On a recent trip to Krakow with the American Jewish Council (AJC), I had the opportunity to visit the German Nazi concentration camp complex of Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau. This was not my first visit to this site of atrocity but I definitely found it a lot more valuable this time round, compared to the whistle-stop three hour ‘tourist tour’ I had been on previously.
The previous tour had focussed on the main features of the camp, such as the rooms of human hair, the torture cells and gas chambers, whereas this visit with the AJC aimed at a greater understanding of the site as a whole.
This blog post, rather than being solely about what I saw and how the place made me feel (which I find very hard to put into words), aims to also briefly talk about the commercial aspects of grief and how we choose to represent our feelings of compassion and loss, which I believe have changed dramatically in recent years, and continue to do so today.
In the period following the Holocaust, many survivors found it difficult to talk openly about their suffering during their years of captivity. It was still too raw a memory, or they wanted to move on, or – more worryingly – they found that many people did not want to listen to further ‘tales of anguish’ and just wanted to put the past to rest.
This is obviously not the case now. Seventy years later, every effort is being made to ‘never forget’ what happened during the Holocaust, and rightly so. There is arguably a difference in how people remember these events now compared to how people dealt with (or did not deal with) the Holocaust in the past.
Cinema and TV have played a role in this. In more recent years there have been a great number of films, documentaries and TV programmes made about the Holocaust, attempting to give representation to the sheer horror of the camps. These have ranged from small ‘arthouse’ films to huge blockbusters, such as Schlinder’s List, which earned millions at the worldwide box office. Such ‘representations’ have changed perspectives and made this history much more accessible.
On my recent trip to Krakow I was fortunate enough to experience Auschwitz with an inspiring group of scholars and an amazing tour guide named Pavel, who allowed us to interact with the site very much on our own terms. While he would give us facts and figures, Pavel would never tell of the suffering of the prisoners in an ’emotional’ way. One of the moments this particularly resonated with me was when he was talking about the rations of the prisoners, the daily calories they had, and how much they starved.
Paraphrasing from his actual words, Pavel said “I can describe hunger to you and I can describe the conditions, but none of us will ever – for months on end – go without food”.
To me, this comment was very important: we perhaps feel we can relate to the inmates as we are able to visit the locations and see the ‘movies’ and, as such, our grief can be shaped by our imagination. But this, of course, will never be fully accurate; true understanding and representation of this horror can never be experienced.
We should cry; we should mourn. But how can we actually relate to a site that we still largely do not fully understand and cannot directly connect with? Moreover, especially for many of the younger generation, this is no longer ‘living history’, and the very idea of World War Two and the Holocaust is now more of an ‘abstract’ concept encountered in textbooks and in films.
On the other hand, big and small screen representations of the Holocaust can still perhaps help us in the process of trying to grasp the reasons for the Holocaust, and also give voice to new contemporary physical manifestations of grief.
This physical manifestation of grief is also finding new forms of technological expression; I would argue it is shown in the recent rise of ‘selfies’ and photos that are taken and uploaded to social media by members of the younger generation who are visiting the site. In fact, I did see two selfie sticks and video being recorded whilst walking around Auschwitz-Birkenau. Although this has been widely condemned by other visitors and some academics as not showing sufficient ‘respect’ for the site, is this rather – instead – merely how some people now outwardly show their grief in a new media age? Through a social media post, grief can be shared with friends and followers. That does not make it a ‘lesser’ form of grief.
Coming away from Auschwitz, there was absolutely no doubt in my mind that it is a place of great sadness and unspeakable horror, the product of events we cannot truly comprehend. But I was also left with the strong feeling that we should still nevertheless strive to better understand the actions of people in history, especially the people who created the Nazi concentration camps.
Charlotte Mears is a PhD research student in the History Department at Kingston University