We all know the story behind the Auschwitz concentration camp. We learned about it from the history books, saw documentaries and movies about Holocaust, visited museums, etc. But how does it look today as one of the most popular destinations of dark tourism and how has a high number of visitors impacted it?
The feeling is of course different and much more poignant once you’re at the actual place. The ride from Krakow to the village Oswiecim where Auschwitz is located is beautiful. You’re passing through the lush forests and by beautiful countryside houses. It’s hard to imagine you are going to a place where more than 1 million people were killed by the Nazi regime.
The first thing you see before entering the grounds of Auschwitz I is a sign that says “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work will set you free). Auschwitz I used to be the main camp and today it serves as a museum while Birkenau used to be an extermination camp. Both are protected by the Polish government. At the beginning of a tour it was surprising to see inappropriate behavior of some visitors. It started with taking selfies in front of the sign and then continued with loud and chatty behavior and no interest in hearing what the tour leader had to say which was annoying for the rest of us.
Taking photos with no flash is allowed by the museum but taking smiley selfies or posing in front of the personal things that used to belong to prisoners is just disrespectful. You would think that this happens among young people only but no, others do it too. Many tourist attractions worldwide have banned selfie sticks and that’s what Aushwitz should do too.
The situation in Birkenau which used to be an extermination camp is even worse. People walk across the camp like they are robots, young high school students climb on a Holocaust train and take photos. Grafitti that was left by the visitors can be seen in the barracks. Auschwitz I is a museum so it’s better protected than the Birkenau complex which is huge and more exposed to the vandals. In some areas there are even anti semitic graffitis but some tourists have managed to leave them also in the barracks, bunkers and even the crematorium.
There have also been stories of people who have taken barbed wire as a souvenir or smoked in forbidden areas.
So why exactly does this happen?
Tourism is usually associated with positive feelings and enjoyable times but not always. Where do we cross a line between mass and dark tourism? The places of dark tourism serve to educate us and they keep the memory of tragic events alive. Here we pay respect for the victims, we think and learn.
One of the issues is in the way tour agencies in Krakow advertise their tours. Many other bloggers and travelers have noticed the same. Tourists get approached all the time by the tour agencies who are trying to sell tours to Auschwitz, Wieliczka salt mines or the Krakow walking tour. These are completely different tours though, and the result of that are visitors who don’t realize the seriousness of this place and who head to Auschwitz with no dress code. This isn’t a casual tourist attraction.
Tour agencies want to earn money which is fine, but they also need to put an effort in educating people and focusing their strengths on a smaller group of tourists who are really interested in learning. Their job shouldn’t be just selling the tour but also providing more information to visitors before arrival such as a little history, the details of the tour, things that are allowed or not allowed etc. The places of dark tourism need to be advertised in a more sensitive manner and they need more quality instead of quantity.
One thing I really recommend before ending your tour is visiting the museum store. Buy a book and learn more! A great one is Smoke over Birkenau by Seweryna Szmaglewska.
And to finish this… Not everybody behaves badly, on the contrary, the majority of visitors are respectful. If you have a chance you should definitely pay a visit because as George Santayana has said:
Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.