Auschwitz: The Darkest Tourist Attraction of Them All
Dark tourism in one of the most disturbing places in the world
Krakow has been on my list of places to visit for a long time; I studied history at University and have always wanted to visit Auschwitz, so with flights looking pretty cheap, I bit the bullet and booked them! I didn’t know much about the city at that point – it was Auschwitz that really drew us there, as I imagine it does for most.
Nowadays, dark tourism is becoming more and more common. People visit the battlefields in Belgium, the Killing Fields in Cambodia and Chernobyl in Ukraine, and of course Auschwitz. I felt a bit odd about wanting to go there; was I going out of curiosity, respect, or something else? I was almost looking forward to going in a strange way, and I wasn’t really sure how to describe it. Before I went, friends asked if I was excited about the trip; I was, but wasn’t really sure if it was right to admit it.
Beforehand, I visited Schindlers’ Factory; a fascinating tour of what life was like in Poland during the German occupation. Some of it was quite chilling and describes Poland’s journey from before the Nazi invasion until the Soviet. I didn’t get there until quite late in the afternoon, and still had time to spend a couple of hours there before heading back to the hostel. Krakow is perfect for that; everything that I needed was in walking distance, and the hostel staff were incredibly helpful in providing maps, directions and recommendations for dinner.
The next day I’d booked a tour of Auschwitz through the hostel. I’d done some research beforehand and it seemed the best way to do it; you usually have to go round Auschwitz with a guide, and the tour included transport to and from the hostel so it seemed worth it.
Now that I’ve been, when I’m trying to describe Auschwitz to people it’s very hard to come up with the right words. I’m very glad I’ve been, and I’d recommend everyone to go, but it’s a difficult one. The way that they organise the tours is perfect; you get given a headset, from which you can hear your guide so that everyone isn’t shouting over each other. As a result, it’s a very sedate, solemn atmosphere which feels very appropriate for the occasion.
It’s split into two camps (as any history enthusiast should know). In Auschwitz One, the blocks are split into different exhibits which tell the story of the camp. You walk from one to the next, led by the guides, in total disbelief at what you’re seeing. I’ve read all the books and watched the films, but it’s very different actually being there.
There are a few exhibits that were a little much for me – a few have possessions from the victims, and one even has human hair that was stripped from the bodies – but in a way, I was glad. It wasn’t supposed to be a fun day out, but I wasn’t sure what I wanted it to be. Even though I knew before I went, it’s still hard to take in that this all happened in living memory. It’s as if your brain refuses to compute the horror of it all; even when faced with the rooms and the scratch-marks made on the walls it was hard to comprehend the reality of the situation.
Lots of the people in our group were taking photographs, and this is something else I was unsure about. I wanted to take photos so that I could remember the day, but I also felt it would detract from the experience if I did. I wanted to be fully present; to listen to everything that the guide was saying, to look and feel everything. I felt that if I wanted to see it through a lens, I could watch one of the many documentaries and films about the era. I completely understand why people were taking photographs but it just didn’t feel right for me at the time.
The one place I couldn’t understand, and where it didn’t feel right to photograph at all, was the gas chambers. This was a place where they asked for complete silence in respect to the thousands who lost their lives there; it was the most surreal experience of my life, yet people were wandering around clicking away with their cameras. I just felt it sullied the memory of it all - to be so caught up in the present and the perfect picture that you forget to live in the moment.
Birkenau was as surreal as Auschwitz, although completely different. This was much bigger (the expansion of the camp when it became the focal point of the Holocaust) and we didn’t have headsets or as much talking. We were left to wonder at the scale of the operation, and to reflect on our thoughts of the day.
There must've been hundreds of other tourists at Auschwitz that day, as there are daily, and it’s clearly a popular tourist attraction. Everyone goes there with their own agenda, and to be honest, it’s completely up to the individual what they take away from it. Whether you’re a school group taking ‘selfies’ at the entrance, an older couple with immediate relatives who lived through the Second World War, or a traveller like me who is drawn to somewhere of such historical significance, whatever you take from it, you’ll think differently when you leave. When you visit the site of such a horrific event, you can’t help but be touched by it in some way. I still don’t understand why we’re drawn to ‘dark tourism’ sites – I have a feeling it’s just human nature and we always will be – but as long as we continue to treat them with respect, they are definitely worth a visit.