Should You Visit Auschwitz?
Tanya our guide lowered her volume and changing into a considered, solemn tone added;
“And this is where 500,000 people were gassed to death…can we please have a minute in silence”.
I stood in the silence and through the faint light glanced around at the decaying walls. This was the large shower room at Auschwitz-Bikenau which the Nazi’s had used as the main gas chamber during the Holocaust.
I had traveled to Auschwitz on a coach filled with tourists from around the world. Now here we were with our Polish guide, (her perfectly-polished English betraying only the slightest accent) escorting us around the various locations within the camp complex where 1.1 million people had suffered and died.
Why had I come here? Even now looking back it is difficult to answer. Had I come to pay respect to the dead? Well yes. I reverently read the names of the victims on the walls and carefully studied what was left of their personal belongings, trying my best to remember that each of these artefacts was once owned and used by a human being who’s life had been cruelly snatched away by an evil machination. But I had no personal connections to Auschwitz or to the Holocaust that I am aware of and I certainly hadn’t brought a reef to offer.
Rather, I think I came to see whether it was possible to tell, simply from visiting such a place, what had happened there. I guess I needed to know whether the sheer weight of the evil and suffering had left its mark on the physical environment and whether the ground was somehow swollen with regret and the walls dripping with a tangible horror.
But they weren’t.
Even as we passed the so called wall of death, where countless inmates were lined-up and shot, what struck me was how plain inconspicuous it all was. Sure, I recognised the landmarks very well from Holocaust films. I instantly knew the steel gates adorned with the infamous camp slogan of “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Sets You Free) and I too recognised the one time rail tracks that had delivered millions of lives to their terrible end.
Yet if one did not recognise these bitterly-iconic markings, if one was not with a guide providing the narrative, then one could quite easily take the whole site for nothing more than a disused holiday camp. It really was that banal and there was no oppressive cloud of dread hanging over the place whatsoever; in fact it was a rather pleasant June day.
Right To Remember
All around the world, the sites of terrible events have now become tourist destinations. There is a memorial park on the site of the World Trade Centre and one in Hiroshima where the A-bomb landed. The Killing Fields of Cambodia are now frequented by most backpackers visiting South East Asia and even the notorious killing tree (against which infants were smashed to death) has been left standing as a harrowing centerpiece. Visitors to the killing fields often report the same thing, that the history they learn and the stories they hear are utterly disturbing, but that the location itself is just a network of fields.
We can question whether the industry itself here is insensitive and whether it is right for a travel business to grow around these places. We can also question whether it is OK to employ tour guides to take groups here and have them stop for a minutes silence twice each day (possibly thrice during high-season) as part of their job. But then it is surely not right to forget these travesties either for that would be disrespectful to the victims and lenient on the barbarous perpetrators. Besides this, we must never forget the adage that he who forgets history is destined to repeat it, even as current Middle Eastern events suggest that we seem destined to both remember and repeat it.
The Geography of Horror
Whereas the geography of these sites itself may be nondescript, they are useful as open air museums or blank canvas’ on which to project images and tell the stories the world needs to hear. Staying on the subject of the Holocaust, I recently visited the Yad Vashem museum in Jerusalem and with its modern, multi-media suite it tells a much more engaging and informative story of the genocide than the Auschwitz site itself does. Nevertheless there is still a lesson which only a visit to the scene of the crime itself can offer.
That lesson for me was that evil does not only occur beneath bellowing, thundery, darkened, cracked skies but occurs in holiday camps on warm June mornings. Also, these events do not leave behind a manifest footprint of despair but rather only live on in human memory. Above all though, the lesson was also that from Krakow to Cambodia to Rwanda, the human capacity for evil is a universal one which knows no national barrier.