Rina Wolfson

Auschwitz should not be marketed to tourists

Poland risks becoming complicit in the eradication from public discussion of the extent of its own culpability

October 24, 2018 18:38

Earlier this month, an Irish tourist was charged with defacing a memorial at Auschwitz. Reports suggest that he scratched his name on a wall. He subsequently admitted the charge and agreed to a punishment, the details of which have not yet been made public.

The incident follows an earlier case of two Hungarian tourists who were found guilty in July this year of stealing bricks. They were each fined £300 and given suspended prison sentences of one year.

These are not isolated events. In the last ten years alone, over thirty visitors have been charged with criminal offences at the concentration camp.

However, the majority of those convicted of offences at the camp are not neo-Nazis: they are tourists. They hail from right across Europe, including the UK, and range in age from a man in his late 60s to two British teenagers.

Most charges related either to the theft of artefacts, from glass to buttons to barbed wire, or to vandalism. Some defended their actions by claiming they had intended to use the items for educational purposes. In most cases, however, those charged stated that they simply did not realise the offense that would be caused or had failed to appreciate the effect their actions would have on the preservation of a site of acute historical importance.

And there lies the rub. For many visitors to Auschwitz, the camp is not a visceral part of their religious or family identity. It has become a significant element of Poland’s tourist industry. Over a million people are estimated to visit each year. And whilst the educational work at the site is vital, perhaps now more than ever, the fact remains that the camp is as much a tourist destination as it is a memorial to those who were murdered there.

Over recent years, this situation has been exacerbated by the rising popularity of Krakow as a stag-weekend destination. A growing number of companies specialising in arranging stag activities have started listing Auschwitz as a possible “stag stop”.

In fairness, many companies advise caution to potential visitors, but several describe the camp in language that would frankly be better suited to Halloween advertisements. describes the site as “creepy” and invites us to visit the “chilling parts of Auschwitz camp”, while advertises it as “haunting”.

I came across one — — that tempts us with an interactive experience inviting us to “travel back to World War II”, while, without a hint of discomfort, recommends a tour of Auschwitz alongside Quad Biking, Oil Wrestling and Naked Body Buffet — whatever that is.

Curiously, though, there is one word that none of these sites use.

I could not find the word Jew or Jewish in any of the stag destination websites that I looked at. There was mention of “people” or “victims” or “prisoners”. But no Jews.

This follows a pattern of de-Judaisation that has slowly crept into discussion of the Holocaust. That’s not to say that there were no other victims at Auschwitz; of course there were. But the simple statistics are staggering: over 90 per cent of Auschwitz victims were Jewish. To erase all mention of Jews in favour of a meaningless generalisation is a grossly offensive decision.

Which is why I remain so unnerved by the promotion of Auschwitz as a tourist destination, and with this recent spate of tourist convictions. I do not disagree for one moment that those responsible for criminal damage at the camp should be charged and prosecuted. But I cannot help suspecting that the eagerness to pursue such charges is motivated as much by a desire to protect a revenue-raising tourist destination as it is to protect the memory of those who were killed. To me, it feels part of a wider agenda. Whilst there may have been some subsequent fudging of the exact wording of the law, and a demotion from a criminal to a civil offence, the fact remains that, as of this year, the Polish government have made it illegal to accuse Poland of complicity in Nazi war crimes.

That brings me back to this most recent case of criminal damage at Auschwitz. As I read the details in the national press, I found myself comparing the number of tourists convicted for theft or vandalism at the camp with the number of those convicted for actually carrying out the genocide that took place there. The numbers drew me to some uncomfortable conclusions. In the past ten years alone, over thirty tourists have been convicted of theft and vandalism at Auschwitz. By comparison, in the seven decades since the camp was liberated, only 63 of its SS guards, of a total of 7,000, were ever brought to justice.

I am left with a picture of a nation state, eager to protect one of its tourist industry’s most valuable assets, while at the same time complicit in the eradication from public discussion of the extent of its own culpability and the identity of the vast majority of its victims.

Rina Wolfson is a Jewish educator and writer

October 24, 2018 18:38

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