Auschwitz, and travel in the age of Instagram

The complex reality of visiting a concentration camp in the modern age

Article by Izzy Gray | 14 Aug 2019
  • Travel in the age of Instagram

The frost-laced winds swirled in slow, solemn waltzes. My gaze lay straight ahead. I stared, shivering, trying to contemplate the length of the tracks ahead; of where they began, where they led, where they ended.

It was hard to ignore the fact that I had a gaping hole in my boot. It had threatened me with its presence for the last three days and today, of all days, succumbed to the elements. The leather had split, leaving an almighty wound. The sole hung a clean inch away from where it should, and my foot swam in a miserable icy bath.

How could anyone survive a winter here?

Looking around, I couldn’t help but reflect that even in the heart of summer, this was a place which must always feel cold.

The horizon was patterned with brick-like structures; buildings which could quite easily have been mistaken for army barracks. They stood in uniform rows and stretched as far as the eye could see. In the distance, a perimeter fence stood guard. Watchtowers looked on. Unseen eyes caught you in their grasp.

I felt my shoulders creep lower in their sockets.

I was standing on hallowed ground, yet I could never quite have contemplated how that feeling could seep into your very bones. This was Birkenau, the largest death camp within the Auschwitz complex. It’s where 90% of people who were taken to Auschwitz died.

One million people lost their lives in this place.

It was a hard thought to swallow, and in all honesty I didn’t quite know how to feel. Quite simply, the concept of one million souls was too hard to fathom, and my mind was saturated with impossible-to-answer questions.

How could this happen? How could humans let this happen?

Like many people visiting the camp for the first time, I’d been hit by a wall of confusion.

And then something happened to bring me out of my stupor. In the distance, a girl caught my eye. She was perhaps mid-twenties, with tumbling blonde hair and an opulent fur-lined jacket. Her make-up was flawless.

She walked with determination along the middle of the railway tracks – the tracks which had once shepherded the camp’s prisoners to their fate – and as she did so, heads began to turn.

After 50 yards or so she stopped and turned to face a friend, waiting patiently behind. She placed her hand on her hip, dropped it fashionably and shook her hair into place. A thumbs up from the pal was given, a Cheshire Cat grin was donned and the lens clicked obligingly. A quick check to make sure that all was Instagram-worthy, and off the pair skipped.

My confusion doubled.

Did she really just get her photo taken, smiling, at Auschwitz?

It seemed I was not alone in my bewilderment. Several folk had stopped to watch as the event unfolded. Some scoffed and rolled their eyes. Others tutted. One elderly lady, whose eyes caught mine, looked positively depressed. Her reaction resonated the most.

It was depressing. Is this what our generation had come to? So hooked on social media and the vapid imagery which comes from relaying every experience that we can’t bring ourselves to switch off from our screen-lives and actually take in the real world around us? Are we so busy ‘checking in’ that we’ve forgotten to actually check in?

Now I’m not saying this girl had any malicious intentions in getting her photo taken. It would be unfair to make any assumptions on her character based upon a quick observation. What worried me was her apparent obliviousness to her surroundings. It was as though she was treating Auschwitz like any other tourist attraction; as though the crumbling ruins of a gas chamber was as appropriate a background to her selfie as the Eiffel Tower.

And then I wondered, could she really be blamed?

Auschwitz: the 'must-see' destination

After all, it is an uncomfortable truth that Auschwitz today is very much marketed as a ‘must-see’ destination when visiting Poland. Read any guidebook to visiting Krakow and you’ll find it listed amongst the top ten things to do. Visit any tourist information office in the city and you’ll find numerous companies offering tours to the camp.

Prior to visiting, I had my reservations about this. There was no denying that I wanted to visit Auschwitz. It wasn’t out of some morbid curiosity or so I could feel validated in ‘doing my bit’ for humanity. I wanted to gain a deeper understanding into why things developed so badly for European society during WWII. I wanted to see if I could gain any kind of perspective on how such atrocities could possibly occur, and how hatred could extend to actions so unimaginable. I wanted to learn from the experience and pay my respects to those lost during the Holocaust.

And yet I felt uneasy mentioning to people that we planned to go, never quite sure whether they would react with understanding or disdain. What I felt uncomfortable about was talking about the world’s most notorious concentration camp like it was a tourist attraction. I worried whether as consumers, we were becoming desensitized to the experience in front of us and whether the true intention behind sites of remembrance was becoming – ironically – forgotten.

Watching this girl strike her pose, I felt like I was watching my fear come to fruition.

Is this it? Has Auschwitz become a commodity? Are people forgetting what happened here?

The truth is, Auschwitz is one of the most visited sites in Europe, with an estimated one million travellers passing under the infamous ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ gate every year. Even on a quiet December morning, ours was among dozens of busses which had pulled up as part of an organised tour. Our guide suggested that on an average low-season day such as this, there would be at least 5000 visitors to the camp.

It was hard to imagine that 75 years before, hundreds of prisons were forcibly crammed into these rooms and here we were, willingly squeezing ourselves into the tight parameters, yet having absolutely no real perspective on the type of conditions they must have endured, having never truly suffered ourselves.

There was a deep discomfort which came from visiting somewhere so intrinsically linked to human suffering, and yet did I regret being there? Ultimately, no. Here’s why.

'Like a slap in the face'

Visiting Auschwitz will hit you like a slap in the face. Sometimes a good old thump of reality is no bad thing.

For me, that first bolt of perspective came in the entrance to one of the exhibition rooms, as we passed by a line of photographs. It was a row of headshots, just a small sample of those taken of prisoners as they arrived at the camp. Most were already skeletal, their eyes sunken and heads shaved. The Nazis had certainly made their best efforts to strip the prisoners of their humanity, and yet their eyes bore straight into my consciousness.

There were two dates engraved beneath each photograph; one, the date they arrived. The other, the date they died. For many, the two were only days apart.

By the end of this corridor, there was a unanimous and respectful silence among the group. This swelled as we moved through the museum, each room displaying something more harrowing than the next. Empty suitcases, once filled with the belongings and hopes of a better future. Locks of human hair. Shoes piled high to the ceiling, filling an entire room.

I don’t think there could have been a single soul who emerged from the depths of the former gas chamber, knowing what happened within those four walls, who could have thought to themselves that this was anything close to a fun day out. Their faces said it all.

So many lives...

As the day wound on, I began to get it. Yes, there were a lot of visitors. Yes, the crowds could be overwhelming – off-putting even – but the very fact that so many people feel compelled to experience the horror of Auschwitz even after the passage of time speaks volumes in itself. It showed that people want to learn. They want to understand. They want to pay their respects. There was something undeniably uplifting to take from that.

'Evil has to start somewhere'

I began to see that although the promotion of Auschwitz as a travel destination may have become somewhat confused over the years, the intention remains the same. The museum is not there to serve as some gory fill-your-boots insight into the macabre depths of humanity, it’s a reminder of what has happened in the past and what should never happen again. It’s a site of remembrance and a tribute to those murdered, but it’s also an important lesson for the future.

Evil has to start somewhere. It doesn’t come from thin air. We’re living in scary times. This is the era of Trump-ism, of Brexit and terrorism, of building walls and forming borders. It’s easy to see how hatred and prejudice could start to bubble beneath the surface given the chance.

For most people who visited the camp that day, I’m pretty sure the message got through. There was a collective spirit shared among the visitors, jumbled though it may have been with feelings of sadness, humility, dismay and, inevitably, anger. The majority of visitors we encountered reacted to the site with complete respect. Phones were tucked away. Plaques were read in silent contemplation. Questions were asked with genuine purpose.

Of course, you’re always going to get the odd knobhead who forgets the significance of where they are. Sadly, the concept of switching off from our virtual worlds will always be lost on some, but perhaps that’s just my own personal bugbear and something I need to accept. Tolerance, after all, comes in all shapes and sizes. And anyway, perhaps there’s no right way to feel after visiting somewhere as harrowing as Auschwitz. Perhaps it represents something greater than any of us born decades down the line can really fathom. Perhaps that’s okay. As long as we try to understand and learn from it all, there’s #hope for us yet.