England & Wales Culture, sport and tourism

Reflections on a visit to Auschwitz


Image by Peter Tóth from Pixabay

“No one can change the past; however the future is in our hands. Help us to preserve the authenticity of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Help us to warn humanity against itself. Do not allow history to become a deafening silence. Save the memory.” (Dr. Piotr M.A. Cywiński, President of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation)

The question though is how to do that.

I visited Auschwitz and Birkenau and the Jewish quarter of Krakow last week as part of a study tour. It has personal significance for my family but even for those it did not in my group it was significant and sometimes difficult.

Preserving sites like Auschwitz is contentious – there have been arguments that the camp should be demolished once the last survivor has died. But that now seems to be a very minority opinion – most believe it needs to stand as a testament to those who were taken here and a brutal reminder of the history of pre-war continental Europe and a warning about its consequences.

However, how these memorials are presented is critical: especially now when sites that were once remote can be reached easily and we have mass tourism and when we as tourists expect to take endless photos and selfies.

Has Auschwitz been turned into a tourist attraction? No, it hasn’t. The foundation that now raises money to maintain the site of Auschwitz-Birkenau has had a guiding philosophy:

“To preserve authenticity… to keep the place intact, exactly as it was when the Nazis retreated before the Soviet Army arrived in January 1945 to liberate the camp.”

“It is a moral stance with specific curatorial challenges. It means restoring the crumbling brick barracks where Jews and some others were interned without rebuilding those barracks, lest they take on the appearance of a historical replica. It means reinforcing the moss-covered pile of rubble that is the gas chamber at Birkenau, the extermination camp a few miles away, a structure that the Nazis blew up in their retreat”. (Rachel Donadio)

Yet the numbers of groups visiting the memorial do somehow distract from its role as a memorial to those who were brought there. There is little time to contemplate and reflect quietly. A few in my group felt that the behaviour of some of the groups was more like tourists – but surely we were all tourists there, whatever brought us there. I didn’t see any disrespectful behaviour. Photos were taken presumably to help people remember their own experience, but why take selfies?

Preserving the site intact itself has its problems. Both camps are entirely inaccessible for many people with disabilities. Every building has steps into it. The paths between the buildings are stony. There is no concession to visitors with sight or hearing problems. I had a walker which was difficult to manoeuvre but not impossible, but I didn’t see anyone else with any sign of a disability. It is impossible for visitors in wheelchairs. Surely this is ironic – given disabled people were among the first to be brought to the camp and taken at once to the gas chambers?

How do trusts and local authorities – anyone who is responsible for these kind of sites – strike the right balance between authenticity and inclusion? Personally, I believe so much could be done at Auschwitz to support access without jeopardising its philosophy. Providing ramps, for example, does not take away any of the reality of the site. Making use of modern techniques to convey the history of the site would enhance and not distract from the experience: using art, culture and technology to reveal and enhance the underlying identity — the unique meaning, value, and character – of the physical and social form of the site.

And learning about the Holocaust would be enhanced by having some understanding of life before it – the vibrant Jewish culture in Kracow for example.

The crucial lessons we can learn from Auschwitz are, of course, about humanity and what happens when it is absent, but there are other more practical lessons too. In the UK we do not have to preserve a site like this one. And we have legislation to ensure access (though it doesn’t always work effectively). But we have memorial sites and unfortunately there will be new ones. We need to navigate the difficult issues around preservation and inclusion, between remembering the past but looking to the future.

Janet Sillett is LGiU’s Head of Briefings.