Visit Number Six: New Perspectives on Scale - Part One

I have not long returned from a superb conference held in the beautiful city of Krakow, a place I shall never tire of visiting. Whilst there, Sam Mitschke, a friend and fellow conference participant expressed an interest in travelling to Oswiecim again, particularly as I confessed that there are parts of the camp that I had not previously been to, despite already having made the trip to the Museum five times (which, I think, gives a true sense of the incomprehensible scale of the camp, especially Birkenau). As I am currently conducting research regarding visitors’ photography at the Museum, I also felt it would be something of a chance to observe such behaviour ‘in the field’, as it were.
Although we were concentrating our visit solely on Auschwitz-Birkenau, our minibus from Krakow took us to the gates of Auschwitz I. It was here that I encountered another sense of scale - this time, in terms of people.

The Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum has recently introduced a ticketing system, whereby visitors reserve their place for an allotted time and group on the website before they arrive. Nevertheless, a long queue stretched out from the main entrance, for both individual and group bookings (1 and 2). The day was warm and sunny; people sat around with bottles of Coca-Cola and water, some eating lunch, others smoking. I was most perturbed to see that the fast food kiosk in the car park - which looked permanently closed when I last visited - had reopened, still selling hamburgers, hot dogs etc. (3). To my further dismay, a tour bus from Krakow was parked close by, advertising a ‘free lunch’ with every tour booked. How convenient, I thought, not to have to worry about lunch when visiting a former death camp…

I already have a problem with the idea of ‘selling’ Auschwitz-Birkenau as a tour, and that’s probably the only issue I have as I walk around Krakow. Information kiosks and dedicated tour group counters advertise a trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau from around 79 złoty (roughly £15.80) per person; many allow visitors to combine a same-day visit to the Wieliczka Salt Mines for a reduced price. This sad commercialism of Auschwitz as a tourist attraction is most clearly expressed by the artwork ‘AuschwitzWielickza’ in Krakow. I feel that, if people genuinely want to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau, they should put more effort into it themselves rather than relying on tour groups. Trains and minibuses run to Oswiecim from Krakow regularly, at a much more reasonable price (a single on the minibus cost me 12 zł, about £2.40). If we didn’t have such a large variety of places offering ‘bargain’ visits to Auschwitz, then perhaps it would seem less of something on the checklist of things to do in Krakow, and thereby help reduce the daily number of visitors (the Museum is already admitting it may have to turn away visitors given how busy the site is becoming).

Back to our visit. We caught the shuttle bus to Birkenau (which was so rammed the driver couldn’t shut the doors for a good few minutes) and proceeded to walk the path down towards the remains of Crematoria II and III.
A small group of visitors in front soon caught our attention, for all the wrong reasons. One member of the group would stop every 15 steps or so to catch a view of the camp from all sides on his smartphone. I have every reason to believe Sam and I were in a number of his photos, which is not a prospect I particularly relish. This was somewhat irritating, but nowhere as bad as what the others soon did.
His friend decided to light up a cigarette, although signs upon entry into the camp expressly forbid smoking on the site. He clearly didn’t care about this, however, otherwise he would not have started smoking in what is essentially a huge cemetery in the first place. I hung back to inform a tour guide behind us. “Okay, I will approach him,” she reassured me, but soon afterwards the man put out his cigarette - flicking it into the grass along the side of the path, so Sam tells me - and nothing was done about it.
As we approached the International Memorial at the end of the train tracks, another member of the party decided to get his phone out and call someone - oh dear, what a boring visit he must have been having! As his group assembled to listen to their guide, he walked aimlessly all over the memorial. Sam and I were disgusted by this, but felt there would be no point in saying anything - Auschwitz is no longer a place of confrontation, and we are not members of the staff at the Museum, so I suppose it would not be our place to say anything anyway. Both of us, however, could feel our blood boiling at the lack of respect shown by these visitors. It was almost as if they really had come to the Museum just to see what the fuss was about, or been dragged out to it by someone they knew. But we bit our tongues and carried on to the areas that were unfamiliar to me.

Walking straight over the International Memorial, there is a long path that stretches out and to the right through a wooded area. Gradually, the noise of groups talking and shuffling faded away, and there was no one else in sight. This, to me, is ultimately what characterises Auschwitz now compared to its function as a camp 70 years ago - the incredible peace and silence. Birds sang and butterflies flew past; it really could have been a walk in an English forest, if not for the knowledge of the watchtowers and barbed wire fences nearby.
Eventually we came upon the foundations of two buildings next to the path (4). These, as I soon discovered, were originally barracks where new arrivals were made to undress before being gassed in the so-called ‘Little White House’, or ‘Bunker 2’. The Little White House (and the Little Red House, which I shall come onto in Part Two) were used as temporary gas chambers before the installation of the large crematoria buildings in Birkenau. Although a small building, the former had four separate chambers, and people of all nationalities were killed there. Only the foundations and outline of the rooms now remain (5).
Behind the Little White House is an incredibly moving sight, despite its emptiness; the Field of Ashes, where the remains of those who were cremated in the nearby ovens were dumped (6). The field is some distance from the nearest building, the Sauna (7) and it doesn’t feature in the tour given by the Museum guides due to time constraints. We had a chance, therefore, to pay our respects in peace and quiet at the black stones erected by the Museum (8).
As we turned around, Sam suddenly remarked that it appeared as though there was someone watching over the ruins of the Little White House (9); on closer inspection, of course, this turned out to be the stump of an old tree (10). Nevertheless, we were both touched by the idea of a ‘guardian of memory’, as my friend put it, standing guard by the ruins.
We took the path further down towards the back of the camp, passing the Field of Ashes on our left (11 and 12). The peace was suddenly disturbed by a security guard approaching - on a Segway. I wasn’t sure how to react to this. I can understand that the Segway makes it much easier and quicker to patrol the Museum grounds, but I do worry about its effect on the authentic roads and pathways. As he left the area, we walked through the gate at the bottom - past an area where bodies were once burned in open pits - and left the camp grounds, following the path around the back to the next important location. Unsurprisingly, we passed no one on our way.