The Auschwitz-Birkenau Holocaust Memorial Museum. Picture: FRANKSHOT/123RF
The Auschwitz-Birkenau Holocaust Memorial Museum. Picture: FRANKSHOT/123RF

Before I set out recently on a trip to Europe, which included Krakow in Poland and a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau, a close friend wagged a forbidding finger, decrying what she called the fashion for atrocity tourism. I was a little surprised. Why do people go there?

If you know what happened at the extermination camps, there’s no need to be shocked out of the amnesia of the denialists, none of whom would hold the positions they do if they had ever been to Oswiecim.

But once you pose this question, why stop at Auschwitz? Why do we travel to the battlefields of the Great War or Vietnam? Why go to Oradour-sur-Glane, Omaha Beach, Rorke’s Drift — places where the relatively immediate past and what happened there overwhelms any other possible purpose for the detour or the destination?

At one level, most historic tourism includes an atrocity component: you cannot visit the forum in Rome and not think about the assassination of Julius Caesar — even if his death lies buried under aeons of dust. The Colosseum is an architectural monument, but the ghosts of those who fought and died there still linger among the stones.

The pre-dawn climb along snake path to the plateau of Masada may be a breathtaking and consciousness-changing experience but it cannot be separated from what happened there. Even a day trip to the Great Wall, replete with astonishment at the sheer achievement, comes with at least a momentary twinge provoked by the sufferings of those who laboured to haul and dress the stones of its construction.

And yet Auschwitz is different — perhaps because of the immediacy, perhaps because of the scale, perhaps because of my identification with the victims, perhaps because, since my parents fought in the war, it became part of our family narrative: going there was like visiting a place that had always existed in the shadows of my consciousness and would somehow become concrete and unforgettable from the moment I walked under the wrought-iron sign proclaiming “Arbeit macht Frei”.

That said, nothing can prepare you for the experience — not the books read nor the documentaries watched in preparation for the trip. We chose to make the tour of Auschwitz and Birkenau with our own guide. The young man who took us around both camps (the two visits take more than four hours) had grown up in the vicinity. His grandmother had worked on a nearby farm. He told us she had spent the last two years of the war under the smoke clouds from the crematoria and the stench of burning flesh.

Once death became the sole objective of their captors, the victims were subjected to a processing logic designed to render their removal as swift and relentless as anything ever devised and applied by the mind of man.
Michael Fridjhon

There is an implacable quality to everything at the camp, to how it was structured, the way it operated, the life-wrenching and dehumanising programme designed to extract whatever labour was left in the bodily husks before recycling and disposal. There were moments where the exhibits were able to communicate — beyond the unreality of its purpose — the sheer scale of the genocide: display cabinets stacked with shoes, or piled high with brushes, mountains of empty suitcases in which those who arrived brought the most valuable possessions they could carry, deluded into believing they were being “resettled.” Most sickening of all, the heaps of hair shorn off the new arrivals and processed to make textile and matting.

In the end, two things stand out: the very small and the very large. Of the former, it is whatever is reduced to a very human size: the bunk beds 140cm wide on which would sleep up to five prisoners, so one square metre of living and sleeping space per person; the punishment cells where the victims were packed in so tightly that none could lie down. Of the latter, it is the sheer scale of the enterprise of extermination. Once death became the sole objective of their captors, the victims were subjected to a processing logic designed to render their removal as swift and relentless as anything ever devised and applied by the mind of man.

Those deemed unfit for work went from the cattle-trucks via the gas chambers and out of the chimneys of the crematoria in a matter of hours, at a daily rate of 4,400. That’s the equivalent loss of life of 25 Boeing 737-800 crashes every day. In two weeks that’s enough people to fill Loftus Versfeld. In two months it’s the population of Bloemfontein. Any further attempt to extrapolate makes the numbers meaningless — which is why we cannot imagine the 1-million deaths attributed to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the 6-million of the Holocaust, or the 30-million military and civilian deaths on the Eastern Front.

Tragedy on this scale doesn’t actually seem plausible, which is probably what helps to fuel the denialist position: travel from Auschwitz to nearby Krakow, the ancient Polish city that was spared the annihilation reserved for Warsaw, and stand in the finely framed medieval centre of town. For a moment the memory of the camp almost fades. Then, like a ghostly miasma it comes back, and you know it will — and should — be with you forever.