[Published by the Irish Times, June 27, 2015
As we exited the railway station, the abandoned buildings and lots spread a sensation of musk and gloom throughout the air. The pebbles bouncing along my suede lace-up boots were so dusty, it was as if they hadn’t been kicked in years.
I knew that going to Poland for the sole purpose of seeing Auschwitz was problematic, and our roundabout trek from Kraków to the site underscored this fact. The woman at the airport gave us confused directions; the Starbucks barista put us on the wrong bus entirely. It was as if the town itself wanted to forget that the camps were there.
As soon as I walked to the camp’s entrance, something didn’t feel right. Auschwitz has been converted into a museum. There were headsets to use for guided tours, a souvenir shop with books and posters, and a tiny food court of vending machines and tables.
It was hard to know the standard, or if there was any standard at all, for carrying oneself through a museum honoring 4.1 million lost souls. I didn’t know whether to smile or nod to the workers. I didn’t know whether it was offensive to ask where the bathrooms were. People were taking pictures of killing walls and barbed wire and sky-high guard towers. Groups of children were on tours with their schools. Leftover rain cut through creases in the barracks as if the walls were crying. The sun was setting. There were carvings of names on doors. There were crosses dispersed throughout the mud and grass. My friend desperately wanted to leave. I peeked into suffocation cells.
The entire time, as my friend’s eyes welled with tears while I remained ashamedly stoic, I wondered, Why did we come here? What lesson can be learned?
The unexplainable attraction to sites of mass death or suffering is labeled “thanatourism,” or dark tourism. Ground Zero in New York City, the Dachau, Mathausen, and Terezin concentration camps, and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Cambodia are only a few of such places that tourists flock to each year. Some psychologists believe the appeal of dark sites is hidden beneath a human desire to feel more alive. According to Dr. Philip Stone of the Institute for Dark Tourism Research, people feel anxious before visiting dark places, “and then better when they leave, glad that it’s not them.”
Whatever my reason for visiting Auschwitz, I did not leave feeling alive, nor did I satisfy any morbid intrigue. In fact, walking through Auschwitz left me feeling anything but full of life; instead, I felt demoralized and more alienated by humanity than ever before.
After we had finished walking around the main camp, I was exhausted and felt wrong for admitting it. As we rode to our hotel in a taxi, every house made me imagine the Jewish Poles being yanked from their kitchens. Every street was one where the Nazi’s tanks rumbled down its center. To me, everything in the town was Auschwitz, and I could no longer separate the two.
Later that evening as we watched a Polish television station in a trance, I tried writing down anything that might someday help me to digest the sights of the past 24 hours. Drawing many blanks, I still pressed on and pasted the postcard I purchased of the famous sign at Auschwitz that reads, Arbeit macht frei, or, “Work will set you free” in the back of my journal. Bought for 25 cents, it would be a reminder of my entrance to exploring darkness at its worst, to remind me to urge humanity to its best.