Is there a way to visit Auschwitz correctly?

Over the last few years there has been an uptake in criticism about, when visiting historical sites, one should behave. From people carving names into the Colosseum to even going past where one is allowed to go at these sites, it seems that we have forgotten how to interact with historical sites.

Knowing that I would be visiting Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau, I read the museums site to see what rules are in place and what to wear. I feel that while visiting a site like an Nazi Concentration or Death Camp, people should be quiet and reserved and respect those who lost their lives. The site did provide suggestions, for example, being careful about the graphic t-shirts you decide to wear and in general dressing for visiting a place like Auschwitz.

Upon arrival at Auschwitz, my surroundings were shocking. In the distance I saw camp fences and barbed wire which I expected. What I was not prepared for was other surroundings. To my left, I saw school children running around and vending machines. To my right, a long line of people were attempting to get into the camp but talking very loudly.

I understood we were not in the camp just yet so maybe it would get better once we were on the tour, and it did. The loudness stopped and a quiet fell over our group as we walked through a tunnel where names of some of those who perished, were read out loud.

We then entered the camp and a different kind of silence fell over me. I did not want to speak but if I had to speak it was at a whisper so that I did not disrupt the surroundings.

Going through each block and seeing the unimaginable things that were left in the camp like hair, shoes, prosthetics, glasses, and prayer shawls made me think about the millions of people who had once stepped where I did. Seeing the baby clothes, however, brought a sadness that is hard to shake. We continued through the site and soon were instructed that we would exit and go over to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Back to the entrance that seems like a million miles from where I had just walked but really was not that far from the entrance.

As we arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau, anxiety poured over me seeing the guard building and tracks that led into the camp. As I entered through the guard building and saw more of the train tracks, I had to finally give in and cry. The vastness and the thought that thousands of people at one time inhabited this space was all too much. I mean my own family members walked these paths and had been brought in through these tracks. We proceeded to the back of the camp to see the crematoriums as well as the monument built to remember those who died at Nazi hands. A little further back towards the front of the camp, we saw where mass graves were present and where those who were murdered were laid. What stood now was a small pond with flowers and four stones that commemorated where we stood. Further towards the front, we went inside the barracks to see where people lived while imprisoned here. Our tour then ended due to heavy rain, and we headed back to the hotel.

What I could not stop thinking about on our ride back was how I saw other people visiting this place. In Birkenau people were yelling to one another, taking selfies with the guard building behind them, kissing and laughing, and children were running and playing on the train tracks. This is a sacred place to those who lost their loved ones but that did not enter the minds of individuals acting this way. You would not treat a cemetery in such a way so why would Auschwitz be any different.

I think what is proper is different for everyone because the place means different things to everyone. What I do offer, though, is that we should be treating sites like Auschwitz and Birkenau as we would a cemetery because that’s what they are. We should respect the ones who were murdered and maybe think twice before we take that selfie with the guard building behind us.


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