Following my previous article called Quick trip to Salt Mine Wieliczka in Poland here is another of my Polish trip. After our salt mine tours me and my family headed to nearby town Oswiecim. The German name for Oswiecim is Auschwitz and I hope that’s ringing some bells now. Even though from my experience many non-Europeans are not very familiar with this horrid part of our history. Now I’m gonna bring you on our tour over Auschwitz concentration camp and the dilemma that’s been bothering me ever since I visited.
Do you take selfies in places like concentration camps?
Just like with any other trip we prepared ahead. Checked some websites, the address, how to get there and other stuff. But the reality was slightly different and from the organization point of view it was terrible and I’ll explain why.
From Wieliczka, it was like an hour-long car ride. We found out that Slovak and Czech tours over the summer end by 2 o’clock and we arrived at around 2. Our bad.
There were several lines of people waiting and all of them were very poorly labeled.
Plenty of lines and the combination of an extremely hot day equals bad start.
Luckily there was a girl sitting at the information table so I asked what to do to get in. She pointed me to one of the lines. Still, I had no idea what ticked or tours do we need as a group as all of the information were written on the paper next to the ticket stall, that was just too far for me to see.
On the internet, we found that the entry without the tour guide is free, but you can’t get in without a guide. I also found somewhere online that you can get in for free in times expect 10-15, but I can’t confirm that as that info was nowhere to find in the area of the camp.
After a while, I saw this small tv screen that shown upcoming tours. We could choose from English, Polish, Spanish, French, Italian and German. The frequency was similar that the one in Wieliczka salt mine. English was every 30 minutes or so. Other languages were in between 30-60 minutes each.
I asked for 5 adult tickets and English tour guide. At that, the lady handed me a small piece of paper and asked to write our names on it. Didn’t expect that so I asked for more info but the lady only said to write all of our names.
As a pharmacist, I’m not legally allowed to ask my patients for their name or any other personal information because of newly established GDPR law. To have 5 names written on a piece a paper and then slide it over to the lady was so odd for me.
Didn’t get an explanation of why is that necessary.
I have a very doctor like handwriting. It’s terrible and even I have issues reading after myself sometimes. So naturally the lady laughed after glancing at the paper I handed her, and starter decrypting our names and I guess typing it to the computer. After a while, she asked for 60zlotys per person and handed me 5 stickers with Auschwitz gate and 2:30 written on it along with 5 bills, each with our names on it.
I could only guess where to go next. From Wieliczka experience, I assumed the tour queues would be labeled with the flag of the language but I was mistaken. So I asked where is the English one and we stepped in line. It was 2:20 and our tour started at 2:30.
All of the websites inform you that you can’t bring bags inside so obviously we left everything besides phones and water bottle in our car. Just like the Wieliczka, there were plenty of parking spaces and guys in neon vests pointing you towards it. Ours was like 8 minutes from the Auschwitz entrance.
When it was our turn I handed the tickets to the old guy. Suddenly he read my fathers name out loud. Another surprise. For a guy working on an American tour guide entrance, he had terrible English. I asked him what is going on and he just said: “one ticket one ID”. Obviously we left it all in our car. I tried to explain to him that, but the language barrier was so strong I said fuck it. Let’s run to our car and get the ids hopefully in time for our tour.
It was 34°C and we spend 20 minutes on direct sunlight waiting in various lines.
Gosh, we were all so sweaty it was disgusting. We actually run to our car and got back to stand the line. Again. We each showed our id to the old guy and he let us in. Not to talk about my family much but we all have very volatile nature and we were tired and sweaty. We were furious. Little did we know we were nowhere near our tour yet.
From one gate to another, where we went through the body checkup. We didn’t even have bags but we had to go through a metal detector. Guys had to strip their belts into the bin to get through with it. It was 2:32. We were already late only to find out we need to wait in yet another line. We were done. It felt like the whole trip was ruined before it even started.
At this stopping point, we were handed recorder with a set of headphones. The ones that go over your head and to the both of your ears. Much better than the previous ones. The girl working there handed me another 5 stickers and I told her we already have those but no one told us what are we supposed to do with it. Like it was the most obvious thing in the world, she told us to stick it on our shirt. So we did and we saw a lady in the back with an “English” sign on it so we run towards her. She was already speaking to our group of 20 people. We were late, out of breath, sweaty and upset we already drank half of our water supply.
Finally, we put our headphones on and the Auschwitz-Birkenau tour began.
I don’t want to get into historical facts in here as it’s something you’re either familiar with or can easily find out. You can know all about the timeline of the events, the mechanism the reasoning, but nothing compares to the real-life experiences of walking the concentration camp.
I’ve been to the holocaust museum in Washington D.C. at my summer in the states and I shared my experience in Summer in USA – Washington D.C. article. The Auschwitz group I was in reminded me of my American experience. The gasping, the whispering, headshakes and the whole body language of my co-tourists made me sort of angry. Angry at the system that doesn’t provide the information that many people learn them at the spot.
Sounds like I’m full of myself I get that. I get that not everyone is into war documentaries and it’s safer not to talk about the holocaust. I’m sure it’s different when you learn about the holocaust because you have to in school, and different because you want to. It’s hard to talk about or even think about. I get it.
There was this quote at the front of the first camp block:
I believe says a lot. More if you think about how the camps were not supposed to serve to systematically murder millions. The beginnings were not “that bad” in the later comparison.
Don’t get me wrong it was still horrendous but when we went from Auschwitz I. to Auschwitz II. the difference was substantial.
First was supposed to hold the targeted group of people in inhuman condition, even offer them some sort of trials. Playing proper society. Make them feel safe, make them hope that their stay is only temporary, pack their belongings to preoccupy their mind form the fact they are never coming back. If that doesn’t sound like the current world situation, I don’t think you’re paying attention.
Let’s go back to the tour.
We went from one block to another. All of them were numbered but not all of them were open for visitors. That was great in case you want to visit after hours to walk the camp on your own. The tour guide told us much more than what we could read from the posters ourselves. Told us what to focus on, the story of the items we were seeing.
Our tour guide was a young lady that had a german accent but it was quite simple to understand her English. I already mentioned it was terribly hot that day and the inside of the camps obviously had no climatization and quickly the smell of the camp melted with the sweat of the thousands of tourists. They did have some fans in the rooms to make the tour manageable.
We moved as a group, took some stops at several talking points where our guide talked us through the facts. Inside of the Auschwitz was much better organized than the outside of the camp. There were some arrows to point the way of the tour, separation ribbons, manny explanatory posters and photographs and more.
The whole experience was chilling.
You stand in front of the showcase with hundreds of shoes collected from the Jewish people who died in the place you stand on and you ‘re thinking how terrible that is. Then you move along the next room and you’re standing in a hall that has showcases full of thousands of shoes on both sides of the room and your breath hitches. You move to the next room where the actual hairs of holocaust victims are stored behind the glass but the smell and the vibe are too strong. In the next room you find baby clothes, next the tons of suitcases and the other one contains glasses, next one the empty cans of chemicals they used to murder millions and you wonder how much more can you handle.
You get out of the block through the hall full of photographs. People that spend horrible but hopefully short days in the camp. Each person had their name, profession, date of capture and date of death written underneath. Some survived days, some months. When you get out of the building you’re standing in front of the death wall. A place where the people stood when they were executed with the bullet in the back of their head. you walk past the block they did horrendous medical experiences on people. You turn around and you’re standing in front of the gas chamber. You enter the room. Plain, empty room that witnessed the death of thousands of people. Around 400 hundred per day until they build up Birkenau to increase the number and efficiency of their murders. I knew it was gonna be bad and I tried to brace myself for it.
But I don’t think anything can prepare you for the twisted feeling in your guts, the unease you feel and the chill of standing in the middle of the gas chamber.
Since Auschwitz I. was no longer fulfilling the nazists needs, they build the other camp nearby referred to as Auschwitz II or Birkenau. Part of our tour was also the visit of Birkenau and for this purpose, there were busses prepared. The ride by bus from Auschwitz to Birkenau took like 3 minutes, victims back then had to walk to their execution by foot. In summer. In winter.
Only later on nazists build a railway to bring the next hundreds of Jewish people straight to the gas chamber. Sure they had sort of selection process that was basically just eenie meenie. Left meant immediate death. Right meant death after inhuman torture.
Birkenau was supposed to be part of our paid tour but no one checked our tickets. Not even on the bus, not even at the entrance to the Birkenau. I’m sure you could get in for free.
The difference between those two camps was quite visible. Auschwitz living conditions were horrible but they did have some sort of dignity in the form of walls, stairs or windows.
Auschwitz II basically stopped treating their occupants as human beings, rather just livestock as they had to live in a building that looked just like stables.
Even smelled like one. One bed for 8 people. Toilets in the form of a hole in the ground all of the people had to use the facility in 20 minutes 2 times per day. 1000 of them. All at once. They had a bucket to use in case but most of the people were so exhausted they couldn’t move on their own to use the bucket, so the body fluids and waste were all over the place. Those who were too weak or too slow to work the whole day long on a coffee and a liquid soup they got as a breakfast, were simply selected for elimination.
At this time of our tour, the weather changed dramatically. From previously unbearable hot day to a big storm. To see these big ass lightings and hear thunders over the gas chambers was unbelievable.
Suddenly it becomes very dangerous for us to stand in the middle of a plane with so many metallic components. We had to end our tour earlier but it still left a grand impact on myself. It was 3 hours long tour with a 20 minutes break between the two camps.
There is this one thing that’s been bothering me since the entry of the camp. Someone from our tour group asked our tour guide:
“Is it ok to take photos?”
“Yes, in a respectful way.”
And my question is: where are the boundaries? Do you take selfies in a place where millions died?
As a blogger or influencer or whatever your main goal is to promote. To sell. To bring attention to something. You can do it in many different ways but visual aids are mostly the golden choice. If you search Instagrams or twitters hashtags for Oswiecim, Auschwitz or concentration camp there are few patterns that occur. The photograph of a person sitting on a Birkenau railway with a gate in the background. The photo in front of the Auschwitz gate or the photos from the roll-call square.
And I’m just trying to grasp what is the meaning of it.
Aesthetically pleasing? Of course not.
Proof that you travel? That makes the most sense.
You’re into deeper issues? Possibly but do you achieve this statement with selfies?
I personally didn’t even think about taking photos of myself at the camp. To be fair I take a shit a lot of photographs from every random thing I like and my family is super annoyed with it. That’s why they were kind of surprised I didn’t ask them to be my personal photographers in Oswiecim.
Is like, do you need to promote this part of history? Talk about it and remember it sure. But how do you do it?
Do you smile for the photos?
Do you need to remember the place by looking at yourself in there?
I just felt like I was being super disrespectful by even taking the photos I did and shared here with you.
There were several places where the museum actually asked the visitors not to take photos. Like in the room with the hair of the deceased. And still, many visitors from our group shamelessly took out their phones and took the pictures anyway. Honestly, are you ever gonna forget that image?
I feel like I’m shaming the people that do take selfies in concentration camps and I apologize. I would really like to hear your opinion on this issue in the comments thought.
After 3 hours we were exhausted both physically a mentally. No matter how badly our Auschwitz tour began the result was unforgettable. I believe that everyone should visit places like concentration camp or museum of the holocaust at least once in their lifetime as a reminder of evil humanity is capable of.