The following is part of my ongoing writing about exploring my Jewish heritage and ancestry through travel, religion, history, language, and food.
Planning a trip to Auschwitz is an awkward experience—and not necessarily for the reasons you’re thinking. First of all, “a trip to Auschwitz?” What is this, the Catskills? You’re not planning a trip, but, I don’t know, a visit, maybe? But it’s also not a nursing home where you might plan to visit your great-uncle, kept alive past his expiration date thanks to the miracles of modern medicine.
Language simply lacks the proper vocabulary for what a contemporary traveler is doing at Auschwitz. Paying your respects is the best option, but you don’t see that in the gobs of tourist material advertising a tour of Auschwitz. And that, in part, is why planning the whole endeavor is awkward. Booking transport in Poland isn’t straightforward and it’s a chore to find the right websites to make your bookings. Then after you schedule your tour at Auschwitz, you might realize your only option for a return to Krakow is a bus because the last train back has already left.
But where’s that website? It took hours of hammering away at my keyboard, trying a smorgasbord of phrases until I finally found the answer from a local member of Krakow’s CouchSurfing community. Someone who’s not a resilient, frequent traveler might give up and either rent a car, something I refuse to do, or throw money at a travel agency to plan private transportation. But that in itself seems disrespectful. Over a million people died at Auschwitz and you want me to stretch my legs out in a climate-controlled environment? Then again, taking a train—the literal transport of death—can seem like an odd choice as well. I mean, I’m sure it’d raise some eyebrows if Buddy Holly’s next of kin insisted on traveling by Beechcraft Bonanza aircraft.
I was on my way to the death camp as a continuation of my self-made Jewish heritage tour. DNA results from 23andMe left me looking at my Ashkenazi ancestry in a new light, following the paper trail back to modern-day Dubinné, Slovakia where some of my Jewish ancestors left in 1884 to emigrate to the United States. I planned a trip to visit the village just outside of Bardejov, extending my trip to Krakow and Auschwitz to follow an alternative narrative. That is, had my ancestors not left, they likely would’ve ended up there or someplace similar. A local Slovakian researcher who helped me visit my ancestral village was already fairly certain that I would’ve had some relatives who stayed behind and quite possibly ended up in Auschwitz.
To me, it’s important to consider the ‘what ifs’ of life. It helps put you in another person’s shoes, say, a refugee cramming into a flimsy raft to cross the Mediterranean in search of a better life. Even with this mission, I still couldn’t figure out how to best articulate visiting Auschwitz.
If you’re resilient like I like to think I am when planning trips in countries where I don’t speak the language, you piss and moan in frustration that things don’t line up better or that booking these things isn’t as streamlined as you think it should be. But then a wave of guilt pours over you because you’re complaining about how you’re going to get to Auschwitz, a place infamous in part for its tragically efficient transportation. You try not to chuckle at the irony of purposefully going to Auschwitz, especially if you’re Jewish, and then you hate yourself for realizing you had to swallow the laugh. By the time you’ve got your tour planned, your bus and train tickets, you’re on emotionally uneven ground and you haven’t even started the worst of it—actually stepping into this real-life house of horrors.
I planned my visit on a Tuesday, my first and only full day in Krakow. “Boarding the train to Auschwitz…” I started to write before stopping myself. I can’t say that! Again, language lacks the vocabulary to describe even the basics of this experience and boarding the train to Auschwitz is just one of the very many absurdities one experiences when voluntarily visiting a former death camp.
One of the main absurdities that stuck out is just how key a player Auschwitz is in local tourism. Storefront signs and brochures are everywhere you look in Krakow, promoting an Auschwitz and Birkenau tour like it were the Alhambra in Granada.
Who’s this serving? I wondered. Who plans a last-minute trip to Auschwitz?
If you ask me, nobody should be allowed to go to Auschwitz on a whim, catching an ad for a tour while snapping a selfie in Krakow’s ornate Stare Miasto city center.
“What’s that sign say? Oh! A tour to Auschwitz? That’s near here? Carol, what do you think? Do we have time before dinner?”
Long thought and intention should be the norm.
“Is this the train to Auschwitz?” asked a young woman with a British accent to another passenger on board at Krakow’s Glowny central station. This pair of young Brits, early- to mid-twenties, I’d guess, popped up at the perfect time—in the middle of my note-taking on the absurdities of visiting Auschwitz. I looked over and saw them, both covered in layers of makeup, one slightly more than the other with sharply painted eyebrows and dark purple eyeshadow. The other was wearing the kind of designer jeans with purposeful tears over the knees and across her thighs as if she let a tiger take a few whacks at it before putting them on. I’ll call them Eyeshadow and Tiger Jeans, respectively.
My first thought (and worry) was that they fancied themselves Instagram models or influencers. I know you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but this cover had the CliffsNotes printed front and center. In any other context, I couldn’t possibly care less. Let your freak flag fly, as it were. But on the train to Auschwitz? Auschwitz?
“That’s probably their daily routine,” my wife Melanie texted me when I explained the situation. “Don’t be too judgmental. For some women, being dressed up is a way of being positive but also respectful, like dressing up for church or a funeral.”
Right, I thought. And I’m sure someone could observe my blue jeans, running shoes, and everyday blue jacket and think I was underdressed for the occasion.
But this had been one of my greatest fears about traveling to Auschwitz. That is, catching a glimpse of Instagrammers feigning sadness on the railroad tracks that escorted hundreds of thousands directly to the gas chambers. It’s an issue various news agencies have covered. The museum has even had to update their guidelines, asking people to be respectful. The fact that human beings would need to be reminded to be respectful at Auschwitz is more than troubling. Nevertheless, as I write, there is a slew of stories just five or seven days old in German-language papers reminding visitors of basic decorum.
American media picked up on the same story a couple of days later.
And it goes on.
The king of the Darwinian crop is a 37-year-old American who was arrested around the same time for attempting to steal part of the train tracks leading to Birkenau. He faced ten years in prison but got it down to probation after admitting his guilt.
What could possibly go on in one’s mind to get to that point? The point where the idea of stealing something from Auschwitz births itself as an idea in your mind–alongside the millions of other ideas that come and go within a millisecond—and passes the various internal filtration processes to get to the section of the brain reserved for supposedly good ideas? What are the ideas that this person had that didn’t make it as far in his brain as the ‘stealing from Auschwitz’ idea? That’s what I want to know.
“Grab a pair of a victim’s shoes? Don’t be a callous asshole, brain! Just grab the train tracks like a normal person.”
On March 20, 2019, the Auschwitz Memorial Twitter account responded to the incidents of Instagrammers, showing a series of photos of people balancing on the rails leading to Birkenau, captioned:
Twitter being the garbage dump that it is, some actually suggested that the museum “chill out,” saying people needed an opportunity to de-stress or have a light moment in the face of such horrors. To that I say, go home and watch one of the million new Netflix standup comedy specials with a glass of whiskey.
I knew this was an issue going into it. But for some reason, my mind still conjured up something similar to what I experienced in visiting the battlefield at Gettysburg where there was a kind of meditative silence, an opportunity to really ponder what happened. Not so at Auschwitz.
The journey from Krakow to Auschwitz is a little over ninety minutes, so I tried to reaffix my attention to the passing landscape. Scenic hillsides dotted with farmhouses whizzed by in a view that could pass for the best of rural France or Germany. This, as so often happens in travel, was contrasted with the rubble of ongoing development and construction. Workers were busy along certain sections laying…
Wait, are they posing on the train now?
Tiger Jeans and Eyeshadow distracted me once more with the former sprawling out on the seat in front of me. Eyeshadow stood in the aisle with her phone, directing her friend.
“Turn your head a little around.”
“Don’t like the hand.”
“Do something with your hands.”
They’d break, revisit the photos, and decide they could do better and returned to their makeshift runway–the train seats.
“That’s the one. That’s cute. But don’t use that one for your Instagram Stories.”
The seat in front of me blocked my view, but I could only assume she thought back to being told the Bieber concert was sold out after hours of standing in line so she’d look thoughtful, bravely restraining her tears on her way to Auschwitz. Then it was Eyeshadow’s turn to pose before the two returned to their seats, sliding through the photos, and posing for more selfies with unironic duck lips.
None of this was helping me quell suspicions that they were on their way to Auschwitz for the ‘likes’ more than anything, and I started to wonder just how many Instagrammers I’d spot in the day.
Could you imagine living in Auschwitz? I never thought of it before, but it is a city. Oświęcim, to be exact, which the Nazis Germanized to Auschwitz. It’s almost exclusively associated with the death camps today, but it had a Jewish community and signs outside of the train station attempt to catch your attention long enough to encourage you to visit something else in town besides just the death camp. Here I thought I was already getting bonus points for opting to walk the mile or so through town to the memorial rather than take a bus.
Predictably, there was a bleak atmosphere hovering over the town. Plumes of exhaust from cars and trucks filled the air on the road alongside the train station. I had about an hour until my tour, so I stopped for lunch along the way, feeling guilty with every bite for nourishing my body with tasty calories considering the pathetic rations prisoners were given. Half a liter of coffee (boiled water with a grain-based substitute) or tea for breakfast, a liter of soup that prisoners found inedible for lunch, and a chunk of bread the size of your palm with a tiny bit of sausage for dinner. The dinner rations were meant to cover breakfast as well, but famished prisoners after a grueling day of hard labor often ate everything at once.
I ended up at Restauracja A la carte, which I found thanks to a mix of Google Maps and road signs advertising the restaurant en route to the Auschwitz Memorial. I can’t say I blamed the restaurant for trying to profit off of the association. Almost anyone visiting will be doing a day trip from Krakow or on a bus tour, and the tour itself is three-and-a-half or six hours, depending on what you sign up for. You can enter on your own, free of charge, but chances are your stomach will be growling before, during, or after—no matter how distraught you are.
It was about 1:30 p.m. when I walked in, the sole customer in a place that could probably hold a good fifty people. Staff was busy cleaning tables. Perhaps a bus tour just stopped by, I guessed.
Though I appeared to miss the lunch rush, my host was as friendly as you could hope at a restaurant around the corner from Auschwitz with bright blonde hair and the smile to match. While taking notes, she surprised me with “a gift”—a fried cheese ball with, I think, cranberry jam. Between that and the vaguely disco music playing in the background, it was an oddly cheerful way to prep for Auschwitz. I could see myself as the spokesman for Restauracja A la carte’s billboard.
“If you go to one restaurant before visiting Auschwitz, make it Restauracja A la carte! That’s Restauracja A la carte, right off Więźniów Oświęcimia. If you see the death camps, you’ve gone too far!”
Auschwitz had all the accouterments of a tourist attraction. There were signs advertising nearby restaurants along the way, a sign with “HOTEL” written in large black letters next to the train tracks prisoners rode in on. Then there were the signs for parking, an amusement-park sized hunk of concrete already full of sleek-looking tourist buses. People were rolling out of the buses in front of me as I approached the sidewalk leading to the museum entrance. A group of Israelis trotted ahead of them, boasting young faces with the boys wearing a yarmulke, and some, an Israeli flag attached to their back like a superhero’s cape. My mind jumping around, I imagined them as actual superheroes. The origin story would run something like this: After the Allied defeat of Art Spiegelman’s Hitler Maus, Captain America and Mina Harker of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen engaged in heroic copulation, birthing the Israeli superhero.
I showed my ticket to a young woman managing the line and was instructed to head inside through the metal detectors, finding my way to the turnstiles and a waiting area for the next tour. After showing my ticket again, I was handed a sticker that read “ENGLISH” to put on my jacket, a pair of headphones, and a receiver so I could hear the tour guide without him having to shout or having to be a little too intimate given the occasion.
Waiting for our tour to begin, I peered out the windows and was surprised to see swarms of tourists. I couldn’t help but imagine that this is what it looked like when SS guards led groups of prisoners around the facility. The sheer quantity of people took me aback. I didn’t expect to be alone, but this was mass tourism. Later, I read that Auschwitz saw a record 2,152,000 people visit in 2018. In comparison, Venice sees about 20 million. That’s pretty staggering considering that the later is an actual city of 160.6 square miles compared to Auschwitz’s approximately 15 square miles. (The mathletes among you can do the arithmetic to find an even more astonishing number of visitors per square mile.) On one hand, I’m heartened to see such interest in honoring the pledge to never forget, but after visiting, it didn’t feel like everyone was on the same page or understanding of the serious responsibility one accepts in visiting.
My group of English speakers was called out and we headed outside, forming into a small group as we awaited further instructions. Meanwhile, another Israeli group with flags their blue and white flags posed for a large group photo with their chaperones, smiling with the camp as the background. It felt odd, but if anyone has a right to smile at such a horrific place, I suppose they do.
Our guide was a short Polish man, reciting the history with the ease of an experienced tour guide, occasionally adding his own, uncomfortable commentary. Once he compared the Nazi use of euthanasia of the elderly and disabled to the very limited forms of euthanasia used today, voluntarily, to end one’s suffering. This was spoken in the same breath as legal abortion. “These things are still happening today,” he lamented. A young woman in the group made a face that read, “I’m going to let that asinine comment slide only out of respect for where we are.”
We’d walk a few paces, stop, get an explanation, and continue. Much of it felt repetitive based on my prior knowledge, which I took to be a good thing. It’d be a failure of my public school system, graduate studies of genocide, and my own research if I was constantly surprised. The only factoid that stuck out as previously unknown to me was that the simple brick buildings were a Polish military barracks before the war, expanded upon by the Nazis once they invaded.
Early on we stopped in front of the infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” gates. If you’re unfamiliar with the expression, it translates from German to “work makes you free.” For over a million people, it’s the last text they would’ve seen before being murdered since anyone who wasn’t viewed as suitable for work—namely the elderly, women, and children—were sent directly down a flight of stairs to the gas chambers, promised they were actually entering a showering facility to clean up after a brutal, often deadly journey stuffed in an overcrowded rail compartment over multiple days.
As I contemplated this, a group of tourists huddled together for a photo with the phrase hanging in iron overhead in the background, posing like a high school basketball team would for the yearbook. Others settled for a friend taking their photo in front of it or they just snapped a photo without anyone in it. None of this is explicitly forbidden to my knowledge, but as much as I couldn’t wrap my head around the desire to have a smiling team photo on the grounds of a death camp, I couldn’t even understand the desire to have photos period from Auschwitz on one’s phone. Most of the photos we take on iPhones and such while on vacation are excessive, doomed to never be viewed again. But if you do actually organize your vacation photos and occasionally sit down to have a look, perhaps to show off to friends and family, I can’t grasp how working Auschwitz into that slideshow works.
“Here’s Ben in front of a statue…Oh! Here’s me eating a pierogi…Then that’s…Honey, what was that? Oh, right, a crematorium. Anywho, how’re the kids?”
After passing through the gates, the tour consisted of a little bit of walking, pausing to get some history, and then continuing into one of the brick buildings to see the state of prisoner cells, toilets, and even where show trials were conducted. Most everything else was converted into something more resembling a museum. The most compelling for me was the hallway of prisoner mugshots, taken immediately after their forced buzz cut upon arrival, complete with the arrival and death date. What was obvious was that most didn’t last long, some not even the day. This particular wall was filled mostly with Poles, which seemed to be a focus on the tour—reminding visitors how much anyone involved in the early Polish resistance to the Nazi invasion suffered alongside Jews and Roma.
Other rooms were what I can best refer to as the ‘shock rooms.’ These were displays showcasing all the preserved hair of prisoners, their emptied suitcases, their shoes, and their hairbrushes. Shocking quantities presented to the visitor to the point that it’s difficult to comprehend the madness involved. I’d seen similar displays during my eighth-grade field trip to the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. I understand why they have these displays, but for me, it removes the humanity of the individual. It reminds me of the infamous line that “the death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.” (Note this line is often misattributed to Stalin, but it’s been around in similar wording in multiple languages for centuries.) Even Elie Wiesel shares this sentiment in Night, writing about the sight of one recently hung child. “The thousands of people who died daily in Auschwitz and Birkenau, in the crematoria, no longer troubled me. But this boy, leaning against his gallows, upset me deeply.”
Seeing these shocking displays of evil for the second time, I started to realize how I best connected with the tragedy of Auschwitz and the Holocaust at large—personal stories. Reading Wiesel’s Night and re-watching Schindler’s List shortly thereafter proved more effective for me in trying to understand what happened. Wiesel’s Nobel Prize-winning work puts you in his shoes as best as any relayed account of a previously unimaginable genocide can. Steven Spielberg’s film gives a visual representation for much of what Wiesel described in his book—the attitudes of SS officers, the state of the ghettos that preceded transport to the camps, the hopeful naivete of Jews that the rumors of death camps were exaggerated, the cruelty, the selection process that determined life and death, and the arbitrariness of it all. Both of these rightly venerated works connect their readers and viewers to the tragedy through personal stories as opposed to a curated tour as if it were an art museum. And that’s how we humans best connect with just about anything—personal stories full of detail.
The only instance throughout the tour where I felt properly choked up was walking into the reconstructed gas chamber of Auschwitz I as a group of Israelis, the Star of David flag affixed to many of their backs, huddled together in murmured prayer. It’s an image I won’t soon forget, reminding me of one of Wiesel’s most memorable lines from Night: “To forget would be not only dangerous but offensive; to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.”
We left the main Auschwitz camp halfway through the time allotted for our tour, leaving fifteen minutes to deposit our headphones, run to the bathroom, and grab the shuttle bus for transport over to Birkenau. I debated leaving.
“Will you judge me?” I asked Melanie. I knew how I felt about the experience, but I needed validation from someone smarter than me.
“Of course not!” she insisted. “This is your experience.”
And so I left early, walking past the bus stop, through the parking lot, and back onto the sidewalk heading toward the train station. I left because I didn’t feel like I could properly pay my respects as I was being herded around tight corridors, flows of people funneling through in opposite directions, like we were in the Vatican or something, and people gathering for group photos or selfies on soil soaked with Jewish, Polish, and Roma blood.
I didn’t know at the time, but the next stop would’ve been where Instagrammers are reportedly most guilty of abusing a tragic scene for their own social media prowess. Had I seen that in action, I’m not sure how I would’ve reacted. I’m not a violent person, but seeing someone balance on the train tracks that led so many innocents to their untimely demise—killing with them the generations that would’ve surely followed them—while a friend directs them on what might play best on Instagram just might be what it takes to push a generally pacifist person over the edge.
I’ve seen examples of Auschwitz memorializing done more to my preference. The most powerful of which must be the annual March of the Living event where survivors gather with memorializers to pay their respects. Often survivors take to the stage, dressed head-to-toe in the infamous blue and white prisoner uniforms, telling their stories. (Pause here to look up a YouTube video of the event to see what I mean.)
Beyond that, too much of visiting Auschwitz reminded me of mass tourism with people behaving how they do when they visit other sites on their mass tourism bucket list, grabbing selfies and group photos for an especially deranged form of social media currency. It would’ve initially struck me as odd, wrong even, to impose restrictions on how many people can visit Auschwitz. If people want to pay their respects to one of humankind’s greatest tragedies, they should be able to do so. But I was left wondering if the memorial wouldn’t be better serviced by limiting the number of guests inside the concentration camp at any given time and maybe even collecting phones at the entrance.
To be absolutely crystal clear, I’m not suggesting that people don’t visit Auschwitz. In fact, Holocaust remembrance just might be needed now more than ever before. Last year, The New York Times reported on a survey that “found that many adults lack basic knowledge of what happened – and this lack of knowledge is more pronounced among millennials, whom the survey defined as people ages 18 to 34.”
The story goes on, saying “thirty-one percent of Americans, and 41 percent of millennials, believe that two million or fewer Jews were killed in the Holocaust; the actual number is around six million. Forty-one percent of Americans, and 66 percent of millennials, cannot say what Auschwitz was.”
Even in Germany – GERMANY – people are forgetting. Deutsche Welle reported on a story noting that “more than half of German secondary school students aged 14 to 16 years of age polled in a survey commissioned by Germany’s Körber Foundation do not know what Auschwitz-Birkenau was a concentration camp.”
Clearly remembrance is still needed. I just hope that people learn about Auschwitz for the immense tragedy that it was and not as the backdrop to an Instagram shoot.
Fortunately, there is no shortage of ways for people to study the Holocaust these days. Read a survivor’s memoir, watch a documentary or a carefully researched film. These means of study, in the end, resonated far more powerfully with me. And if you still feel the need to visit Auschwitz, please do so. Perhaps that visit will resonate more with you than books and films. It’s not a competition. The goal remains the same – never again.
But I do think that visitors should have more than a passing familiarity with the topic before visiting. Because if you read how quickly Wiesel was stripped of his humanity and if you watch as Ralph Fiennes’ Amon Göth shoots women and children indiscriminately from his balcony overlooking the death camp, the last thing you’ll want to do is spend the effort to travel to Auschwitz for a selfie in your faded Levi jeans in front of Arbeit Macht Frei.
Another reason I left was that I wanted to continue exploring living Jewish culture. So much of what Jewish identity I had was tied up exclusively in the Holocaust: Being told I’d probably die in the Holocaust by a social studies classmate (he was probably right, I later learned, but still a bummer), being called a “Jew” in a Borat voice, and a couple of guys in college drawing a swastika on a cake before offering it to me could sum up what Jewish identity I had prior to exploring my heritage starting about a year ago.
Of course, it’s vital that every living person take time in their life to pay their respects to the victims and survivors of the Holocaust. But when you’re exploring an identity, it can be detrimental to only associate that identity with a tragedy. Just as important, if not more so, is learning about the living culture.
It annoys me when people talk about groups of people like they no longer exist, visiting museums to glean snippets of their history and calling it a day. Native Americans are especially the brunt of this.
“Boy, that Wounded Knee sure was a blind spot. Now let’s go swing by that McDonald’s before checking out Mount Rushmore.”
Fortunately, that doesn’t need to be the case after visiting Auschwitz when you’ve got Krakow’s historically Jewish neighborhood of Kazimierz. Some deride Kazimierz for becoming a tourist attraction, and that claim isn’t without merit judging by the plastic-covered, motorized train cars guiding people around. But it’s also a place where for the first time in my life, I caught a live show of Jewish Klezmer music with all the greatest hits, like “Hava Nagila.” At the show, I ordered a bowl of matzo ball soup, like Grandma used to make, and was able to simply be with Jews without exclusively lamenting what was lost.
Instead, I celebrated what survived.