I know my way around Auschwitz. I have visited the camps many times. And every time I walked out of there, I thanked my lucky stars that I was there as a tourist, a guest, an historian.
I know my way around Auschwitz. I know it so well that once while visiting the camps with my parents, I was asked how much my tour cost and when the next tour began. I did not know as much as one gentleman walking with his wife who stopped, pointed, and said to her in Polish, “When I was here, there was a platform right there where the band played for all the new prisoners.”
For people who plan to visit Poland probably just the once, Auschwitz is usually at the top of their list of places to visit. I’ve been so many times because I don’t want to deny any friends or family their opportunity to visit such a monumental location in our recent history. I’ve been in the summer when it has been packed. I’ve been in the winter when it was just us and a few other souls knocking about. I’ve been there mixed in with tours of Jewish visitors from Israel and with school trips from Germany. I’ve been there with my husband, with my parents, with my friends.
Once I even witnessed an argument break out. I do not speak German at all. OK that is not exactly true, but all the German I do know comes from war movies. It is pretty hard to make casual conversation out of halt, achtung, kaputt, hände hoch, arbeit macht frei and zwei Bier bitte. Anyhow, back to the argument…It was during a summer visit and the place was very crowded. We all were patiently waiting in line at the “Death House” in the first camp. Part of the exhibition is in the basement and includes a kind of chamber for torturing people. It was like a very small walled-in place that could only be accessed from a hole in the wall near the floor. Basically if you were forced to crawl in there, you’d have just enough room to stand up. It’s like an upright casket. I don’t know what happened when somebody collapsed from exhaustion in there because there was no door and not enough room to kneel, rest, or even lean. Anyhow, we were waiting patiently for our turn to see the exhibition. We were behind a group from Germany led by a very large tour guide. He made some kind of joke, patting his stomach, and the whole group laughed. I do not know what he said, but I speculate it had something to do with his not being able to fit in that chamber. Well, a Polish gentleman near us let him have it. It was the one time in my life I was sorry I couldn’t understand what people were saying.
World War 2 and Auschwitz are just as much a part of the German identity as it is the Jewish identity and the Polish identity. I don’t blame that German tour group for what happened 70 years ago, but shame on them for making jokes in a place like that.
Another time in the second camp a group of teens from Israel criticized us for walking near them as they were praying. They were marching in a column. We did not block them or disturb them in any way. They were quite rude actually saying something like they had more right to be there or something like that. It was very unpleasant.
Additionally, the parking attendant at the first camp criticized our parking skills (parking in a field). She wanted us to park closer to the tree near our car. We explained (I don’t know why we even tried) that the driver would not be able to get out of the car and that the 20 centimeters she hoped to save no longer made any difference as 10 other cars had already parked in our row. She was adamant. My father didn’t understand anything but figured this lady was having a bad day. He went and bought her an ice cream cone.
That just made me think that if we cannot even be nice to each other at Auschwitz, is there no hope for us at all?