I had no intentions of visiting any concentration camps while in Poland, but somehow yesterday I ended up at the worst one. Deniz and Michal thought it was important to see Europe's history, but they are European and I'm not, so I was pretty nervous about the whole thing being less of a learning experience and more of a torture porn tourist destination. It turns out I was pretty divided on the subject and I'm still pretty confused as to what happened.
Oświęcim is about an hour's drive from Krakow, where I've been staying for the last five days. Luckily Michal has a car that he borrowed from a friend in Slovakia, so we were able to take our time enjoying the beautiful countryside and avoid the bus ride. Deniz wanted to take a guided tour through the museum, so he split off from us at the small camp because we weren't interested in doing that for our own individual reasons. The way it works is this: There were originally three camps at Auschwitz, I, II, and III. I is where the museum and famous "Arbeit Macht Frei" gate are. II is the huge main camp that's famous for everything else. III apparently doesn't exist anymore, or at least it's not open to the public.
The place where we left Deniz, I, completely gave me the creeps, and not in the way you might think. It's hard to tell that there is even a museum or a concentration camp at the location because it's crowded with parking, tour buses, souvenir/book shops, and even a couple of stands labeled in huge block letters "FAST FOOD". When you go inside to get a ticket, there are huge lines of people and racks and racks of headsets being pushed back and forth by employees. There's even a post office and a pay toilet. Michal and I hung around for a bit and then decided to just go to the II camp and walk around. On our way out, an attendant demanded we pay 8 zloty for parking, even though there is not sign mentioning this. I told her we had just been in for 5 minutes and didn't see the museum, so she let us go, but it was the peak of our frustration with how much money and profit is involved with Auschwitz being a tourist attraction.
Personally, I feel like it should be free and/or donation-based. I know it costs a lot of money to keep it running and do all of the restorations, etc, but there's something insidious about bringing currency into the atmosphere and it really bothered me.
At the main camp, anyone can enter at no charge, but it's 5 zloty for an information booklet, and you have to pay for the toilets (as a side note- this is not unusual and I don't have a big problem with it, but I just want to point out that it's not completely free).
Most people were crowded around the first building, which was the lavatory. It was really hot and Michal took his shirt off, which I knew would be trouble, but I didn't say anything. Then we sat in the grass and read our pamphlets and waited for the crowd to thin out. After about five minutes, a man came up to us and started yelling in Polish. I thought he was yelling at Michal for not having a shirt, and I told him to put it on. Michal asked the man "why?" and the guy changed to English and yelled at us that we couldn't be there. So we got up and joined the group in the first building to try to hear some information from one of the tour guides. After about two minutes in there, a woman came up to us and started yelling at Michal for not having a shirt. She told him this was a death place, a cemetery...and stormed off.
I completely understand what she means, and personally, I wouldn't have taken my shirt off, but we couldn't understand why neither of these people could have just explained it to us nicely and had some understanding instead of just shouting and ostracizing us for a pretty minor slip-up. I'm convinced that everyone there thought we were completely uncivilized troublemakers. The entire tour group glared at us and we had to leave. I can honestly say we meant no disrespect.
It took a while for the sting to wear off, and instead of thinking about the people who actually suffered there, we ended up thinking about what a ridiculous tourist trap the place had become and I felt like that was more criminal than someone unwittingly stepping on the grass.
Fortunately, it's easy to be alone there, because it's huge and most people follow a tour that comes from the museum. Michal and I started going through the opposite way, starting with the barracks and ending with the monument and rails. I can't explain how enormous the place is and how easy it is to recreate scenes in your head.
About halfway down the row where a big dividing gate is erected, I spotted a small rust-colored deer wildly zig-zagging around the ruins inside trying to find a way out. It was in a complete panic running toward the fences, where there were only two gates ajar that it could slip through. It ran toward the one further from us and met with a barrier. For a moment, it looked around and took in it's options, then backed up slightly and plunged through the barbed wire and shot off across the field and into the woods.
It was a really beautiful and symbolic scene for me. Very soon after this we found the area where medical experiments were performed, and I completely broke down. After that I just didn't want to see anything else, which was an unfortunate time to decide that, because we still had to walk through the woods past the ash lake and the crematoriums.
I still feel pretty shook up about the whole experience, but I wanted to share this small story because the bad feelings about this place were amplified and added to by the addition of car parks, ticket takers, and fast food stands. I'm sorry I went. I didn't need to see it.