My name is Erik Mandsager and I am a sophomore English major and secondary education minor from Northfield, MN.
“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it”
- George Santayana, philosopher and writer
In preparation for this trip we have been researching and discussing dark tourism, defined as visiting sites “associated... with death, disaster, and depravity” (Lennon and Foley 1999), and darker tourism, which is visiting sites of death, disaster, and depravity. We have visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Jewish Museum Berlin, the site of the Nuremberg rallies, the Pinkas Synagogue memorial in Prague, and others. The sites we have seen up to this point would constitute as dark tourism destinations. These sites remember, and evoke feelings related to the Holocaust. While some of the sites we visited in Germany are where Nazi decisions were made and carried out, they are not sites of mass murder.
As we approach Oświęcim, Poland, the site of the Auschwitz extermination camp, it is important to. As William F. S. Miles tells us in his article “Auschwitz: Museum Interpretation and Darker Tourism,” that we are visiting a site that “beyond being a museum, is also a mass graveyard.” The idea of being a dark tourist has bothered me. Visiting these sites shouldn't be mass graveyards of real people and artifacts from tragic events as a form of entertainment. I needed guidance for how to approach a space like Auschwitz while staying as respectful as I can to the victims. The Center for Dialogue and Prayer is an interfaith dialogue center and hostel where we stayed during our two days in Oświęcim. Father Deselaers provides wisdom for those studying the Holocaust. He reminded us that by studying this we will remember, and can argue that the Holocaust happened and that it can happen again. He helped remind me that I took this course to learn more about the Holocaust, and how to prevent tragedies like this in the future.
This is the overarching message conveyed by the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Museum. I passed through security with my journal and my coat. We walked into the snow-covered stone streets of Auschwitz I. There were blocks of identical brick buildings and falling snow around us. Our tour guide explained to us that Auschwitz I was used as a concentration camp for Polish political prisoners for the most part. They didn't have to do much wrong to end up there. Then in 1941, Soviet prisoners of war started arriving, and from 1942-1945 most of the prisoners were Jews. As we entered the first brick building where prisoners were kept, I read the Santayana quote above, which is the first quote used in the camp, and one of few. This quote implores visitors to remember the Holocaust— not out of a morbid curiosity, but to prevent future disasters. In this building the incredible figures from the three Auschwitz camps are displayed. 1,300,000 people were sent to Auschwitz. 1,100,000 of which were Jews. 150,000 were Poles. 23,000 were Roma. 15,000 were Soviets. 25,000 belonged to other groups including homosexuals and people with disabilities. Of these people 1,100,000 were murdered, 90% of which were Jews.
Another message conveyed by the museum is that we must humanize the victims of the Holocaust and remember that they are people, not numbers. Historian Hansen-Glucklich criticizes the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. for displaying piles of the shoes of victims from the Majdanek concentration camp and the pictures of piles of human remains. He argues this represents these people as objects. much like the way Nazis wanted them to be presented. The Auschwitz Memorial Museum also has piles of the belongings of victims, but offers a book of the names of four million Jewish victims in one of their buildings with a quote on the wall:
“Remember only that I was innocent
And, just like you, mortal on that day,
I, too, had had a face marked by rage, by Pity and joy,
Quite simply, a human face!”
This quote is from Benjamin Fondane who was murdered at Auschwitz in 1944. These two messages from Auschwitz are critical for those studying the Holocaust. We must remember that those who died were mothers, fathers, grandparents, sons, daughters, and friends. Now that we have seen, it is our responsibility to remember that it did happen, and can happen again. We must use this knowledge to speak out for our neighbors who are oppressed, and prevent a tragedy like this from happening in the future.