Auschwitz-Birkenau (Tourism): Photo Essay

This is the penultimate blog in my current series on my trip to Eastern Europe in the summer. Our group travelled from Lublin to Krakow, our last stop in Poland, to visit the largest and most (in)famous concentration camp in the Nazi system.

I have written a great deal on visiting Auschwitz I and Auschwitz-Birkenau - indeed, the genesis of this blog was a course that I undertook at the Museum in 2012. Therefore, I will not be including many photographs of the Museum itself here, but you are very welcome to browse previous photos that I have uploaded in other posts: photos from Auschwitz I, photos of Auschwitz-Birkenau, photos of the remains of Auschwitz III-Monowitz. Although I have touched on the subject before, here I wish to focus more on Auschwitz as a museological institution than its history.

We visited Auschwitz in mid-June, what might be referred to as 'peak season', when many tourists make their pilgrimages or go on holidays across Europe. Krakow, and therefore the small, nearby town of Oświęcim, famous for only one thing, are no exception. Although we had arrived reasonably early, and were greeted with wet weather, there were long queues to get into the Museum, and a great many people milling around outside, near the coaches which had brought them. The entrance to the Museum at Auschwitz I is now equipped with airport-style screening, and advance online booking is required for groups, meaning that this is now a common sight. Furthermore, there were so many groups requiring an English tour that we were given a Polish guide, and our external guide had to provide a translation.

As we began our tour around Auschwitz I, the site became busier and busier. Groups were literally piling up behind each other to try and get into each block, to see the permanent exhibition. Sadly, because of the crowds, the tour was much more of a walk-through than a chance to pause and reflect on what was in front of us. As I have taken the tour a number of times - and led friends and colleagues around myself before - I took the chance to take off my headphones and observe those around me. By the time we got to Block 11 - the 'prison within the prison' - the queue just to get into the building was incredibly long, longer than I had ever seen it. I felt a bitter irony that so many people were now trying to get into a place that prisoners would do anything to avoid.
People waited patiently, listening to their guides' commentary, chatting or taking photographs. Some who had just left Block 11 posed for a picture next to the 'Halt!' sign and the barbed wire. I did not enter the block, having visited more than once and to prevent any feelings of claustrophobia.

After lunch in 'The Restaurant by the Museum' (a canteen-style room which now sells made-to-order pierogi and pizza), we made our way to Birkenau. The main entrance underneath the watchtower was subject to maintenance, so visitors had to enter through a narrower side-gate. Here, too, the crowds thronged. We had left our guide at Auschwitz I to be able to explore the site individually. I seized the opportunity to show a couple of those in my group around, as they had never been before. An hour and a half will never be enough time to see the whole site, but we walked to the remains of the gas chamber and crematoria; the two brick barracks in the women's camp which are still open to visitors; the graffiti left on the walls of a previous 'Sauna' building by newly-arrived Hungarian women in 1944. The last of these places is not on the standard tourist route, and so it was isolated and quiet, which made for a much more powerful encounter.

How can the problem of huge crowds at Auschwitz be tackled? Surely it is a good thing that so many people visit (as long as their intentions are good, of course, which in itself is almost impossible to measure). I know that many people leave the Museum with a renewed sense of life, morality and kindness towards others. And, whatever their motivations, it is of little surprise just how many people visit, given the multitude of tourist agencies and companies that advertise trips to the Museum in the centre of Krakow, offering a convenient way to visit. But perhaps the number of daily tours, or the maximum group size, could be decreased. No visitor will get a truly valuable experience if they are walked through the museum as if on 'a conveyor belt', as one visitor described. The Auschwitz Museum was not built to be a museum - it was not built to last at all. With hundreds of thousands of people now coming to the Museum every year, 'wear and tear' on the structures and grounds will increase, which in turn will require conservation, which requires more money. We must ensure that places like the Auschwitz Museum are open to the public for as long as possible, so they can learn about this history and gain some understanding of what daily life - and death - was like for those the Nazis imprisoned. I fear that with every queue and every oversized tour group, we are that much closer to losing the experience.

Please see below for a few photographs from the visit. I am happy for these photographs to be used, but please do contact me beforehand.

Queues at the Museum entrance

Coaches in the Museum car park

The beginning of the queue into Block 11...

...and those joining the end of it

A visitor has her photograph taken by the camp perimeter, outside Block 11

A brick from a barrack, with the manufacturer's stamp clearly visible (lain upside down)

Examples of Hungarian women's graffiti from 1944