A student of the Holocaust reflects on its most iconic site
This summer I joined the ranks of the over 1.4 million people who visit the site of the former Nazi death camp Auschwitz in Oświęcim, Poland each year — as many as 30,000 on peak days. As a student of Holocaust history and literature, it was one of those things I was told I simply had to see while I was studying for the summer in nearby Kraków. In fact, visiting Auschwitz was one of the reasons I wanted to study in Poland in the first place. But why did nearly all of the other students (mostly Polish-Americans) in my program choose to visit as well? For people with little or no intellectual or familial connection to the site, why visit Auschwitz?
Auschwitz has welcomed over 30 million visitors since opening to tourists in 1947. While about half of these are from Poland, the on-site museum offers tours in more than twenty languages, with visitors coming from as far as Israel (the 4th most visitors of any country, at 62,000), the USA (7th at 52,000), and even South Korea (9th at 43,000). That is to say, 1.4 million people each year travel to a small town in a country seldom visited in order to see a place where more than 1.1 million people were murdered. Reflect for a moment on how strange that is. By what twisted logic can a place be simultaneously one of the most dreaded in the world and one of the most visited?
My experience visiting Auschwitz was literary, historical, and philosophical before it was actual. In a class on Holocaust representation I had read Polish writer Tadeusz Różewicz’s 1959 short story “Excursion to a Museum,” a fictionalized account of the author’s own experiences visiting Auschwitz. Reading it made me wary of visiting and my experience was undoubtedly shaped by it, not to mention the dozens of other Holocaust texts on my mind. While other visitors might deny this, for me it was obvious that we come to the place with a preconception of what we are about to experience that we project onto what we actually see.
There is no instruction book on how to visit Auschwitz or what to do when you get there. Formally called the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, I had no idea whether the place would feel more like a memorial or a museum, a classroom or a cemetery. And not knowing this, what was I to expect to gain from my visit? What does one ever gain from visiting a cemetery? And what from a museum, besides enrichment or enjoyment — words that do not feel right here.
Getting off my student group’s coach bus, I was confronted by an ordinary parking lot and ordinary museum lobby full of queues and racks of audio guides and brochures in many languages. I was struck by my memory that Różewicz opens with similarly banal observations: “A group of people walked from the train station… From the city a red bus drove in, filled with people… Colorful benches stand under poplars, among the already darkened grasses red flowers burn.” Experiencing the site of Auschwitz naively, we see only an everyday environment. But even in Różewicz’s plain language, sinister elements creep in and violate that sense of ordinariness: “Through the bushes one can see the rows of two-story brick houses. The houses are surrounded by wire.” He is referring to the infamous barracks, but to naïve eyes they are only houses. Neat rows of trees have been planted, the walkways have been newly repaved, and the grounds are altogether so peaceful that it is almost impossible to imagine the sea of mud that survivors describe having to walk through barefoot.
Though admittance is free to all, there is no option to explore Auschwitz as there was in the time of Różewicz’s story: “All this is poorly arranged, because everybody goes as he pleases, looks around as he pleases, and nothing is understood. Yes, I can see the boarded windows, the death barrack, and the gallows, but how did it all happen?” Today, one can only visit in a group with a tour guide who directs the group through the camp on a set path through museum exhibits constructed in repurposed barracks. But this leads to another kind of complication: “One cannot walk here carelessly, someone must explain everything. Let‘s consider the death barrack. Okay, I see all the windows boarded up — so what? Someone has to show it to you and tell you how it was.” Here we have the opposite problem — that of explicitly and totally mediated experience, with no room or time for independent reflection. One is told to observe the tools of horror rather than really putting together the horror oneself. And so one gets a digestible Auschwitz, and is along the tour told what to think and feel. As a survivor in Różewicz’s story remarks, “Everything is so arranged now.” This is Auschwitz today.
Still, what does one do on such a tour? Should one simply listen as one would on any other tour, waiting to be wowed by impressive sights or interesting tidbits? The museum rules, which I found online in the process of writing this article, offer some clue:
Rule #3: On the Museum grounds, visitors should behave with the appropriate solemnity and respect. Dress should be appropriate for a place of this nature.
So the site is framed unlike a typical museum, which would not ordinarily request “solemnity” or feel the need to state a dress code. But this doesn’t prescriptively guide one’s experience. Due to inevitable chatting with my friends while waiting in line or getting hungry, Różewicz wonders what activity is appropriate in a place like Auschwitz: “To the right of the first barrack is a small square. On the square people are sitting, eating plums, sandwiches, and sun tanning by the glass case with the perpetrators’ photographs.” And the important objects at Auschwitz which people have traveled long distances to see do not seem significant. After a tour group nags their guide to see the gallows, they are disappointed by what they are shown: “They looked inside the wooden chest. On the ground covered with weeds lay little scraps of paper, fruits, cigarette boxes.”
Written in deliberately offhand Polish, Różewicz’s tone clearly conveys disgust for the spectacle of Holocaust tourism, of trespassing onto a sacred place — profane, cigarette-box-littering beings that we are. To me, his message is clear: this Auschwitz is not that Auschwitz. The Auschwitz you read horrific things about, the Auschwitz in all the “After Auschwitz…” maxims, is not a place one can any longer go and be a part of. It is already lost to history, and to a past generation. Różewicz’s tour guide actually apologizes for as much: “Constantly, he emphasizes, as if apologizing to the visitors, that everything that is now in the museum is only a fraction of what there once was and that one cannot describe what was going on here. Hell.”
Age is a major theme in Różewicz’s piece in a way that it was not in my tour group, which was composed of Polish and American college-age students. He includes such lines as: “Mommy, but why are so many of these prosthetics here? What are they doing here? And whose legs are these? — Stupid child!” and “A boy in a navy blue suit walked behind his mother grimacing. — Mom, there is nothing here. Some museum. I want to go—when will we leave?” In the midst of such a horrible place, we are thus returned to normal realities of our attention and anticipation as tourists — or perhaps something more like voyeurs — voiced here through children who are too young to know better, but, as Różewicz suggests, surely thought by everyone. As for the younger generation’s particular weaknesses, Różewicz impersonates a tour guide, “Simply, they have fun and laugh. But youth is like this, because it does not know what war is about.”
As much as the Holocaust is taught in U.S. school curricula, we have yet another rule:
Rule #14: Visits to the Museum by children under the age of 14 are not recommended.
This is unusual in that, at least in the United States, historical museums are most commonly designed specifically for families with children. Starting with Różewicz’s parodic title, “Excursion to a Museum,” the piece is a lesson in precisely emphasizing the points of tension at which it becomes obvious that Auschwitz is in fact not a museum.
Różewicz’s adults do not fare much better than the children. From an underground prison, we hear, “Let’s leave, here it’s chilly. Warmer outdoors.” One might just as well say, let’s go back to Kraków; it’s much prettier there. Further, the adults do not seem to understand what they are doing there, or have any profound experiences: “Here the gas was released, a man says to a woman — this gas was released and they were asphyxiated. Let’s get away from here, the woman says. I’ve already been here, I’m dead on my feet, I’ve had enough.”
* * *
I brought my camera with me as I always did on day trips in Poland, but was unsure whether or not it would be appropriate to use it in the camp. When the tour began and I entered Auschwitz I through the famous gates reading “Arbeit Macht Frei” (work makes one free), nearly everyone took photographs. On my daylong visit, I ended up taking just over 30, which seemed to me about average. I thought it important to document the view from my own perspective in order to record the true enormity of the camp — especially Birkenau, the expansive site with railroad tracks crossing under a gate that you see in films. Every time I reached for my camera, I felt watched by other tourists who seemed equally unsure whether or not taking photos was really appropriate. In Auschwitz, one is constantly reminded of being an unwelcome tourist in a place nobody any longer belongs. Yet some had no qualms about taking photos and even got pictures taken of themselves next to various sites of particular horror.
The tour was not impressive. My guide delivered dry commentary on the chronology and figures of the various sites we passed: Each barracks held a maximum of 500 prisoners… This special cell is airtight and was used to suffocate prisoners… This square is where the notorious roll calls took place, lasting for hours on end, with the prisoners standing in the freezing cold with no food or water. Even with a few narratives interspersed of prisoners who endured especially horrible fates or acted heroically or were spared from the gas chambers by sheer luck, the tour simply provided a skeleton of the history of the uncontestable realities of Auschwitz, with almost no moral commentary or interpretation added. Signage at the museum appears Polish, English, and Hebrew, and it matches the guides’ plain language, stating only uncontestable facts. This simplicity is frustrating, but it makes sense given the camp’s various audiences, especially Poles and Jews, who both claim Auschwitz as the key site of their national sufferings.
The museum today is much better designed than in Różewicz’s day, but still features thousands of symbolic items taken from prisoners upon arrival, including the famous heaps of thousands of shoes, brushes, and eyeglasses, relocated from camp warehouses to behind glass panes on two sides of a long barracks hallway so as to surround visitors:
A glass wall divides the interior of a large room. A mound of old shoes. A mound of rotten leather. Like an excavated rhinoceros which fell dead in a past epoch, and now was brought to the daylight. Mounds of brooms, brushes, shaving brushes.
Contrary to the language of profane ordinariness we have encountered thus far, here the language is exotic, something we cannot relate to, that we do not understand what to do with, mentally:
What do so many old brushes lie here for? Except for some things in good shape, everything is worn out, bent. What’s this? Those people took their best stuff, not anything like this. Look over there — who would take such a scrub brush? Shame it lies here.
As much as these reactions border on ridiculous, they are almost inevitable. There is a serious predicament at their core: it is not at all clear what we are to do with these sights, but we are nevertheless inundated with them around every corner of the Auschwitz Museum.
Each prisoner was photographed up until a certain date, at which point prisoners not immediately gassed were instead tattooed with their prisoner number, which became their identity. This is precisely the point at which the camp’s self-consciousness changed. This is the point at which Auschwitz became Auschwitz. Photographs were expensive to develop and recorded the human being behind the serial number in a healthy state upon entering the camp. This basic recognition of prisoners’ humanity fell away completely with the change to tattoos. These photos remain one of the most transfixing and haunting parts of the museum:
On the walls of one barrack hang the pictures of the dead and murdered. Women and men. Faces. They hang in a murky corridor, day and night they keep looking. At night, when there are no people in the museum, their faces ceaselessly exude the suffering which is not present in the museum anymore.
It is no longer a place of suffering; it is not Auschwitz. Being housed in a museum, those ghostly faces serve some effect all day, but the emptiness of night returns them to their original state of pointlessness and better characterizes them as victims. For reasons not only of sanctity, but of representational clarity, the faces of Auschwitz are more themselves when left alone.
* * *
Różewicz raises a related issue that was already obvious in 1959: the original materials in the camp were disappearing and being fixed and replaced. “The pacifiers, I think, were displayed later for decoration,” one woman remarks. “Nobody will tell me that these pacifiers have been lying around for so many years. A rubber pacifier would deteriorate. And this is arranged so man can imagine it himself.” Indeed, a large number of the exhibitions at the camp are recreations, partially combining authentic items stolen from victims upon arrival, and others simulacra. The crematorium is the most contentious of these artifacts. The Germans destroyed it when the camp was evacuated but it was reconstructed for the purposes of the museum. Różewicz plays on the simulacrum’s status as only a symbol of horror, not an authentic tool:
And yet the crematorium. Rebuilt on the ruins of the real one, which was blown out… Three adolescents are walking in this damp concrete interior. They are looking into the ovens. They are moving the small black steel doors… The boys are touching the walls, talking to one another, laughing. A woman in a threadbare navy blue coat looks at them and says, “Here at least, one can’t laugh. Really, there is no reason.” The adolescents stop laughing and exit the crematorium.
The adolescents have crossed the blurred lines between museum, monument, and cemetery. But Różewicz’s point is that the place itself, mediated by a tour guide and so many simulacra, retains the qualities and, in its near total representedness, ultimately also the experience of a museum.
Robert Jan van Pelt, the leading expert on the construction of Auschwitz, sees the museum in its current state as a “kind of theme park, cleaned up for tourists” and notes that 80 to 90 percent of the original structures are gone or replaced. The barbed wire is continually replaced as it rusts. “You’re seeing basically a reconstruction on an original site,” he says. Paradoxically, “It’s a place that constantly needs to be rebuilt in order to remain a ruin for us.” For van Pelt, letting Birkenau disintegrate would be more fitting than constantly repairing its ruins: Birkenau is “the ultimate nihilistic place. A million people literally disappeared. Shouldn’t we confront people with the nothingness of the place? Seal it up. Don’t give people a sense that they can imitate the experience and walk in the steps of the people who were there.” Such a plan was approved in 1958 by the memorial committee in hopes that it would force visitors to “confront oblivion” by seeing the ruins, but it was rejected by survivors.
* * *
My tour group was, in contrast to Różewicz’s, mostly silent. This is because the Holocaust has taken on a different aura since 1959, when it was hardly ever yet called or thought of differently from World War II. Back then, Auschwitz was just another Nazi war site, to be visited more as a dungeon of horrors and case for Poles’ martyrdom in history. By contrast, in writings on the Holocaust popular today, such as the works of Jewish survivor Elie Wiesel, it is a place of capital-E, Evil, a metaphysical, sacred site of a unique kind of persecution. The lesson here is one of exclusive Jewish victimization. In this line of thought, there is no room for considering the perpetrators and why they did what they did. They are simply Evil. The victims, rather, are what we are to think about, to empathize with, to pity the wasted lives of.
Holocaust scholar Alan Rosenfeld bashes this approach in his latest book: “The history of the Holocaust becomes broadly acceptable only as its basic narrative undergoes change of a kind that enables large numbers of people to identify with it.” He is talking here about identifying with it as victims, even though we today are not victims. Rosenfeld wishes Holocaust educational materials would avoid trying to elicit emotional responses that require little thought. We shed our tears and quickly move on, feeling good about ourselves all the while for happening to have been on the right side of history.
It is with such contentment that my tour group of American students ended, as if emotionally scripted from what Rosenfeld calls “Americanized” Holocaust responses. And the ultimate effect was the same as Różewicz’s: “The electric train was already there. The people who visited the museum were taking seats in compartments. Little was said about the museum.”
* * *
In his 1967 essay “Education After Auschwitz,” theorist Theodor W. Adorno, himself a Jew who fled Germany after Hitler came to power, writes:
The premier demand upon all education is that Auschwitz not happen again… never again Auschwitz. It was the barbarism all education strives against. One speaks of the threat of a relapse into barbarism. But it is not a threat — Auschwitz was this relapse, and barbarism continues as long as the fundamental conditions that favored that relapse continue largely unchanged. That is the whole horror.
While Adorno believes that the historical task of “working through the past” is important, it is only so insofar as it improves our present conditions, and thus our future — insofar as it changes the fundamental conditions that led to the Holocaust.
The United States Holocaust Memorial and Museum in Washington DC writes on why the Holocaust is worth teaching, “The Holocaust provides one of the most effective subjects for an examining basic moral issues. A structured inquiry into this history yields critical lessons for an investigation into human behavior.” It stresses the value of democratic institutions that stand up for minorities, the importance of not remaining silent or indifferent to the suffering of others, and most importantly in my mind, “The Holocaust was not an accident in history; it occurred because individuals, organizations, and governments made choices that not only legalized discrimination but also allowed prejudice, hatred, and ultimately mass murder to occur.” In my own experience as a scholar of the humanities and teacher of philosophy to youth, I have found that the Holocaust, whether through poetry or history, philosophy or film, is one of the most effective topics with which to encourage moral questioning.
A visit to Auschwitz accomplishes none of this. If anything, it instills in us the emotional passivity that it is sufficient to mourn and to feel, as my friends later told me, how sad they felt afterward. This passive, backward-looking treatment of Auschwitz as a site simply to mourn is in practice opposed to Adorno’s charge that there is still the possibility of another Auschwitz in us, and that demands what we analyze the past so as to more clearly see ourselves in the present. Most crucially, he writes, “one should work to raise awareness about the possible displacement of what broke out in Auschwitz,” for tomorrow it may not be the Jews, or the Poles for that matter, but rather, as the world has idly watched pass, Bosnians or Rwandans.
In 2005, a study was conducted to see whether or not visitors to Auschwitz showed increased empathy for contemporary groups portrayed as victims, specifically Palestinians. It found that visiting Auschwitz increased empathy among Israeli youth with an initially positive attitude toward Palestinians, but simultaneously decreased empathy among those with an initially negative attitude. In other words, Auschwitz polarized views on human rights, rather than leading them in a productive direction one way or the other. This again indicates that the site of Auschwitz teaches us little. As conditioned by our present cultural context, it rather calcifies and emotionalizes ethical questions that demand to be considered philosophically, and sensibly.
The Jewish thinker Gillian Rose wrote about this issue in her address to a 1990 Symposium of Jewish Intellectuals on “The Future of Auschwitz.” She picked up on the difficulty of attributing moral responsibility in this light. As we learn from the Holocaust, the challenge to modernity is that “it is possible to mean well, to be caring and kind, loving one’s neighbor as oneself, yet to be complicit in the corruption and violence of social institutions.” This fundamental divide in human freedom between intention and action renders our typical understanding of morality no longer clear. Her talk includes a gnostic poem:
I am abused and I abuse
I am the victim and I am the perpetrator
I am innocent and I am innocent
I am guilty and I am guilty
The Holocaust, being a heterogeneous and polyvalent event, renders all of the above statements true, regardless of the participant’s race or nationality. In other words, any person, qua human being, no matter how much they have themselves been persecuted, is capable of persecuting others. Rose gives us a radical suggestion: “To provoke a child or an adult who visits the ‘site’ of Auschwitz not only to identify herself in infinite pain with ‘the victims’, but to engage in intense self-questioning: ‘Could I have done this?’” She goes on hoping for a discussion of “‘How easily could we have allowed this to be carried out?’ Are we Germans ‘or’ German-Jews. . . Polish professionals ‘or’ Polish Jews ‘or’ Polish peasants.” These possibilities — the in-betweens of moral complicity that Primo Levi called “the grey zone” and the in-betweens of moral freedom that Hannah Arendt called the “banality of evil” — are where the true problems of the Holocaust lie. These are the questions most important to us today, and they are not asked at Auschwitz.
Ultimately, Rose laments that she was assured at that conference on Auschwitz that “no museum curator could permit such a radical questioning of a visitor’s identity and agency.” Such a radical self-questioning is what would be truly useful, and it is sadly lacking, both formally, and contextually, from all visits to Auschwitz I have experienced, read about, or imagined.
While I do not regret my visit to Auschwitz, I can list a number of authors that have taught me more about why we must study the Holocaust and engaged me in deeper moral questioning than a visit ever could have. Primo Levi, Hannah Arendt, Tadeusz Borowski, Henryk Grynberg, Theodor Adorno, Emmanuel Lévinas, Jean Améry, Imre Kertész, Charlotte Delbo, Paul Celan, the list goes on. They are our answers: our fellow human beings who lived through the Nazi terror in some way or another and dared to morally implicate even themselves in its contagious immorality. Just one book on ethics after the Holocaust from any of these authors is enough to start one’s mind spinning. At Auschwitz it remains firmly planted.
 Translations by Bożena Shallcross, Professor of Polish at the University of Chicago, unpublished, 2011.
 Andrew Curry, “Can Auschwitz Be Saved?” Smithsonian (February 2010) http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/Can-Auschwitz-Be-Saved.html
 Alvin H. Rosenfeld, The End of the Holocaust (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013), p. 1.
 Theodor W. Adorno, “Education After Auschwitz” (1967), trans. Henry W. Pickford, in Can One Live After Auschwitz? A Philosophical Reader, ed. Rolf Tiedmann. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003.
 “Why teach about the Holocaust?” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. http://www.ushmm.org/educators/teaching-about-the-holocaust/why-teach-about-the-holocaust
 Schechter, H., and G. Salomon. “Does vicarious experience of suffering affect empathy for an adversary? The effects of Israelis’ visits to Auschwitz on their empathy for Palestinians. Peace Education 2 (2005), pp. 125-128. Cited in Maitles and Cowan.
 Gillian Rose, “The Future of Auschwitz,” Judaism and Modernity: Philosophical Essays (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993), p. 35.
Jon Catlin is an undergraduate at the University of Chicago majoring in the humanities and Jewish studies.