A quick foreword:
Hello. I know I usually use my blog to write about Lana Del Rey or Karl Lagerfeld’s cat, but I have just finished my HND in Media and Communication and wanted to share this important piece with you. I made this article the focal point of my end-of-year portfolio, which worked in my favour, and a few of my friends have been asking to see it. The subject matter is extremely important to me, which is another reason why I didn’t want it to die on a random college-project Wix site. Hope it resonates with you.
Since its opening in 2005, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin has become one of the most important places of Holocaust remembrance. It’s also the background for tens of thousands of shameless Instagram selfies.
For the users of social media, photographs have become more than just a way to show off designer outfits or a new partner. Very often, the images shared on Instagram or Twitter represent one’s emotional state, a mood or “vibe”. Sometimes the picture’s only purpose is to draw attention to the contents of the caption – which can be directed at a backstabbing ex-boyfriend or include a cliché from the Urban Outfitters’ book of mindfulness.
Instagrammers love minimalistic backgrounds and monochrome colour palettes. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe consists of 2,711 slabs of grey concrete. It’s easy to understand why so many bloggers go there to show off their new Yeezy trainers and Off-White hoodies. I decided to open Instagram and look up the most recent pictures tagged at the memorial.
Sorting the results by most popular wouldn’t be completely fair. In 2017, an artist named Shahak Shapira created a project called YOLOCAUST. It combined the selfies taken at the memorial with tragic photographs of dead corpses lying about the camps. The project received media coverage all over the world. I wanted to believe its popularity would make people behave more respectfully. Looking at the recent Instagram posts made me realise there’s still a long way to go.
At the time of writing this article, the newest picture tagged at the memorial was of a young Travel & Fitness blogger. It was uploaded only hours prior to my research. In the picture, he’s casually sat on the ground between two blocks, posing with a caption: “throwing shade like it’s sunny”. The next picture is of a woman laying down on one of the lower slabs. “2020: a new norm of genocide”, she wrote.
To fully understand why so many people are furious at the pictures, we need to talk about the numbers. The Holocaust is the biggest genocide in human history. It’s believed that 5-6 million Jews were murdered by the Nazis during World War II. That number is very similar to the current population of Scotland. However, the “era of Holocaust” meant death to more than 11 million members of other groups. It’s estimated that between 2-3 million ethnic Poles died during the Nazi occupation, many of them in Auschwitz. At least 270,000 disabled people, 300,000 Serbs, 130,000 Romani and 20,000 Slovenes lost their lives too. The War wasn’t just about the extermination of Jews. Nazis’ goal was to see Europe free of any people who didn’t match their Aryan-Nordic identikit.
To make sure people don’t forget about the nightmares of WWII, Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum was established in 1946. What originally was the biggest factory of death ever created, was then turned into a place everyone could visit to learn about the horrific past. But even there, in the place where it all happened, the behaviour on display is absolutely shocking.
Kuba Lukasinski is a city guide and tour leader from Krakow. He’s been working with tourists since 2010, leading guided tours in Polish, English and German. In 2016, Kuba started to go to Auschwitz with his groups. Before the pandemic, he would lead guided tours in Auschwitz-Birkenau several times a week. I caught up with him to ask him about his experiences working in the museum.
“When we talk about places like Auschwitz, I can easily divide people who go there into two groups,” Kuba tells me. “One group is visitors. They know where they are and how to behave. The other group are tourists. Plenty of them never heard about this place. It doesn’t matter where they are from, how old they are, what language they speak etc. I can’t say which group is bigger. The second group is definitely louder and easier to notice.”
Kuba is right about the loudness of tourists. In 2019, Krakow saw a new record number of tourists. It is estimated that nearly 14.1 million people visited the city that year. After companies like Ryanair and EasyJet popularised the idea of cheap flying, Krakow turned into a money-making machine. Even places like Auschwitz got commercialized, with private companies now offering guided tours around the area.
“One person asked the educator I know: ‘Those Jews here, why didn’t they post on Facebook about this place? Where were the lawyers of those Jews?’ Similarly: ‘This shoe looks really nice. Rich Jews were here too?’ One man brutally interrupted me and told me that he doesn’t feel the atmosphere of the place. We tour leaders have seen billions of selfies, family photos, jump photos… One time I saw a man pissing on a building in Auschwitz.”
Private companies do not care about who goes to see the museum, as long as the tickets are selling. Very often, tickets for Auschwitz tours are sold in party hostels, where a lot of gap-year students and stag/hen dos stay during their time in Krakow.
“Selling tickets in hostels is not a problem, in my opinion,” said Kuba. “But selling tickets and presenting it as a tourist attraction is horrible. Many people come to Krakow and then, in hotels, they ask about places to visit. Unfortunately, many receptionists say that Auschwitz is great fun because they get a commission from each sale.”
Kuba’s touched on a very important issue here. Those receptionists, often on minimum wage, rely on commission from tickets in order to make enough money to support themselves. But even if you get fooled into buying a ticket, after seeing the place, you should definitely figure out what used to happen there. And posing for a selfie in front of the infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“Work sets you free”) sign shouldn’t be the first thing that comes to mind.