So my last couple of trips have turned out to be unintentionally Holocaust-themed. While in Tel Aviv, I joined a friend on a one-day tour of Jerusalem, which transpired to include a trip to the National Holocaust Museum. After booking my May-Day weekend trip to Krakow I learned that the city is a one hour bus ride away from Auschwitz, and a day trip there is obligatory for anyone who's not completely heartless.
I don’t think I’m heartless, but I also had zero interest in going to either of these places. Especially when it comes to Auschwitz, I’ve always felt there’s something morbid about going to gawk at a site where such horrible things took place.
Yes, I know this is a bit rich coming from someone who loves checking out the Torture Chamber at the Tower of London, or who seriously considered visiting the Executioner’s Museum while in Krakow (I ran out of time, otherwise I totes would have). And yes, I know that Auschwitz has been preserved in order for us to remember the atrocities that took place and ensure they do not happen again.
Let me be the first to say that the crimes carried out by the Nazi regime against Jewish people and other minorities were abhorrent, and clearly the world would be a better place if such acts were never repeated. But I sometimes wonder if people realise that this is not the first act of genocide the world has seen, and unfortunately it has not been the last.
There was the Rwanda genocide in 1994 where up to 1 million Tutsis where slaughtered by the Hutu majority. Also in the nineties, there was the mass execution of thousands of Bosnian muslims under the command of Ratko Mladic. Today, 100 people are dying a day as a result of genocide in Sudan. Some sources are even claiming that the situation in North Korea is escalating into genocide.
Of course, we should learn from history in order to make sure that we do not repeat the mistakes of our forefathers. But if that is the case why not focus on the appalling treatment of fellow human beings that continues to take place as we speak?
What’s more, I seriously doubt that people are compelled to visit Auschwitz with the sole motivation of learning and remembering. I mean, I will be the first to own up to an unsavoury Executioner-Museum-style curiosity where Auschwitz is concerned. And the Tower of London is one thing, but the Holocaust is all a little “too soon”. It was too recent in history, and the victims captured in photographs are real human faces, who don’t look so different from people who I know and love. And therefore, it seemed somehow worse to indulge this ghoulish fascination.
What it was actually like
So clearly I went in the end. I told myself I would mull it over, and I annoyed my friends for weeks weighing up the pros and cons. But I think I always knew I had to go.
First up, let me make one thing clear. This is a tourist destination just like any other. There are hordes of tourists pouring out of coaches and mini vans, jostling with us each other; huffing, puffing and rolling their eyes in slow-moving queues. There are people who seem to be viewing the exhibitions through their smart phones, snapping pictures, then mindlessly moving on to the next photo opp. There are even selfie-sticks. (YES - selfie-sticks! Can you imagine the Instagram caption? “Auschwitz, NBD #concentrationcampselfie”).
On one hand it is very easy to allow the tourist sideshow to separate yourself from the horrible reality that took place here. But then there were moments where you felt yourself face to face with the horror, and literally defenceless against the emotional (and even physical) impact of this.
You may already have heard about the meters of human hair on display at Auschwitz*. On entering the concentration camps, the prisoners were forced to have all their hair removed. This was then kept, apparently to be shipped back to Germany to use in the textile industry. There were many other similar exhibits (a whole window of spectacles, a whole window of shoes, even a display of children’s clothes) but when I saw the hair I actually thought I was about to vomit.
At another point I cried. In one building you can visit cells preserved in the conditions of the prisoners’ confinement. In the corridor on the way out, the walls were lined floor to ceiling with photographs of the prisoners taken (by their captors) shortly after their arrival. They all had different expressions on their face: some defiant, some terrified, some simply expressionless. Yet they all had a date of death, and most were within months of the picture being taken.
Why I’ve changed my mind (sort of)
You would be forgiven for thinking that I am against going to Auschwitz, or at the very least that I regret going there myself. Actually, neither is true. (What I do regret is going with See Krakow - they were unbelievably disorganised and I would really recommend avoiding them if possible).
I think I have been hard on the idea of going to Auschwitz (and in turn hard on the other people who were there) because I had an underlying sense of guilt that my own motives for going were not pure.
Well guess what - they’re not. And if you want to go to Auschwitz, or have been there before, then chances are yours aren’t either. But we’re just human, and we come as a package deal.
Sure, we are all morbidly curious about death and tragedy. But then I defy anyone - even the Spanish tourist toting the selfie-stick - to walk down that corridor of portraits, and stare into the eyes of the human beings who were weeks or months away from a senseless death, and not feel anything other than sadness and compassion.
And this is why Western culture is so fixated on the Holocaust. Unlike the wretched souls who were tortured in the Tower of London hundreds of years ago, these are people who lived in our time, whose hair is preserved in glass windows, whose expressions are captured in photographs. Unlike victims of genocide in Rwanda, Sudan or North Korea, these are people who look like us - who look like our mothers, fathers and brothers.
Even if our motives for going to Auschwitz are not pure, we are still moved by what we see. Even if we focus on the atrocities committed during the Holocaust it doesn’t mean that we have to forget about other similar acts which have happened, and which continue to happen to this day.
When we look into the eyes of the victims in the portraits, when we look at the their hair in the window display, what haunts us the most is that we see a little bit of ourselves in there. They could be our eyes, that could be our hair. And maybe it is only when we feel that - what it is like to stare into our own condemned eyes - that we can bring that understanding to the plight of others who are not so similar to ourselves.
Maybe it’s a good idea to go to Auschwitz, even if you don’t want to.
*We were asked not to take photos inside this exhibition so I refrained. I doubt the photos would be even half as effective as seeing it in real life anyway, and I know that I won’t need a photo to remember it myself.