page spread of six photographs entitled “Hier gibt es Blaubeeren” (Here there are blueberries) shows Höcker passing out bowls of fresh blueberries to the young women sitting on a fence. When the girls finish theatrically eating their blueberries for the camera, one girl poses with fake tears and an inverted bowl. Only miles away on the very same day, 150 prisoners (Jews and non-Jews) arrived on a transport to Auschwitz. The SS selected 21 men and 12 women for work, and killed the remaining members of the transport in the gas chambers.”

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Capture That Auschwitz Moment


Japanese tourists take turns playfully posing by the barbed wire fence at the Auschwitz-Birkenau deathcamp in Poland.

Japanese tourists take turns playfully posing by the barbed wire electric fence at the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau deathcamp, the Nazi graveyard for 1.5 million Holocaust victims.

“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.”

The Great Auschwitz Photo-Op

The Great Auschwitz Photo-Op

“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.”

HONEY, GRAB A PICTURE OF ME WITH THE ZYKLON B!  (An American tourist wants Nazi poison gas in his vacation scrapbook)

HONEY, GRAB A PICTURE OF ME WITH THE ZYKLON B!                                                               (An American tourist wants Nazi poison gas in his vacation scrapbook)

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