Holocaust tourism: Are you ever prepared?

The bus rattled through the Polish countryside. The road snaked between farms and fields as it skidded through villages, with heavy glass windows trapping the heat of the blazing sun. Inside, we were chatting, squabbling over a map, and eating bagels crusted with salt; still happily concerned with the minutiae of our journey.

But as we journeyed higher into the hills surrounding the city, my thoughts turned increasingly to our destination. We had been warned – by travel websites, well-meaning strangers at the airport, and our concerned, and slightly confused, relatives – to come prepared.

“Take your own water, and food.”

“It’ll feel weird spending money there.”

“You’re going on holiday WHERE?”

I couldn’t help wondering, with the best will, and all the guidebooks, in the world, can you ever come prepared to a place like this? The bus drew into a gravel car park, on the outskirts of the village of Oswiecim, better known by its German name. We clambered down the metal steps, and into the scorching midday sun. Grateful that we had taken one piece of advice and brought along plenty of water, we headed towards the entrance.

Auschwitz. Words disappeared from our mouths as the infamous metal gates came into view, shimmering in the heat. Conversations in Polish, English, French, and Spanish faded into uncomfortable silence as tour groups stepped under the heavy archways: resolute and grey against the gloriously blue sky, and somehow so much smaller than I’d imagined. It really was an insensitively beautiful day, I thought, before silently rebuking myself. As though the weather made a difference.

The tour of the camp is conducted via headsets, to keep noise to a minimum. The guides speak a wealth of European languages – with one conspicuous absence. Flowers – weeds really – curl around concrete posts supporting thick, jagged layers of barbed wire, delineating where the real world ends and hell begins. The soil of Auschwitz has continued to support life, long after the deathly machinery of the camp ground to a halt. It was hard to know how to react to being there, and the simple act of taking a photograph felt astoundingly insensitive. Was the fact I was technically there to research my dissertation a good enough reason to use my camera? I’m still not sure.

Back in the city that evening, and quietly shaken from all that we’d seen, every response seemed inappropriate. Heading to a bar, insensitive; yet staying in our hotel room, self-indulgent. We settled on dinner, reluctantly enjoying the beautiful last night of the trip, and horribly aware of our proximity to a place we knew we’d never be able to forget.


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August 2022
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