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November 15, 2016 7:03 am

Is Poland Normalizing Auschwitz?

avatar by Gabriel Fuchs

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A man exercising on a bike along Auschwitz - Birkenau. Photo: Gabriel Fuchs.

A man exercising on a bike along Auschwitz – Birkenau. Photo: Gabriel Fuchs.

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.

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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.

Little girl entering Auschwitz - Birkenau carrying a cuddly toy. Photo: Gabriel Fuchs.

Little girl entering Auschwitz-Birkenau carrying a cuddly toy. Photo: Gabriel Fuchs.

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.

Newly built villas overlooking barbed wire, a guard tower and the rest of Auschwitz - Birkenau.  Photo: Gabriel Fuchs.

Newly built villas overlooking barbed wire, a guard tower and the rest of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Photo: Gabriel Fuchs.

 

The tracks leaving Auschwitz - Birkenau, heading into overgrown bushes and surrounded by villas built after the war and whose view is the camp entrance. Photo: Gabriel Fuchs.

The tracks leaving Auschwitz-Birkenau, heading into overgrown bushes and surrounded by villas built after the war and whose view is the camp entrance. Photo: Gabriel Fuchs.

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.

Man exercising riding a bike along Auschwitz - Birkenau.Photo: Gabriel Fuchs.

Man exercising riding a bike along Auschwitz-Birkenau.Photo: Gabriel Fuchs.

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?

When arriving at Auschwitz, a sign indicating where to park, where to find tourist information – and where to have a shower! Photo: Gabriel Fuchs.

When arriving at Auschwitz, a sign indicating where to park, where to find tourist information – and where to have a shower! Photo: Gabriel Fuchs.

 

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  • rafael

    Polish age-old antisemitism
    what are you referring to ??? 800 years of jews in polish commonwealth??
    the antisemitism of 1910 onwords 1945?
    how about The Mission of the United States to Poland by the Honorable Henry Morgenthau? State Resolution of October 28, 1919 Senate Document No. 177.
    The Jewish press has never made much of it; it is not cited in Jewish propaganda; it has not had the endorsement of American Jewry. The reason appears to be this—that it told the calm truth about the situation of the Jews in Poland and made very fair observations.
    SIR H. RUMBOLD says: “It is giving the Jews very little real assistance to single out, as is sometimes done, for reprobation and protest the country where they have perhaps suffered least.”
    CAPTAIN P. WRIGHT:the Jews appear not as the most persecuted but as the most favored people of Europe.
    BRIGADIER GENERAL JADWIN states clearly that the “persecution” cry may be regarded as propaganda.
    ???????????.

  • rafael

    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? arrr and what did you want them to do?? not have signs???
    and yes!! things are normal today! obviously not to all!! but as you can see they have move on. and yes i have been there , without my ant(long time ago) as she would never go there, ever!!!

  • Peter Joffe

    I wonder if Obama will ever visit the site where so many people died in the name of rascism? Not likely. Most Germans were asleep while the murder was going on as any decent person, and Germans are mostly decent persons could never imagine the horrors that were being commited in their name. Do not ever forget but we all have to gather up out lives and make sure that it never happens again against anyone. Jew and Christians are now the target for Militant Islam and we have to stop it NOW.

  • Simon Cygielski

    Setting aside your comment about age-old Polish anti-Semitism (talk about generalizations, phew), what do you think people around the camp are supposed to do? Stop living there? How far would you have them move away? And you seem to misunderstand what ‘normalizing’ a crime means, if you equate it with living a normal life around the scene of something that happened more than half a century ago.

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