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March 24, 2012

Should Germany’s national soccer team visit Auschwitz?

Filed under: Germany, Holocaust — Tags: , — furtherglory @ 10:00 am

An article in the online German publication Der Spiegel makes a case for why Germany’s National Team should NOT visit Auschwitz when they go to Poland this summer to play in the European Football Championship.  I agree, but not for the reasons given by Henryk M. Broder who wrote the article.

The photo below was included in the article with the following words under the picture:

The German national football team during a training session in February: “The young players don’t bear the blame, but they do bear the responsibility.”

Germany's National Football Team

Why do these young Germans “bear the responsibility” for Auschwitz?  Will every German citizen bear responsibility for Auschwitz until the end of time?

You can read here about how the prisoners played soccer at Auschwitz-Birkenau when the death camp was in operation.

Here’s why I don’t think these German men should visit Auschwitz:

When you go to Auschwitz: Seeing is unbelieving.  Unless a person has had a good Holocaust education, he is very likely to say something stupid, or even worse, to burst out laughing at the wrong time and place.

For example, let’s say they are taken on a tour of Birkenau, the Auschwitz II extermination camp.  The first stop on the tour is the Gate of Death — the gatehouse with a tower on top of it.  Tourists can climb up to the top of it and look out over the vast expanse of 425 acres of land.  A visitor might say something like “Why was the camp so huge when most of the Jews were gassed immediately upon arrival?”  or “Why so many barracks in an extermination camp?”

The first thing that I said, when I looked out over the former Birkenau camp, was “Who lived in all these barracks?” Before going to Auschwitz, I had seen the Treblinka death camp and was astounded by how small it was. The number of Jews gassed at each of these camps was nearly the same. Two extermination camps, one tiny and one huge; it doesn’t make sense, but what do I know?

But before going to the Auschwitz II camp, visitors usually start their tour at the Auschwitz main camp, where they are taken to see the gas chamber.  On my first visit to Auschwitz, the tour guides were still telling people that the Auschwitz gas chamber was original, not a Soviet reconstruction.  Allegedly, there were 900 people gassed at one time, but the first thing I noticed, even before I went into the gas chamber, was that there was no place for the victims to remove their clothes, and no place to put the clothes.

I learned later, from Filip Müller’s book that the victims went inside with their clothes on and even took their suitcases with them into the gas chamber.  (Filip famously wrote that he ate a piece of cheese that he found in a suitcase inside the gas chamber.)

A visitor to the main Auschwitz camp might notice the glass window in the door into the gas chamber.  The visitor might ask, as I did, how the Jews were prevented from breaking the glass.  My tour guide told me that a German SS man stood outside the door, ready to shoot anyone who broke the glass and let the Zyklon-B gas out of the room.

By the time I got to Majdanek on my first tour of Poland, I was saying to myself “Don’t laugh. Don’t laugh.”  In spite of this, I lost it and burst out laughing when I read the sign outside the Majdanek gas chamber which said that the victims were given a shower before they went inside the gas chamber, so as to warm up their bodies to make the poison gas work faster.  I quickly recovered and turned the laugh into a cough.  After that, I was more careful and didn’t say anything about the window in the Majdanek gas chamber.  My point here is that you can’t be too careful when visiting a Holocaust site; you have to maintain a respectful demeanor.  Especially, a German citizen must be very careful so as not to get arrested and thrown into prison for five years because of some stupid remark.

Visitors to the main Auschwitz camp are taken to see the exhibits in the former barracks buildings.  Tourists are always horrified by the huge case of rotting hair, cut from the heads of the prisoners, and the displays of suitcases and artificial legs.  Not me!  I was fascinated by the casement windows with double paned windows and the porcelain covered stoves.  There was nothing like that in the house where I lived as a child.

Double-paned casement window in Auschwitz building

Porcelain covered stove in Auschwitz barrack

The article in Der Spiegel ends with this quote:

Showing solidarity for dead Jews is a cheap exercise. The people who were murdered can’t be killed again, nor can they be rescued retroactively. But in case someone does feel something resembling “responsibility” — and there’s nothing wrong with that, in principle — then he would be better off declaring his solidarity with those who are alive today — and would like to stay that way.

Read an article here about mass tourism at Auschwitz.

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