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Remembering the Camps

Travelling Historians, Hannah and Chelsea, have visited various concentration camps and today’s blog explores their experiences. Given how these upsetting landscapes of genocide have now turned into tourist hotspots, they ask: What is the etiquette when visiting?

CS: So, Hannah, although there were over a thousand concentration and satellite camps, and six death camps, collectively we’ve visited some of the most notorious and well-preserved. These include: Auschwitz, Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald, Dachau, and Mauthausen.

I don’t know about you, Hannah, but for me, each camp has a similar static, empty atmosphere. Although features of Auschwitz were far different than Sachsenhausen, for example, in the end, the overall impression I got from my visits to these camps were quite the same: hollow, dark, and inexpressibly sad.

The most profound for me, both emotionally and as a historian, was Auschwitz. I visited in 2011 while on a city-break in Krakow. The first part of tour was Auschwitz I, the original camp closer to the town of Oświęcim. It’s where the prison was, where prisoners were tortured, where the SS had their barracks, etc. Most people remember the infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” above the gates. For me, it was Block 10 that was the worst. It was where men, women and children were subjected to medical experiments in the most terrifying manners. Out of respect for the victims, the managers of Auschwitz keep this building permanently closed. (Although I discovered there was a virtual tour years later). But its presence was the heaviest part of the entire tour.

HR – Yes, I agree. I think in many ways by not choosing to allow visitors into Block 10, it highlighted the horrors in a way that opening it couldn’t do. How did you find Birkenau compared to Auschwitz I?

CS – It was hard. When the tour eventually went to infamous Auschwitz II or Birkenau, what struck me the most was the scale of the camp. It was massive. Like a small city. This was where the trains, by 1944, pulled fully into the camp, so that inmates were immediately selected before being sent to the gas chambers just meters away.

HR – Yes, the scale of the place is what really hit me too. We were allowed to go into the guard tower. But you couldn’t see the end of the camp, and it helped me understand that the SS were hoping to expand even further. By seeing how big it was, it really hit home how many people were victims.

CS – Exactly. But before I entered the gates under the iconic red brick building, I saw a variety of tourists gathering together to take selfies. I paused, watching them. I wasn’t angry at first – more perplexed. Should I be taking a photo of myself too? I paused again. Then thought to myself that taking a selfie while smiling at Auschwitz is clearly inappropriate, right? But then, what expression IS appropriate?

I heard voices singing and soon saw a group of students from Israel. They were singing their national anthem and waving the Israeli flag very proudly in the centre of Auschwitz. Defiantly present, and angry and vocal. I smiled. Part of me would have loved to see the what the Nazis would think of their protesting. But then, as tourists quickly swarmed past and took photos of the Israeli students in Auschwitz, I thought to myself, was that also appropriate? Was it even appropriate to sing ANY national anthem in Auschwitz when so many victims were from so many different countries? ‘What on earth was the etiquette here?’, I remember thinking, somewhat desperately. (I later discovered that flying any flag is against the rules at Auschwitz).

My personal decision was to take photos of Auschwitz, but not selfies. I also decided to treat this as I would a cemetery – keeping my voice low and being respectful of all objects, people and spaces. I also decided to focus on the things that made me see Auschwitz in a different way – for example, this photo of the ground. Many prisoners did not have adequate footwear, which means that this type of terrain would have been excruciating to walk on. This, I would have never known, unless I had visited Auschwitz.

The ground at Auschwitz-Birkenau, taken by Chelsea

How did you handle the tourism and etiquette when visiting concentration camps, Hannah? Did you struggle to know how to act?

HR – I agree, I saw people taking selfies there too. And for me, at first at least, I was horrified by it. And I remember an article where someone had taken selfies at the Berlin Holocaust Memorial Centre and then photoshopped victims into the image. This made it quite a stark reality. But since visiting, I have thought more deeply about it and heard other people’s opinions.  I think we need to consider that, for younger generations, taking selfies is a way to remember, both good and bad. For me it is still a big ‘no no’ but I think it’s important to think about ways in which we remember going forwards, and for some that is by taking a selfie.

CS: Fair point. I suppose it could be a generational thing then. And it might not be the same at every camp.

HR: Exactly! What really struck me was the difference between visiting Auschwitz and Mauthausen (in Austria). Auschwitz was a lot more ‘touristy’ – it was far more busy and gave regular tours, whereas I was alone for nearly the whole time I visited Mauthausen. There were some visitors around, but I found that by being able to take my time, I could really reflect on what I was experiencing.

CS: Mauthausen is an interesting camp, and one of the deadliest with its granite quarry. I have always been deeply disturbed by Mauthausen, particularly because of the stories about ‘Stairs of Death’ where inmates had to carry up to 50kg of stone up 186 stairs… very terrifying.  So how was the camp different from Auschwitz in the ways it’s been preserved for visitors?

HR – Some of the buildings, particularly the stone buildings which housed the SS and the crematorium remain the same, whereas the huts where prisoners were kept are reproductions. I found the huts really interesting because they left them empty, barring a few photos or explanations on the wall.  Again, it really conveyed the size and scale of what was happening. The biggest difference was at Mauthausen there are hundreds of memorials of varying sizes which commemorate the different groups imprisoned there. It was the first place to have a memorial to any victim of the Holocaust, as the survivors themselves set one up shortly after liberation. These memorials not only represent the victims, but also show the changing political climate since the end of the Second World War in the way that they are designed.

Slovenia Jewish memorial
Slovenian memorial to the Jewish victims at Mauthausen, taken by Hannah

How about you, how did other camps you’ve visited differ to your experience at Auschwitz?

CS: Sachsenhausen and Dachau, both located outside of Berlin and Munich (respectively) were very…’curated’ – for lack of a better word. It’s clear they are popular destinations for school groups, so the sites were extremely clean and there were plenty of information boards for visitors. This did not detract from their impact, but it just felt a little farther removed from the reality for the purposes of education.

But Buchenwald was different. It was still well maintained, but something about it felt raw. I remember standing in front of a converted stable – the wood and dust inside still smelled – and being told that over 2,000 people had been forced to live in this space that was originally designed for 50 horses. It boggled the mind. There were also the remains of the Zoo outside the camp, where the SS Commandant had kept animals for his family, including a bear pit. The animals were treated better than humans in the camp. For some reason, that struck me and upset me –  much more than any information on board could. In the end, I suppose it’s all a very intimate and personal experience. I’m sure others would have a different opinion; maybe they wouldn’t find a stable or bear pit quite so upsetting.

HR: Absolutely. It’s very personal. But so is how we remember and commemorate these sites of genocide. Auschwitz though – it’s a place I’ll never forget.

CS: Me neither.

Chelsea Sambells and Hannah Randall – February 2022

Hannah also wrote a blog after visiting Mauthausen, you can read it here.

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