Visiting Auschwitz: Good or bad idea?
June 18, 2007 12:12 AM   Subscribe

Traveling in Europe. One potential stop I'm still undecided on.

At last, a couple years out of college and just before starting at grad school, I'm getting the opportunity to travel solo for two weeks around Europe. I've been waiting a very long time to do this, and I'm getting very lucky with the amount of time I'm getting to roam, my budget, and my freedom of movement.

I want to spend some time in Berlin and Prague, hopefully visit some of the hometowns of my ancestors, and see some of the sights I missed when I was last in Europe, eight years ago.

There's just one potential stop I'm torn about.

My grandmother is a Holocaust survivor. She spent a significant amount of time in Auschwitz, and it's where her mother and a number of other relatives were killed. She's written a book about her experiences and I've spoken to her many times about them as well.

I can't decide if I want to visit Auschwitz while I'm within a train-ride distance. I'm not sure how she'd react if I told her I was planning to visit (I'm not sure if she's ever been back) so I'm really not comfortable asking her opinion. Though she's open about discussing it, I still find it very difficult to broach the subject. For some reason, I'm not very comfortable bringing it up with my dad, either.

In addition, I'm not sure how I feel about being incredibly emotional and depressed for a portion of what I'm hoping will be a blast of a vacation and a great chance to blow off some steam before heading back to the schoolhouse grind. The Holocaust museums in DC and LA had a huge emotional effect on me, and I have to assume this would be a much, much more intense experience.

I can't really escape the fact that I feel that it's a place that has had a major impact on my identity, and I feel like I should visit at some point.

If you've visited (whether or not you're Jewish or a relative of victims or survivors -- though I'm very interested to hear the experiences of those who are): Is it a place I should see? Should I see it now, on this trip? Or is it going to emotionally wreck me for the rest of my time in Europe?
posted by sellout to Travel & Transportation around Oswiecim, Poland (21 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Well, the giggling 14 year old girls in a large group of british tourists may break some of the solemness. Seriously, there are lots of tourists there, and many are very young.

Take that into consideration whichever way you go.
posted by markovich at 12:19 AM on June 18, 2007

I say no. It will give you a reason to go back in future!
posted by bystander at 12:31 AM on June 18, 2007

I've been to a holding camp in Belgium, where they place the prisoners for a while before sending them off to camps like Auschwitz. The holding camp became a memorial and educational museum on the Holocaust, with plenty of artifacts, documents, and documentaries about the experience and the prisoners.

Our guide spoke German and to make it more realistic he decided to randomly act as an SS agent once in a while, yelling at us to show how the prisoners were treated. We went to exact cells where people were housed, abused, and killed.

It was very harrowing (particularly for a German friend who could understand every word of the guide's SS ranting). But it was good to be there. It was a strong learning experience, and all of us (an international group) bonded very strongly over it. It made us realize how things we don't realize are happening are really atrocious and need attention, and made us stronger.

I'd say go, so you can appreciate what your family has gone through. It's hard, but worth it.
posted by divabat at 12:45 AM on June 18, 2007

You should go, it's a pretty intense and worthwhile experience, especially (I would imagine) if you have family who were through it. In my opinion, it should be your first stop if possible. It's not a happy experience, but it puts any sort of travel you might do in Eastern Europe in a radically different perspective - and one that's vital to understanding the place. And if you are bopping around the Czech Republic and Poland, you owe it to yourself to buy a copy of Ruth Ellen Gruber's newly updated "National Geographic Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe," which is full of vital bits of information. I'm basing a large part of my upcoming trip to Eastern Europe on its contents, and I'm not even Jewish! (Muslim, in fact.)

Another thing to note: While Auschwitz is a sobering experience, it's very near to Krakow, which is one of the loveliest and most enjoyable cities in Europe - a nice place to base a visit to Auschwitz from, and the gentle pleasures of the city are a nice thing to "come home" to after Auschwitz.

I hate to say it too, but you never know when your elders will disappear (believe me, I know) and I'd hate for you to visit one day and return home with burning questions about the experience and your family and not have your grandmother to discuss it with. That would be a heartbreaking thing.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 1:05 AM on June 18, 2007

When I was in Krakow two years ago I had to ask myself the same question, and ended up deciding against it - which I now deeply regret. One of my reasons was the same as yours - I was having a really great time on a training course with a bunch of great people from around the world, and I didn't want to "ruin" that by going to a place where millions of people were killed.

In 2003 I visited a fort in Ghana that was used by colonizing powers to export, among other things, slaves. The biggest thing I took away from the experience of seeing it was not a sense of loss, depression, or sadness - though those were resonant, especially when seeing things like a dungeon that would hold hundreds of slaves to be shipped off, many of whom would die on the voyage - but a new understanding of how complex things were in those days, and how the altered demographics of a place that was compelled to export its own people changed the economic and political landscape, and my tour guide was really detailed about what the effects of the transatlantic slave trade were for the surrounding region. The context made the visit an order of magnitude better than it would have been, and I still find myself talking about what I learned that day with others. But I say this as someone who doesn't have slave ancestors, so it's not exactly the same as your situation, where someone living today who you love was directly affected.

However, I think the reason we have made places like the slave forts and Auschwitz into museums is to bear witness, so we can pass along the story of the place not just through written historical records and published media, but through oral accounts and our own ways of translating the gravity of what took place there to future generations.

Additionally, perhaps too many visitors to such places don't take the time to examine what was left behind - and still exists - of life before the catastrophe. Perhaps seeing the district of Kazimierz in Krakow, which was a center of Jewish life before the war, will give you some balance and a more complete, less bleak experience; the Jewish Cultural Festival (Wikipedia link here) will be taking place soon there as well. You may also want to check out the klezmer music scene there; even outside the Jewish Cultural Festival, you will almost certainly find other performers and artists bringing the music to people who have never heard it before.

So I vote for going, if only to give your family and your future children - who might never meet a Holocaust survivor - a more detailed picture of what it was like because you'd seen not only the places where life ended, but the places where life thrived beforehand. That, I think, will help make the profundity of what was lost resonate with you without devastating you.

I hope you have a safe, thoughtful, and meaningful trip, whatever you decide.
posted by mdonley at 1:29 AM on June 18, 2007 [1 favorite]

I've been twice. I would go again. You should go. I think everyone should go.

Big caveat, the holocaust did not effect my family directly. So I don't know what it's like to visit when you have that personal connection.

It was a positive experience for me and for the friends I know who've been there (positive in the sense that it was eye opening rather than enjoyable). It really made me aware, not only of what the holocaust was, and what in entailed, but what humans are capable of, and why we should never let it happen again. More than I've ever been able to gain from books, or TV, or exhibitions that aren't in situ.

Some people I know have found that their visits have been disturbed by the attitude of groups and school parties (not just British ones!). I didn't have that problem the two times I went (but that was 5 years ago), nor did my friends who went last February. I think, if you are going in the summer then this might be a problem.

I know some people have also had problems with the interpretation of the site. I don't think this will ever be solved, interpretation will always come from someone's point of view. When you're wandering round your local Natural History Museum you don't notice it so much, but when you are somewhere more contested and emotive, it is brought to the fore. My advice is to take from it what you need and move on from what you don't need.

If you go, take all day. Do the tour round Auschwitz I, then leave the tour and go round Birkenau on your own. Most people don't get beyond the entrance gate and the gas chambers here, but it's a huge site, so if you are on your own you can wander off away from the tour groups and get some space. There's also a lot less interpretation here, which I found a benefit, I was able to engage on a more emotional level that I found I could at Auschwitz I, which was all facts and figures. I took a lot more away from my experience at Birkenau than I did in Auschwitz I.

Yes, it is not a experience that you normally find on your holiday, but it is something that is key to recent history in this part of the world. If you are coming to Europe to experience our culture and heritage, it's not all fancy palaces and fine art (which I know you're more than aware of already). That's in addition to your own personal, family connections. Give yourself sometime for the visit, don't try and cram it into a 1 day whistle stoptour of Krakow, Zakopane and Warsaw, or something equally stupid. Take some time to see the rest of Poland, to get some persepective on the whole country, not just this one aspect of their past.

On prieview: what everyone else said.
posted by Helga-woo at 1:37 AM on June 18, 2007

I highly, highly recommend it. markovich's stereotyping of the visit was well off the mark for me. There were tourists, yes, and some laughter; but this is something living human beings do. It was a place of great respect, preserved with the note-perfect degree of reverence. It was moving for me, but mostly in its peace - in the maudlin non-monstrousness of a mere site, a place of wood and concrete, that felt past, and free of ghosts.

I say this as someone whose family, much of it, perished in the holocaust.

Do consider spending more time in (beautiful, amazing, tasty, cheap, cafe-filled) Krakow, and less in (over-touristed, disneyland, [relatively!] expensive) Prague. Auschwitz is an easy day-trip from Krakow. So is the remarkable Wieliczka Salt Mine, an enormous underground complex full of sculptures and chapels carved from salt-stone by amateur (miner) sculptors. When I was living in Krakow I would often recommend to friends a five-day visit: Days 1 & 2 in the city; day 3 at Auschwitz; day 4 at Wieliczka; day 5 in the city. It's nice to have something lighter, more diverting, after the very heavy day at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
posted by Marquis at 1:39 AM on June 18, 2007 [2 favorites]

You should go, you may not have the chance again.
posted by fire&wings at 1:45 AM on June 18, 2007

I went, and although I have no connection to the Holocaust, the friend I was travelling with had grandparents (and most of that generation) who were killed. We unknowingly turned up on the anniversary of the liberation of the camp. There were tour groups everywhere, including a hundred Italian kids making a documentary of their visit, and they drove me crazy. I was much more emotional visiting the Holocaust museum, Oskar Schindlers factory, and seeing random signs saying 'here 12 people were shot'. My Jewish friend was more affected than I, but not as badly as she'd expected.

Despite that, I would recommend you go. Just looking out over these acres of land and seeing how huge it is was shocking, and it felt like by making the effort to go I was paying my respects to everybody who died there, no matter what everyone else was doing. Just don't take photos everywhere (especially in the crematorium).
posted by jacalata at 3:51 AM on June 18, 2007

I'd go if I were in the area. I wouldn't take the kids, but I'd certainly want to see it for myself. Humanity is capable of many monstrous things, especially when it thinks it's finally on the right track ("If we could just get rid of those damned ___, everthing would be fine!"). We could all use a reminder of this fact from time to time.

Auschwitz and places like it are living reminders of the fact that we're all only a few steps away from becoming monsters.
posted by chuckdarwin at 3:53 AM on June 18, 2007

Hi. I went to Auschwitz as a 17 year old, and it profoundly affected me, but in ways that were nothing but good. I was travelling around Eastern Europe with friends, drinking a lot, having an awesome time. I decided to go essentially because I was curious.

Auschwitz is actually two places - there's the famous camp at Auschwitz itself (with the metal gates with 'Arbeit Macht Frei' above them, cell blocks, execution chambers and so on). This place has been turned into a museum, and is deeply affecting, with piles of shoes, human hair, stacks of suitcases and thousands of photographs. It's hard to take in, but not impossible. In some ways, I'd say it has been contextualised enough that it's relatively (I stress relatively) simple to process and come away from.

Far, far harder is visiting the other side of Auschwitz, which is the camp a couple of miles away at Birkenhau (Auschwitz II). This has been left as it was found by advancing Allied forces, and it's shattering. It took me fifteen minutes to walk the length of the unloading platform at the rail terminus there. There are guided tours, but I opted to walk around it myself, and it was one of the hardest things I've ever done. The scale of it is mind-boggling, and it's genuinely and deeply affecting.

That said, my visit to Auschwitz is something I'll always be glad I did, and would do again. It has given me a deep and abiding interest in civil liberties and the protection of human rights, and helped me come to terms with myself as a teenager and the rest of the world. It was the first time I really stopped and looked at wider society and realised what we are capable of as a species. It's also the basis of my optimism about what we can become as long as we remind ourselves of horrors like Auschwitz-Birkenhau.

Definitely go, and make sure your children, if you have them, go as well.
posted by Happy Dave at 4:24 AM on June 18, 2007 [1 favorite]


I went in the summer of 2004. I still think about it often—probably three times a month now. It was a solemn day, but not a crushing one. And it was deeply sobering in all kinds of ways. In previous weeks I had visited Babi Yar and Berdichev, both significant sites in Jewish WWII history, but Auschwitz had its own unique and strong effect.

I am not Jewish, ethnically or religiously. I've got a drop or two of Jewish blood from several generations back, vastly diluted by Danish and Swiss ancestry that makes me look like Hitler's wet dream. I have known both my blood and my face in new and worthwhile ways because of my visit to Auschwitz.

Do take your time in both halves of the place. Do find somewhere silent to be—perhaps while walking out to the dumping ponds, or while treading the long, solemn way from the end of the unloading ramp back to the gate. Be prepared for emotions to express in unexpected ways. (I found myself whispering the Shema Israel.)

And then come back, and be a vigorous humanitarian, and be on guard against fascism and its sneaky kin all the days of your life. Together we can stop such monstrosity from happening again.
posted by eritain at 4:53 AM on June 18, 2007

It's possible that if you do make the stop, it would take your relationship with your grandmother to a much deeper level. I would go, and frame it as honoring my ancestors. My personal feeling is that if I were in your shoes, it would be disrespectful not to go. Not meaning to snark, but your family spent months/years in horrible conditions, and you're worried about being emotionally distraught for a few days?

(FYI, I am not Jewish.)
posted by desjardins at 5:09 AM on June 18, 2007 [1 favorite]

I went to Dachau on a school trip to Germany many years back now (we certainly did not giggle). Like everyone else here, I will strongly recommend you go, but I will add one caveat that I haven't seen mentioned yet. Visiting the camp was a physically exhausing experience for me and all the other high schoolers I was with. Not just emotionally troubling, but we were all literally tired afterwards. If we had had anything else planned for later in the day, it would have been a disaster. So make a day of it, and maybe find a comfy restaurant near your lodgings for a quiet dinner and an early bedtime.
posted by Rock Steady at 6:40 AM on June 18, 2007

I think a lot of it depends on when you are planning on going. When I visited, it was March. there were a few other tourists, but it was pretty deserted overall. I had just gotten off a train where I was convinced I was about to miss the stop, because no one was able to help me understand when my stop would be. It was cold, muddy, and very unpleasant. I was with one other person who was as confused and miserable I was. We wandered around the housing units and the grounds barely speaking to each other and shivering.

Honestly, I'm very glad that's the way I experienced the camp. I heard other people say then went in May with the sun shining and a large group of friends, with a very different impact. You might consider putting it off so you can go when there will be less people and it can therefore be more personal. I do think you should go eventually, though.
posted by piratebowling at 7:09 AM on June 18, 2007

I think you should go. I think it's something everyone should experience if they get a chance. It makes all the newsreels and pictures real (which will likely be even harder for you, but worth it). It gives you an understanding of evil that you can't get without being somewhere like that.

I agree with all the advice in this thread, especially making sure you go to Birkenhau. It will be very depressing, don't plan on doing anything else that day, and I'd plan a calm next day.

I think doing it alone would be tough. I visited with a local university group and a bunch of exchange students. The way people supported each other, though they had just met, was one happy part of the day. If you're traveling alone, I would suggest finding some similar minded people in Krakow perhaps to go with. No matter what, you should go.

With regards to some other stuff in this thread:
- Krakow is great, use it as a base.
- The salt mines are actually really, really cool. I thought it would be boring, but it's truly amazing. Full cathedrals carved from the stone and rock, monuments to people like Copernicus who actually did experiments there.
- In Prague, also visit the old Jewish cemetery. Inside the synagogue the walls are lined with the names all the missing Czech Jews. You can see entire families listed, very powerful.
posted by dripdripdrop at 7:44 AM on June 18, 2007

I've been. I think you should go. It's a monumental experience, that yes, can be quite depressing. But shutting out "depressing thoughts" is counter to the very point of understanding history, and understanding how brutal humanity can be. Auschwitz has become more than just a place, but something that binds each and every human on the planet. I feel the same way about Hiroshima. They both have come to mean more than just the events that occurred there.

I'm neither Jewish nor a relative of a survivor.
posted by modernnomad at 7:49 AM on June 18, 2007 [1 favorite]

One more vote for "go".

I went when I was 17, with my grandfather who was interned there. It was especially interesting to understand how the real-life place differs from its public image. Auschwitz I in particular is a pleasant, tree-lined, brick village while A. II and beyond are exactly what you'd expect from movies, newsreels, etc. The contrast is startling.
posted by migurski at 8:55 AM on June 18, 2007

I dreaded going. I really didn't want to, but I was going to be in Krakow with a family member and she was determined to visit (we're not Jewish, but I'm a Holocaust researcher FWIW). That said, I am so glad I went. I probably know more about the war in Europe than your average person, and I was worried that it would make the entire visit too overwhelming (ignorance is bliss eh?), but it was such a worthwhile trip. Others above have described it much better than I could, but definitely go. Make a day of it. It's really heavy going, but it's one of those things that you just have to do.

There may be some lighter moments, too, believe it or not. The most annoying people on the day that we were there were a bunch of Hasidim who were tearing around in such a rush, laughing and joking and basically showing no respect. Maybe it's just me, but something about it made me smile at the same time as it annoyed me.

You really should visit on THIS trip. It won't get any easier - and as others said, you may not have the chance again.
posted by different at 12:04 PM on June 18, 2007

Just last night I was discussing with a friend the scary fact that our generation will be the last to have known Holocaust survivors, and how huge that responsibility is for the future. It will be incumbent upon us to relay the horrors to the next generations, to remember the stories and the nightmares.

My family lost scores of members during the Holocaust, many in Auschwitz. My grandmother was unhappy that my sister went to visit. Why? Most likely, she didn't want my sister to see that pain. She wanted to protect my sister. But my sister felt she had to witness it.

Bottom line - in addition to thinking about what it will mean to your grandmother to visit, think about what it will mean to your grandchildren.
posted by prophetsearcher at 11:44 AM on June 19, 2007

I was taken to Dachau as a young kid (7). it was a life changing experience I think about often.

posted by markovitch at 10:03 AM on June 20, 2007

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