I am so glad that I got to see Auschwitz before the mass tourism of today. I went to Poland in 1998, at a time when the factory of Oskar Schindler was still being used as a factory; it has now been converted into a Museum.
When I went to the main Auschwitz camp in 1998, I was the only American there, AFAIK. The other visitors were mostly Polish students who were very boisterous and disrespectful in my opinion. My private tour guide had to admonish them.
My tour guide was also unhappy with my demeanor because I was not sad enough to suit her. I could detect that she was very suspicious of me because I didn’t act like the typical tourist. I knew that she expected me to cry and express hatred for the German people, but I just couldn’t do it.
I had to hire a different tour guide to take me to see the Auschwitz II (Birkenau) camp because my first guide told me that there was “nothing to see” there. My new tour guide, my cab driver, and myself were definitely the only people at Birkenau that day in 1998, except for one Polish woman who was working at the gate house.
The Birkenau camp was grown up in weeds, and filled with snakes and bees, according to my tour guide. We had to stay on the roads, and I was not allowed to get close to the ruins of the gas chambers. The Sauna building was closed up tight and I was not permitted to look though the windows. Now it is a Museum.
This quote is from a newspaper article, published yesterday:
Drawn to Auschwitz
Mass murder was the business 70 years ago. Today, “mass tourism … is a good thing,” a key to remembrance.
By William Ecenbarger
For The Inquirer
OSWIECIM, Poland – There is something terribly wrong here. Scribbles of clouds cruise across a blue sky that hovers over neat, rectangular red-brick buildings. A loitering breeze wimples green leaves, exposing their gray undersides, and beyond, fields swim in yellow and purple flowers. These bright colors are unnerving. This should be only in black and white, like a grainy old newsreel.
The Poles call this Oswiecim, but the Nazis called it Auschwitz, and the name still leaves a metallic taste in your mouth. Here, between May 1940 and January 1945, death was a way of life, established and organized along the principle of absolute evil. At least 1.1 million people, mostly Jews, were killed here with industrialized efficiency – usually within an hour after they arrived. Here is the biggest cemetery in the world, but there are no gravestones.
…. the most effective genocide machine in human history is now a UNESCO World Heritage site that attracted 1.4 million visitors last year, nearly three times the total of just a decade ago.
Odysseys Unlimited, which is based in Newton, Mass., runs about 20 trips a year to Eastern Europe. Each has a full measure of visits to museums, cathedrals, castles, and battlefields, but Auschwitz is part of every itinerary.
I took the photo above in 1998, just after all the boisterous Polish students had exited from the doors of the movie theater inside the building. The exit doors are shown on the right side of the photo; the wide doors on the left were the doors into the disinfection chambers where the clothes were deloused with Zyklon-B to prevent the spread of typhus. This building was called die Aufnahmegebäude (Building to Receive Newcomers). Notice the complete lack of tourists in the photo.
The photo above was taken from the same spot as the first photo; I turned around and took this photo before we entered through the “Arbeit Macht Frei” gate. In 1998, I did not yet know the importance of the “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign, which has now become a Holocaust icon. I could have taken a good photo of the sign over the gate if I had only known then what I know now. Instead, I took the photo below which shows the gate. I actually waited until two people entered the camp because I wanted to show tourists entering the camp, not the sign.
Today it is literally impossible to get a photo of the sign on the Auchwitz gate because tour groups line up in front of the gate, and a tour group enters the camp every 15 or 20 minutes. The tour guides won’t wait for tourists to take photos of the gate.