Post-Trip Reflections: Part Two

Some further thoughts on the trip that began, almost unbelievably to me, two weeks ago...

Children at Auschwitz
By this, I do not mean those innocent small children who perished whilst Auschwitz still functioned as a concentration camp. I mean the children I saw around Auschwitz I on warm, sunny days, sitting with headphones on (for the guided tours, not for mp3 players, it is important to point out), playing with stones on the ground or silently holding a parent's hand.
In exhibitions such as the permanent Holocaust Exhibition at the Imperial War Museum in London, children under 11 are not supposed to enter and adults are even warned against bringing in anyone between 11 - 14. The atmosphere of the exhibition is dark and sinister, and only the last couple of rooms contain any physical evidence of crimes at concentration camps (mostly shoes and prisoner uniforms). How then, I wondered, are these children at Auschwitz interpreting what they see? When they walk past the cases displaying two tonnes of human hair, or children's clothing and toys, how do they feel? Scared? Indifferent? Do they even really understand what they are seeing? My assumption would be no, not at a particularly young age. But they are old enough to hold memories, and I wonder what they will think when they think back to the day they visited Auschwitz whilst they were in Poland - a day out from a family holiday, say. What lasting impression does a visit at that age have?
My 10-year-old brother has a basic awareness of what the Holocaust involved, but does not know to what extent mass murder was committed, or what evidence was left behind. I feel he is still too young and too sensitive to comprehend it all, so will not be educating him about it until he begins to learn more about it in secondary school. When I myself was 15 and visited the camp, I was not fully prepared for it, and was in a very emotional state for the duration of the trip. In my opinion, adults really should heed the warnings about age limits on places of so-called 'dark tourism'.
However, we must also face the reality that some people will have travelled miles to come a place like Auschwitz and have no option but to bring their children with them. Some would argue, I'm sure, that it's good for the child's education, both morally and academically, to be brought to a place like Auschwitz. Therefore, I suppose it is a debate which may go on for some time. Either way, I was more than surprised to see the number of children visiting that I did.

You did indeed read that title correctly. Even in places like Auschwitz, etched into its walls, including those of notorious places such as the gas chamber and Block 11 in Auschwitz I, are the names and dates of many different people from many different years.
I noticed this on my very first visit. Walking through the basement of Block 11, I read inscriptions such as 'Katie was here, 2005' in horror. How dare anyone vandalise a place like this? I thought to myself at the time.
However, I would venture to say that there are three different types of graffiti, which is why it is almost impossible to stop people writing on the walls of Auschwitz. The first is that much of it may be genuine etchings from the time of the Holocaust, or of survivors who have returned to honour those who perished and have written their names in their old block, for example.
Then there are those who wish to write their names to confirm that they have born witness to Auschwitz and its history; that they wish to leave a permanent impression, as the camp has most likely left on them. This is the way which they feel is appropriate to do so.
There is then, of course, the third upsetting option of pure vandalism and a lack of appreciation for the site which people are visiting.
It is my personal opinion that there are other ways to commemorate a visit to a site such as Auschwitz, but one thing is certain; as long as the walls remain, people will continue to leave their mark in this way.

The issue of photography at Auschwitz is something that is discussed as part of The Holocaust Educational Trust's 'Lessons From Auschwitz' Project. It is certainly a sensitive area, and different people hold widely differing views about it.
If you have read some of my previous blogs, you will notice that I did take photos during my time in both camps. Indeed, you are generally welcome to, although are advised against doing so in the blocks of Auschwitz I so as to ease congestion. All the photos I have taken are for educational purposes - for those who cannot travel to Auschwitz to see how it looks today, and to respect it as a final resting place for hundreds of thousands of people. Where it could be avoided, I tried not to take photos with people in them (although sometimes this is extremely difficult given the number of visitors). Of course, personally I find nothing wrong with this.
However, as with the graffiti, there are ways in which people take photographs that could be more than a little sensitive. The most common photograph I saw being taken was of individuals or small groups underneath the 'Arbeit Macht Frei' gate. I also believe this is a way for some people to say, 'Yes, I was there, and I saw what the Nazis left behind', although I shudder to think that this snap might end up in a photo album from a summer holiday or family trip, as some kind of visitor 'attraction' that they travelled to.
The worst example I have seen was on my second trip, with HET. As you turn left out of the courtyard between Blocks 10 and 11, there is one of many signs pushed into the ground with a skull and crossbones saying 'Halt!' underneath. On this particular occasion, a group of about five boys, probably around 16 or 17 (so about my age at the time) were casually leaning against one another whilst crowded around the sign, smiling, thumbs up in the air. It also appeared that an older gentleman among them was their teacher. Furious, I was extremely close to confronting them about such a disrespectful display before my friend Amrit grabbed me and talked me out of it.
Clearly, this is why lessons from the Holocaust still need to be taught. Future generations need to understand and appreciate the impact this tragedy had and has; we see smaller examples of it in the modern world in prejudice, racism and discrimination, and in some cases, genocide. A certain level of respect needs to be set, so that never again will I, or anyone else, have to see such an uncomfortable spectacle in a place like Auschwitz.

I could fill pages and pages on my various thoughts from my trip, but I have limited time to write and readers probably have limited attention spans! If, however, you have any questions, please feel free to post them below or email me.