Author examines the 'gaze' of tourists at Nazi death camps

Defending Auschwitz selfies, a new book unpacks Holocaust tourism

While commemorating the genocide perpetuated by the Nazis, visitors to memorial sites are increasingly placing themselves in the frame

Reporter at The Times of Israel

A Holocaust memorial created in the 'sauna' facility of the former German Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, in Poland, with photographs of people deported there, October 2017 (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)
A Holocaust memorial created in the 'sauna' facility of the former German Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, in Poland, with photographs of people deported there, October 2017 (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

Whether urinating on a Holocaust memorial at Auschwitz, or filming a music video inside a Nazi-built gas chamber, visitors to sites of Holocaust memory are not always known for proper decorum.

In “Postcards from Auschwitz: Holocaust Tourism and the Meaning of Remembrance,” author Daniel P. Reynolds tracks the evolution of visiting sites associated with the murder of 6 million Jews during World War II. Taking a broad view of the subject, Reynolds examines the “gaze” of tourists at former Nazi death camps, in addition to the evolution of several “urban centers of Holocaust memory,” including Berlin and Jerusalem.

Right away, Reynolds acknowledges the term “Holocaust tourism” usually conjures images of inappropriate behavior at — for example —  the former Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, where tourists take selfies in front of crematoria ruins and steal relics for use in their “artwork.” Apart from incidents that go viral, quite a few Holocaust sites are treated similarly to dog parks, with bicyclists streaming through and trash strewn about.

“I have seen tourists at concentration camps take photos where they are not permitted, smoke on grounds where smoking is prohibited, or laugh at places where laughing seems wholly inappropriate,” writes Reynolds, a professor of German at Grinnell College in Iowa.

Last year, in front of the infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” gate at the entrance to Auschwitz, 11 European tourists carried out a bizarre plot. After slaughtering a sheep, the protesters took off their clothes and chained themselves together. One of them had the foresight to bring along a drone to record the scene at the former Auschwitz I, the so-called “main camp,” where Poles and Russians were gassed before the construction of Auschwitz II, or Birkenau, not far away.

A gas chamber in the former Nazi death camp Majdanek, in Poland, October 2017 (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

For better or worse, tourists are increasingly placing themselves “inside the frame” when documenting visits to sites of Holocaust memory.

In Reynolds’s view, that’s not all bad: Taking selfies at Auschwitz can stand in contrast to “fixed” postcards with ready-made images and lack of personality. Just as the Nazis were bent on erasing people’s individuality, taking selfies at a former death camp can feel like a reclamation of one’s identity, wrote the author.

“If official postcards erase the tourist, selfies reclaim the visitor’s presence at the memorial,” writes Reynolds. “There is an act of agency, of immediacy to a place that has for so many decades been heavily mediated by others, often experts who exercise considerable influence over acceptable ways to represent the Holocaust.”

‘The search for redemption’

The concept of tourists visiting sites of atrocity to empower themselves is part of the theory of “dark tourism,” a term coined in 1996. According to theory creator P.R. Stone, some visitors to the “Dark Camps of Genocide” — including Auschwitz-Birkenau — are seeking to reconcile the horrors of the Holocaust with the mundane experience of their everyday lives. Ultimately, espoused Stone, visiting these sites is a futile and nihilistic endeavor.

In contrast to this “devoid of meaning” view, Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem has chosen to frame the genocide in ways that evoke “opportunities for imagining a better future,” wrote Reynolds. For evidence, look to the small, but growing forest of trees planted to honor “the righteous of the nations,” or to the heads of state who visit Yad Vashem  during visits to Israel. The 2005-built museum includes many accounts of resistance to the Nazis’ extermination machine, including when Danish citizens helped rescue nearly all of the country’s Jews.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, a field of concrete slabs in the heart of Berlin, November 2012 (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

“The search for redemption and its encouragement by Yad Vashem points to the important struggle between understanding the Holocaust as a specific, unique event that victimized the Jewish people and a universal challenge to notions of humanity,” writes Reynolds.

A different kind of redemption has been underfoot, quite literally, in Berlin, the city from which the Holocaust was executed. Precisely where Hitler and his paladins made their plans, a sprawling field of concrete slabs was constructed to remember the genocide perpetrated by Germany. Close by, the “Topography of Terror” complex — located atop the ruins of former Gestapo headquarters — showcases archival evidence related to Nazi atrocities across Europe.

In Reynolds’ assessment, “monumental” structures such as those found in Berlin’s “memory district” are necessary, but not sufficient, to memorialize the Holocaust. Many smaller, less conspicuous memorials dot the streets and parks of Berlin, including thousands of gold-plated “Stumbling Stones” marking the former homes of the Nazis’ victims, Jewish and otherwise. Statues and other public art commemorate specific aspects of the Holocaust, such as the Kindertransport rescue and train stations from which Jews were deported.

“The Holocaust transpired not only in the extermination camps and the mass graves of Eastern Europe but also in villas and office buildings, in local rail stations and in quiet neighborhood streets, on buses and trams,” writes Reynolds.

‘Haunting the margins’

In Warsaw, the evolution of Holocaust memory has encountered more pitfalls than in Berlin, according to the author.

As Poland’s largest Jewish city before the war, Nazi-occupied Warsaw became the site of a ghetto into which more than 400,000 Jews were crammed. Few of these people survived the genocide, and there is little present in today’s urban fabric of Warsaw that recalls the city’s Jewish past — especially in comparison to Berlin, believes Reynolds.

The POLIN Museum of Jewish History in Warsaw, Poland, opened in 2014 (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

“A tension lies between Warsaw’s bold aspirations for tomorrow and its weighty traumas of yesterday, and that tension stems from differences in fate shared by the city’s residents,” writes Reynolds. “The problem of Holocaust memory in Warsaw, which tourism constantly reveals, lies in the perception that the Holocaust haunts the margins of the city’s collective memory but does not occupy its center, neither geographically or metaphorically.”

Specifically, Reynolds believes that Holocaust memory needs to “spread out” from beyond the small, former Warsaw ghetto area. The city’s new POLIN Jewish history museum has helped to “acknowledge the devastation of the Holocaust, and to complicate the story of Warsaw’s rebirth as a fate enjoyed by some Varsovians more than others,” writes Reynolds. Like almost all other markers of Jewish history in the city, the sprawling museum was built inside the former ghetto area, removed from the city center.

When it comes to framing history, the most sensitive places of memory are the six former Nazi-built death camps, inside of whose gas chambers approximately three million Jews were murdered. At the former death camps of Belzec and Sobibor, almost all structures were destroyed and covered over before the war ended. Only in the past decade or two have decisions been made about –for example — the construction of museums and parking lots, as well as how to protect the mass graves from visitors and looters.

At the former Nazi death camp Sobibor, the white rocks that covered the ‘ash mound’ constructed decades ago were recently deployed to cover the entire field of mass graves, September 30, 2017 (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

Sometimes, choices made by the stewards of Holocaust sites — as opposed to the tourists — are what make headlines. For instance, the state museum at Auschwitz-Birkenau was criticized for installing tourist “showers,” or misters, at the entrance to the camp in 2015. Although the summer heat was scorching, some visitors — particularly Israelis — felt “punched in the gut” by the symbolism of walking off a bus and into “showers,” according to media accounts.

For its part, the museum offered a vigorous defense of the misters. In addition to citing public health concerns for installing them, the museum pushed back on the concept that misters should evoke the former death camp’s “showers,” which was a Nazi euphemism for the gas chambers.

“…The mist sprinklers do not look like showers and the fake showers installed by Germans inside some of the gas chambers were not used to deliver gas into them,” the museum told The Times of Israel that summer. “Zyklon B was dropped inside the gas chambers in a completely different way — through holes in the ceiling or airtight drops in walls.”

Jews from Hungary arriving at Auschwitz in May of 1944, part of ‘The Auschwitz Album’ series of photographs. Most of these Jews were murdered later that day. (public domain)

In Reynolds’ assessment, Auschwitz-Birkenau has an “obligation” to inform visitors about the site’s ongoing development. Whether a war-era barracks has been restored, or tourist infrastructure added, the museum should communicate alterations and the “changing contexts” behind them, wrote the author.

“The fact that different tourists at different times have encountered different incarnations of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum should remind us that tourism is a fluid enterprise, an evolving encounter with places and events that respond to changing contexts,” writes Reynolds.

“The danger in tourism is that the visitor may not be informed of these changes and may entertain the illusion that the place is unchanged since the event it commemorates.”

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