Posner, in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, when asked to discuss the Holocaust as a historical event, says that, “To put something in context is a step towards saying it can be understood and that it can be explained. And if it can be explained that it can be explained away.” He questions whether the Holocaust can be, or should be, discussed like any other historical event. How do we remember the Holocaust, and in what ways does it still resonate in the world today?
History lessons are not the only way we learn about and remember the Holocaust. Almost every country has a designated day to commemorate it. In the UK, Holocaust Memorial Day falls on the 27th of January every year; this year it was the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and more than 2,400 events took place across the British Isles. The commemoration in London included film footage and speeches, readings from actors, and a performance from the singer and cellist Simon Wallfisch, the grandson of surviving Auschwitz musician Anita Lasker-Wallfisch. Giant candles were lit across the country and in Auschwitz itself, where European leaders and survivors joined together in this momentous commemoration. Perhaps this day holds more significance for continental Europe which, during the war, had a larger Jewish community and was damaged more considerably than Britain. Olivia Marks-Woldman, chief executive of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, told The Guardian that, “On Holocaust Memorial Day we remember for a purpose, we learn from the past and consider how we can help build a better future”. But do national events, in all their grandeur and reverence, really help us to understand and remember the terrible event? Is there not an element of veiling the true horror, like Irwin, another of Alan Bennett’s characters, describes: “There’s no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it.” Pictures and stories can go so far, but to feel the full weight of the Holocaust one must visit the sight of the genocide in person.
This, however, opens up a whole new can of ethics – that is, the morality of visiting Auschwitz. This location is, after all, a site where thousands not only died, but are buried. The site is almost holy. It is surely not appropriate to create a tourist attraction out of this location where ticket sales, camera snaps, vending machines and tour guides turn it into a consumerist holiday destination rather than a site of remembrance. A visit to Auschwitz is advertised on websites like TripAdvisor and Escape2Poland. There has been general outrage to learn that organisations such as chillisauce.co.uk, which arrange stag and hen dos, provide a guided tour of the concentration camp as part of your pre-nuptial celebrations. The idea of coupling a night out in Krakow and a visit to Auschwitz is unthinkable to many, the only comfort being that on the actual guided tour the party must conform to the strict rules of respect which Auschwitz implements. Still, this suggests that Auschwitz is simply a destination to add to your bucket list. In this respect then, does visiting Auschwitz become more about consumerism rather than genuine remembrance?
Instead of an attraction, Auschwitz ‘advertises’ itself as a memorial sight. The website has a section called ‘Rules for Visiting’ which states that visitors ‘are required to observe the appropriate solemnity and respect’. There are very specific photography regulations, no eating or drinking is allowed inside the exhibition, and in Auschwitz Birkenau when you walk towards the gas chambers you are asked to preserve total silence in respect for the dead. In short, everything is done to ensure the site is not treated as a tourist attraction and that every visitor conforms to these rules to maintain an atmosphere of respect and reflection. Auschwitz promotes and encourages an understanding of the Holocaust during visits, but also with programs such as Learning From Auschwitz (LFA), which provides paid trips for selected high school children to visit the camp and bring their experience back home. Delilah Neil, from Hillhead High School in Glasgow, was chosen to visit Auschwitz with LFA, and says that even though the program informed her about the history and ethics of visiting, “Nothing really prepares you, until you actually go there […]I think seeing it definitely makes me feel a lot more connected to it”. The things that she found most horrific were the products manufactured in Auschwitz. She remembers “going to look closer up at the blanket and the exhibit said that it was a blanket made from the hair[…] and then that was sold, those blankets were sold to the German public, and that was probably the most shocking thing I saw there”. The trip really affected Delilah and changed her perception of the Holocaust and of remembrance in general. Now, when she buys a poppy on Remembrance Day she can relate more to the past and the act of remembering itself. For her, the experience “definitely made me think a lot more about history, and when things happen nowadays like, for example, these recent attacks in Paris, I think I have much more of a sense of it”.
There is no doubt that visiting Auschwitz and the location itself holds importance with many people; the significant thing is the personal reflection that the camp generates in everybody who visits. People go with different intentions, whether it be, however inappropriately, as part of a last blast before you tie the knot, to revise your romanticised view of WW2, to reflect on your heritage or your notion of the terrible historical event, or simply to say that you have been. But everybody will leave with a changed perception of the Holocaust and a lasting sense of remembrance. It is also true, however, that the more tourists who visit Auschwitz, the more like a tourist attraction it will become. Delilah considered that Auschwitz Birkenau, where less tourists visit, was, for her, more affecting and “felt like you were seeing a place that people hadn’t really looked at”. Is it right, then, to advertise Auschwitz as an attraction at all, if this attraction will lead to visitors coming with the wrong intentions and attitude?
Tourist attraction or memorial sight, visiting Auschwitz produces significant ethical questions but also holds great significance in history and to the individual. As the Holocaust retreats further and further into the past, we must ask ourselves how future generations will remember it. Will history lessons and national remembrance days be enough, or will visiting Auschwitz become more necessary to remember the true terrors of the genocide? By visiting Auschwitz, by putting the Holocaust into context, the event is not “explained away”, but rather takes on a position of greater importance. Auschwitz could, surely, also serve as a universal memorial to other, more recent genocides and incidences of violence, such as in Rwanda, Darfur, Iraq and Syria, all those which do not currently have physical tomb stones. By remembering the Holocaust and visiting Auschwitz, can we also remember the suffering of those who perished in other horrific acts of violence that humanity has yet to learn from?
Image: Bundesarchiv, B 285 Bild-04413 / Stanislaw Mucha / CC-BY-SA 3.0