Ever since getting the itinerary of all of the stops we would be making on our World War II Study Tour, I had been waiting to visit Auschwitz with much anticipation. As the largest concentration camp, it is a site that most people recognized when I told them where I would be going over the course of my travels across Europe, probably because when most people first begin learning about World War II in grade school Auschwitz is always mentioned. Because I had first learned about Auschwitz several years ago, I had quite naively set expectations for what I was about to be seeing at the site. I imagined it would look exactly how it looked in the pictures taken over seventy years ago during the 1940s: a miserable looking camp located in the middle of nowhere. It would be intense, and at times hard to handle. I didn’t really expect many tourists, and the tourists who would be visiting during the same time as us would be visiting would be subdued and respectful. However, when we pulled into the camp, almost every expectation I had was completely shattered. The area surrounding Auschwitz has been built up. There are now businesses, including a KFC and a McDonalds. I wasn’t even aware that we were pulling into Auschwitz until I saw a sign directing our bus where to park.
Aside from the urbanization of the surrounding area the thing that took me most by surprise was the sheer number of people that were there to visit Auschwitz. There were just groups of people everywhere, many of whom seemed to be laughing and joking around. Not only that, but there was a gift shop for people to poke around in while they waited, along with several places to buy food. It made me feel like we were about to visit a Disney World rather than the site of where 1.1 million innocent people lost their lives. It was upon seeing all of these people that I began to question whether or not a site like Auschwitz should even be open for public consumption.
The masses of people did not seem to diminish when we entered into the camp. Just before we made our way to the main gates we met with our tour guide and were given headsets so we could have an easier time listening to him. The tour guide was another area where my expectations didn’t coincide with what we actually experienced. In Professor Steigerwald’s class we read a piece by Frederick Kuh who visited Auschwitz in the early 1950s with a tour guide who seemed to get exhilarated talking about all the horrors that took place at Auschwitz. To my surprise though, our tour guide spoke about Auschwitz with very little emotion. Combined with headsets that made you feel a little cut off from the rest of your group, his emotionless voice allowed visitors to really take on their own interpretation of the things that we were seeing.
Because of the isolation inherent in the setup of the tour it was easy to ignore the masses of people that surrounded us, except for when their behavior didn’t match the somber tone of the rest of the camp. One such case was when we entered into the room full of human hair. In the display case was two tons of human hair that the Nazis took from the prisoners of the camps. The display seemed to go one forever, but what was most unnerving was the Nazis accumulated an estimated seven tons of hair, over three times what was being shown to visitors. This room was one of the most unnerving parts of the whole tour. Also included in the display was a blanket made out of human hair. As our tour guide put it the Nazis “made killing an industry.” A few of the guests in front of us in line decided it would be appropriate to take pictures in this room despite being told repeatedly not to. Despite the powerful display we were seeing it was hard not to question again whether or not Auschwitz should be open for the general public to see.
Once we moved on from the hair room we made our way to a room containing displays with shoes from the victims, glasses from the victims and other personal items that the Nazis stole. I had been aware of the shoe display before even visiting Auschwitz, but the display of glasses really hit me hard. Up until this point in the tour it was easy to think of the victims in large chunks. Our tour guide had put such an emphasis in the beginning about the amount of people killed that it was hard to really wrap your head around the victims as individuals. Seeing the individual glasses really brought this into perspective for me. In the hair room it was hard to see individual people, but glasses are such an individualized thing. Each person has their own pair, made especially for them and their needs. Not only that, but it was easy to begin counting the number of glasses in the display case causing the visitor to focus even more acutely on the individual people.
When we made our way over to Auschwitz-Birkenau my original expectations were met a little more. Most of the Auschwitz pictures I had seen had come from Auschwitz-Birkenau, and the surrounding area wasn’t nearly as built up as the surroundings of Auschwitz I. That didn’t make the experience any less powerful. We got to see the train tracks and the gate that the prisoners had to pass through. Many of these people didn’t realize that they were headed towards their unavoidable death, thanks in large part to the Nazi propaganda. We saw the tiny train cars that these people were packed in to along with all of their belongings. After touring the grounds we stopped by a holding cell where prisoners were taken shortly before they were sent off to be killed. The room itself was dark and miserable, and it’s incredibly upsetting knowing that so many people spent their last days starving, cramped together with other dying or dead people. In such a depressing room, it was surprising to find graffiti left behind by past visitors on the walls of the building, showing a complete disrespect for those people who had suffered at the hands of the Nazis.
Obviously, visiting Auschwitz is an intense and powerful experience, yet having people vandalize and show a complete disrespect for the people who died there could serve as proof that Auschwitz shouldn’t be open for people to visit. However, I believe it shows the opposite. Visiting and studying places Auschwitz, and to a greater extent studying history as a whole, propels society forward because we are able to learn from our mistakes in the past. There are always going to be people who don’t “get it.” But in a society dictated by majorities, as long as the vast majority of visitors respect and understand the importance of Auschwitz, it should remain open as a reminder to everyone of what could happen when there is a complete break down in public morality.