Concentration camps deserve silence, not selfies


Photo Courtesy of Shirah Lister

Shirah Lister

A girl is posing for her friend’s camera. A parking lot packed with dozens of laughing tourist groups as they unload from buses. A cute shop with books in every language and bathroom soap that smells like artificial banana. Welcome to Auschwitz, over 70 years after the atrocities of the Holocaust.

A gas chamber with scratches on the wall. A barbed wire fence surrounding the camp. Signs with skulls and the word ‘Halt!’ written in bold across them. The phrase “Arbeit Macht Frei”—Work makes you free. This is the real Auschwitz. Not a tourist site or museum, but a death camp. A place where 1.1 million people died. So, please, stop treating this site as if it is a typical tourist attraction—because it’s not.

Upon entering the grounds, I had to ask myself: if there were no signs, would I know this was a concentration camp? Would I have realized this was a mass graveyard, the place where 1.1 million people were massacred brutally and inhumanely by the Nazis? Honestly, probably not.

Strategically placed next to the entrance and exit to the camp are a small bookshop and a souvenir shop. Now before we unpack all of that, I have to ask, who buys a souvenir from a concentration camp? I’m not sure, but I’d like to know.

Next to the small shop they’ve set up a snack stand. Chocolate, chips, drinks- you name it, they’ve got it, right outside of Auschwitz.

And although the camp itself is free, the guides are not. So unless you’ve decided to take a stroll through Auschwitz, or are planning to wander around a concentration camp, the camps aren’t actually free. On top of that, using the bathroom costs money.

Outside and in front of the camp, on the manicured green grass, sit groups and families eating and socializing, as if there is not a concentration camp less than 50 feet away. You are surrounded by camera clicks and people taking selfies. Families with babies walk in and out, toddlers being fed cheerios. The exact opposite of what’s expected and respectful.

What’s respectful is silence. Groups walking in and out quietly, in reflection. A lack of smiles, a lack of laughter. Poses and selfies out of sight. No food, and preferably no toddlers. What’s respectful is for the tour guide to not request a picture under the Arbeit Macht Frei sign.

In the museum that was once Auschwitz, the numbing exhibits created an atmosphere in which I was no longer walking the path my ancestors walked, but one where I was simply looking through a glass. It was as if I had no connection to these grounds, as if I, along with everyone there, had completely disassociated from the events that took place.

That feeling was only emphasized seeing the interior. The camp has been completely revamped since my ancestors were last here. Furnaces have been kindly added and a fashionable black stripe follows you through the museum-turned barrack. Instead of seeing the beds and the thickness of it, we were met with aesthetically pleasing panels and stained glass windows. The sense of authenticity has been lost, and replaced with a museumization.

So is a historical site the same as a museum, and did we have to turn a historical site of such magnitude into a museum? I’d answer to both: no. Concentration camps can be educational, but, they aren’t only here as a place to learn; they are also a reminder and memorial.

The cognitive thinking approach to concentration camps should be completely scrapped. I know that because not everyone has such a deep connection to the Holocaust, and because of the lack of a proper Holocaust education across the board, some people need the in-depth explanations, but I think that can be changed.

It all boils down to education and preparation. If you know and understand the history, you (hopefully) won’t be inclined to take selfies. If the people visiting these places have already received an adequate education, the setup can be more emotional and less informational – or better yet, we can give information that gives rise to emotions. We can let go of the need to explain, and let go of the need to make everything ‘aesthetic.’