‘Have you done Auschwitz yet?’’ This is the first thing I’m asked as I check into my hostel in Kracow. Outside, it’s a bitter minus 15 degrees. My boots are laced with ice and the toes on my left foot are numb. I have a relentless cold and I’ve been sitting on a cramped Polish bus for the past five hours.
But my shock at the inappropriate question overrides all this. Surely they can’t mean the concentration camp?
‘‘Uh, no,’’ I stammer.
Enthusiastically, the receptionist produces the brochure and starts going through the details of the tour with me.
‘‘OK, great, you have two options for the Auschwitz tour. You can do a full-day tour – in the morning the bus will pick you up outside the hostel and take you to the salt mines, and then in the afternoon it will take you to Auschwitz. Or you can just opt to do one or the other, but it’s definitely better value to do both. Of course, there will be an English guide. Do you have a student card?’’
I nod, unable to form a response.
The receptionist is young and bubbly. She knows this pitch well – it’s become second nature to her, the words don’t really mean anything, almost as though she’s asking if I’d like fries with my meal.
‘‘Great, well there’s a discount with a student card, and when you book through the hostel, there’s a further discount of 10 zlotys. Or you can pay in euros if you prefer.’’ Keen to get away, I tell her I’ll think about it.
Five days later, and the emphasis on Auschwitz is still relentless. Every day I get asked by complete strangers if I have ‘‘done’’ Auschwitz. What they’re really asking is if I have crossed it off the list of must-see sites in Cracow.
The casual reference is overwhelming. A visit to this site of unbelievable atrocity is referred to as though it’s just another mundane activity, like heading to the local amusement park.
I’ve been learning about the Holocaust since I was young girl in Sydney. It is built into my Jewish heritage. I can’t separate my existence from this event. To hear it spoken about so casually creates a bubble of anger inside me I have difficulty in processing.
According to tripadvisor.com, a visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial ranks number one out of 456 attractions in southern Poland. For the time-strapped, there’s the day tour where you can fit in all of Cracow’s best sites, ‘‘and still be home by dinner’’.
For those in need of a little extravagance, there’s the ‘‘luxe’’ tour with escape2poland.co.uk. Their website offers ‘‘the perfect Auschwitz tour’’ to maximise everyone’s experience.
Not so long ago, the incorporation of Auschwitz tours as part of bucks’ night packages sparked outrage, and Polish authorities issued a general ban on such parties wearing kilts.
Regardless, many of these tours are still available. One British site, lastnightoffreedom.co.uk offers tours to Auschwitz alongside health spas, cocktail workshops and ‘‘strip limousines’’.
Dr Avril Alba lectures in Holocaust studies and Jewish civilisation at the University of Sydney. In her opinion, the tourism element is inevitable. ‘‘In a certain sense Auschwitz is a cemetery,’’ Alba says. ‘‘People go to cemeteries, people walk through cemeteries. But they don’t walk through them in the same way they walk through Auschwitz, taking photos.’’
There were 1.33 million visitors to the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp last year. ‘‘You have to be honest about it – there are tourist dollars to be made,’’ Alba says. ‘‘We have to deal with the crassness of modern tourism, the flippancy of people’s remarks’’.
An Auschwitz survivor now living in Sydney, Ruth, 92, expresses her disdain. She tells me the idea of ever visiting Europe again is unthinkable for her, let alone a Nazi death camp. ‘‘It’s the place where all my family and friends died,’’ she says. ‘‘I could never go back.’’
In Ruth’s eyes, visiting a concentration camp as a tourist doesn’t make sense. It is a source of pain that should be left in the past and obliterated from memory.
Alba sees it differently. To her, if just a small percentage of visitors walk away with renewed empathy, it has achieved something important.
But the ethical paradox remains. I am outraged by the marketing process that bottles the barbarity, the humiliation and the extermination of my people into a neatly packaged ‘‘Auschwitz experience’’. Having said that, I am convinced that if Auschwitz were to be sealed off from the public, then the Holocaust deniers have won. If people are not given the opportunity to see the human capacity for evil, then the memory of those who perished will become just a number in the book of history.
Natalie Freeland is a journalism student at the University of Technology, Sydney.