Is Poland Normalizing Auschwitz?
What is life like in a town that’s associated with the biggest crime in history, but that’s also a thriving city where people go about their daily lives?
The town of Auschwitz — or Oświęcim as it is called today — has a population of about 40,000. Before the war, roughly half of its inhabitants were Jewish. Today there are no Jews living there — but there are some reminders of its Jewish past, such as a surviving synagogue and cemetery.
There is also McDonald’s, KFC and a big shopping mall. If you didn’t know about Auschwitz, you wouldn’t think there was anything unusual about central Oświęcim. It looks like any other small city. Children eat ice cream, teenagers party, adults go to work and retirees fish in the river Soła — where ash from the Auschwitz crematoria was dumped.
The Auschwitz concentration camps are a few miles outside the city center. In 2015, there were more than 1.5 million visitors to Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau. It’s important that there are many visitors learning about what happened here — but the behavior of some visitors can be debated.
There has been much discussion about the tact (or the lack thereof) of those taking selfies in front of the entrances. Once inside the camps, some go on with daily life, by picking flowers, laughing, smoking, talking on the phone or bringing very young children. I saw all this within a few hours at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Apart from questionable behavior that unfortunately is to be expected from some among 1.5 million visitors, it’s also startling how people on the outside go on with ordinary daily life, irrespective of where they find themselves.
During the war, the surrounding houses and farms were mostly leveled and their inhabitants were expelled by the Germans. Yet since the war, the area around the camps has been rebuilt. It is somewhat eerie, weird and plainly uncomforting, to imagine what it might be like to live in a house where the first thing you see in the morning — every morning — is Auschwitz. But, as is clearly seen when looking around outside Auschwitz, life moves on as normal.
If you want to get an understanding of how people function — something that definitely comes to mind when visiting a former hell like Auschwitz — a visit to the Oświęcim city center might help. It is striking when walking there, only a couple of miles from the Auschwitz camps, how little it takes to change an atmosphere of suppressed hell into something normal. If life can — and does — go on in a place like Oświęcim, maybe there is nothing to be surprised about when seeing parents bringing their young children for a Sunday trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Visiting Auschwitz is mind-boggling — and in many more ways than most of us might expect. A visit here is essential in order to understand the Holocaust and honor the victims, but also to reflect on how we function as human beings. Looking at the surrounding villas and farms, as well as the nearby Oświęcim city center, many of us are seemingly able to get used to just about anything.
Some might attribute this situation to Polish age-old antisemitism, but I do not think it is that simple. People will get used to, and continue to live by, whatever has been around them for long enough. Auschwitz not only teaches us about the depths of human depravatity, but also about how life moves on.
A further reminder of this was when walking to Auschwitz from the Oświęcim city center, I saw signs indicating where to park, where to find tourist information — and where to have a shower. What were they thinking when putting up a shower sign next to Auschwitz? Or is this just another reminder of how some things seem to become normal over time?