On a side street leading to Krakow’s main square in its beautiful old town I’m pulled up short by the glowing sign on the Sycylia Hotel/Restaurant: “Cracow city tour Auschwitz. Salt Mine. Zakopane”. It is just below a bigger sign advertising “Pizza Pasta Salad”. Further down the street, an even more tasteless though no doubt inadvertent juxtaposition, makes me gasp. A protruding sign advertising tours to Auschwitz (and that salt mine again) is preceded two doors earlier by another similar one advertising tattoos. At Auschwitz, where one million Jews and and at least 23,000 Roma were gassed to death and cremated in an industrial process, and tens of thousands of Soviet prisoners of war and Polish political prisoners met their deaths, those not immediately selected for mass murder were assigned a registration number. This number was sewn on to their prison uniform and tattooed on their left forearm.
The numbers of visitors to the Nazi’s largest-scale killing site has mushroomed over the last 15 years, from around 500,000 in 2000 to a staggering 1.72 million in 2015 – a daily average of nearly 5,000 people, though in summer it may be almost double that number on any one day. They crowd into the sturdy brick buildings at Auschwitz 1 camp, whose exterior remains largely unchanged, but whose interior has been converted into gruesome but informative museum displays.
From there, visitors are encouraged to continue their visit by moving on to Birkenau, a bleak expanse a mile and a half away from Auschwitz 1, enclosed by once electrified barbed wire fences. At Birkenau dozens of former Polish army barracks , built for 250 but often housing 700-1,000 in Nazi use, temporarily held prisoners before most were gassed. Visitors here see the railway track that brought deportees through the arch of a huge watchtower, right to the heart of the camp, where gas chambers and crematoria were built for the process of systematic murder, not far from the barracks,
Many visitors to Auschwitz come as participants in educational programmes and some 300 educators have received specialised training to guide visitors, between them, in 20 languages). But larger and larger numbers are also coming as casual tourists. After a hearty hotel breakfast, tourists can visit a horror show, a sickening theme park of torture and suffering, and return to their holiday destination (Krakow is just over an hour’s drive away) for a night, eating and drinking and sampling the entertainment that Krakow can offer.
I have just returned from my second visit, both in similar contexts. In 1995 I was part of a large group (70+) organised by the Anti-Nazi League, comprising teachers, students, trade unionists and activists. We came by coach with our own guide, Leon Greenman, an Auschwitz survivor. He filled in much of the background to the Nazi occupation of Poland on the way and added the harrowing details of his own personal story as we walked around the camp, especially at the bleak expanse at Birkenau, where his wife Else and three-year-old son Barney were gassed almost immediately after they arrived. At Birkenau we were joined by a local guide, who had been a youngster in the Polish Socialist Party during the Nazi occupation and was able to answer detailed questions about the situation of thee local population in the area at the time.
On that visit I felt we had time and space to begin to grasp and reflect on critical aspects of such an enormous and traumatic experience. Arriving this time – in a smaller group of 24 anti-racist activists and trade unionists, from their 20s to their late 60s, organised through Unite Against Fascism, the area between the coach park and the ticket office was teeming with people young and old from several countries. The atmosphere was noisy and chaotic. It was difficult to distinguish the educational groups from the tourist day-trippers being whizzed around the complex. All of us were fitted out with headphones as our guide valiantly tried to take us to crucial exhibits and patiently explain their significance before being overrun by another group entering the same room. The quality of educational experience, and the ability of group participants to take in what is there, is compromised by the sheer volume of people in each room.
Of course, the demand for educational visits is a good thing. The highest numbers who pass through are from Poland itself, in a time when Polish politics has shifted alarmingly rightwards. The demand by tourists, I suspect, has more mixed drivers and motives. After Poles, the highest number of visitors are from Britain and America. Some of these will be educational group visits too but I imagine that tour companies are making a good profit (I was going to say “a killing”) out of visitors from societies whose cultural values are increasingly dominated by sensationalism and are used to treating horror as entertainment.
There is undoubtedly huge demand from potential visitors, but why don’t they restrict numbers to no more than 1,000 a day in the parts of the year when it is open the longest hours and at 700 at other times? That would guarantee an experience that would enable visitors to truly reflect on what they encounter.
The displays at Auschwitz 1 are shocking and stomach-churning: huge stockpiles of reading glasses; suitcases labelled with names and addresses from all over Europe stacked up; tonnes of human hair; maps showing the remote places all over the Continent where the Nazis rounded up Jews and transported them over many days to Auschwitz, no doubt diverting so many resources that they could have used for their war effort. But that war effort became a secondary concern to the attempt to annihilate all Jews.
Visitors need time and space to absorb these displays. At Birkenau our guide had far more physical space and our group more solitude for receiving information and reflecting on it, though our limiting factor there was that we got to Birkenau at 3pm and it would be dark by 4.30.
Birkenau had changed in some respects from my last visit. In 1995 I remembered many poorly built wooden bunkers as well as brick bunkers in which overcrowding, starvation, disease and every possible indignity was people’s reality. We walked among the ruins of the gas chambers then – the Nazis had tried not very effectively to destroy the evidence of them before the camp was liberated by the Russians, and one of the crematoria was destroyed in a revolt led by four women prisoners who were part of the Sonderkommando – a group tasked with helping to collect belongings and dispose of the bodies of those gassed to death.
The wooden bunkers have since disintegrated. Conservation work is going on in several of the brick bunkers, though some can be visited. In 1995 we were able to walk through the ruins of the largely-destroyed gas chambers and crematoria. Now after millions more visitors have tramped through, they are cordoned off and you can get a glimpse from a distance but not enter.
On this visit I was also disturbed by a less perceptible change to most visitors. Both at Auschwitz 1 and at Birkenau, display boards have been revamped and standardised. They are are in three languages: Polish, English and Hebrew. While the use of Hebrew is an attempt to demonstrate empathy with the fact that the vast majority of victims here were Jews (under the post-War Stalinist regime Jewish victimhood was obscured by reference to “Polish and Russian citizens”), the daily language of most of the those murdered at Auschwitz was none of these. It was Yiddish. On my earlier visit I am sure I remembered seeing some plaques and information boards in Yiddish (often alongside Polish). This time I found just one. Others it seems have been removed or replaced with explanations in Polish, English, and Hebrew boards.
The one Yiddish plaque I saw was among 27 granite slabs side by side, with identical texts: “For ever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity, where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men women and children mainly Jews from various countries of Europe”. One of the slabs was in Modern Hebrew (Ivrit), the language recreated by Jews who settled from Europe in Palestine in the 1920s and ’30s to serve the needs of Israel when it achieved statehood. However, given that the Nazis did not reach Palestine to deport Jews from there, Hebrew was very unlikely to have been the mother tongue of any of the victims.
Many visitors to Auschwitz today come from Israel but in 2015, those coming from Poland, Britain, America, Germany, Italy and Spain, were more numerous. And Jews from those countries do not have Hebrew as their mother tongue. Even though the number of Yiddish speakers today is vastly diminished, precisely because of what happened here and at other death camps, out of respect to the cultural lives of those murdered as well as their physical presence, their most-widely shared daily language – Yiddish – should surely be represented on memorial boards and plaques. And it is a shande (disgrace) that it isn’t.
From what I know of the growing number of one-day trips to Auschwitz from Britain and elsewhere, some of the crowds gathering noisily near the entrance as we arrived, would have been back in their own homes in Britain that night, or the following morning, immediately removed from the physical context of where these events had taken place.
We returned a bit shell-shocked to our hotel and gathered in a circle in the corner of the bar to share our reflections from the day. People described how shattering the time we spent at Birkenau was –reflecting especially on aspects of the indignities that women prisoners suffered which our guide had described. Others talked of the processes of desensitisation of the perpetrators, and marginalisation and dehumanisation of the victims, without which it could not have taken place. We reflected on parallel attitudes ranging from indifference to hostility towards refugees today. But we also talked about how those of us who devised this visit created a compelling narrative around information and experience within a wider programme that made the Auschwitz visit itself more meaningful and comprehensible.
If Auschwitz was the final piece completing a horrifying picture, those elements that illuminated the process leading to it were absolutely crucial. On the Thursday night I gave a presentation about the harsh daily life of Jews in 1930s Poland in a changing and ever more threatening political environment of economic discrimination and increasing fascist violence before the Nazis invaded. On the Friday morning we visited the old (and currently reviving) Jewish quarter of Krakow, in Kazimierz, south-east of the old town. We walked across the bridge – as the Jews had been forced to do in March 1941 – to the tiny walled ghetto area they were made to live within. Our guide that day, Mary, pointed to an existing fragment of the ghetto wall, showing how the Nazis designed it in the shape of Jewish gravestones. She described the way that the Nazis disciplined the Jews through creating a Jewish Council that was forced to implement and cascade down Nazi orders. In the afternoon we visited the square which served as a deportation point. Only a minority of Krakow’s Jews were sent to Auschwitz; the majority were sent to another death camp, Belzec, about 180 miles form Krakow. Mary told us, too, about the attempts at resistance.
In the afternoon we visited an extraordinarily detailed museum created in what was once Oskar Schindler’s factory. A profiteer and playboy, Schindler subverted Nazi commands to save the lives of some Jews through insisting on the importance of their labour. In the grand scheme of things his efforts were marginal – though obviously not to the people he saved. The museum itself treats his work as a side issue and concentrates much more on showing what happened after Poland was invaded, how they occupied Krakow and managed to control and subjugate both its Jewish and non-Jewish populations. Jews had comprised one in four of Krakow’s entire pre-1939 population).
That evening I gave a presentation about the biggest and most celebrated act of ghetto resistance, which took place in the Warsaw Ghetto, describing the cooperation of different left-wing tendencies – Bundists, Communists and left-Zionists – highlighting especially the role of Bundists such as Marek Edelman, the last surviving member of the Ghetto Resistance Command, who died in 2009, Mikhal Klepfisz, who made and smuggled weapons into the ghetto while being hidden by a Polish-Catholic family, and Zalman Frydrych, who with help from a Polish socialist railway worker, travelled clandestinely to discover the fate of Jews being deported. When many in the ghetto believed Nazi claims that they were being deported to the east “for work”. Frydrych found out that they were being deported to their mass deaths at Treblinka. After this information was published, the underground ghetto resistance stepped up its preparation for action.
As a result of this programme, we went to Auschwitz itself already immersed in an understanding of the processes that Jewish and non-Jewish Poles had been caught up in, rather than going in blind just to be shocked, or simply honouring the dead of tragedy that seems to defy logic.
Some returned home on the Sunday. I went back late afternoon on the Monday which gave me time to visit two other locations in Krakow that convey more of the story.
On the corner of the Square inside the ghetto, from which the deportations took place, stood a pharmacy run by Tadeusz Pankiewicz, a Polish non-Jew. He and his staff were the only non-Jews allowed to continue working in the ghetto. They used this permission to help Jews in legal and many illegal ways. Today, the pharmacy has been reconstructed as a small but remarkable, interactive museum. Walk slowly through its rooms and open cabinets and drawers. Instead of medicines, there are photos and texts telling the stories of the Krakow ghetto, including tales of different forms of resistance that took place.
From there I walked back across the river into Kazimierz to the Galician Jewish Museum housed in an old mill that became a factory after the Second World War. Through an incredible set of well-captioned photos, it tells the story of Jewish life in Galicia (south western Poland) which goes back at least 800 years, and again provides vital context around the Nazi period and also reveals both ambivalent and openly antisemitic attitudes in the area after the Nazis were defeated. But it ends on a positive note with the efforts to rebuild Jewish culture in Galicia today.
Do visit Auschwitz. But don’t be a superficial, horror-junkie, day-tripper. Prepare yourself. Spend time, as we did, in Krakow getting to know the life of the community that was there, and the processes through which its Jewish community was marginalised, isolated, and destroyed, and also find out about the ways people resisted. And for those who maintain the museum complex at Auschwitz – you need to reconsider your responsibilities. Don’t be carried away by the crass commercialised demand for visits. Go for quality not quantity. Limit the numbers, but expand and deepen the experience.