the issue of Holocaust tourism

WHAT IS HOLOCAUST TOURISM?

The Holocaust was the systematic extermination of 2/3s of European Jewry (6 million Jews) and around 1.5 million Roma.

The term “Holocaust tourism” describes the practice of visiting destinations connected with the genocide of Jewish and Roma people, such as concentration camps, death camps, ghettos, and more. It’s considered a form of “root tourism” (as in visiting one’s “roots”) and “dark tourism” (visiting tourist destinations associated with death and tragedy).

Holocaust tourism has been heavily criticized, particularly in recent years, especially in light of the Polish government’s Holocaust revisionist laws that criminalize historians, scholars, and journalists that accuse Poland of complicity or wrongdoings during the Holocaust (for more on this, see my post HOLOCAUST DENIAL & REVISIONISM IN POLAND).

 

CAMPS & GHETTOS

It’s important to note that entrance into Holocaust-related destinations, such as Auschwitz-Birkenau, is usually free. That said, visitors must pay in order to participate in guided tours. Additionally, destinations such as Auschwitz often have “gift shops” with all sorts of memorabilia, such as books. Even more alarmingly, souvenir shops across Europe often sell Holocaust-related products, such as t-shirts with the phrase “Arbeit macht frei” (for those unfamiliar, the phrase “Arbeit macht frei” — “work sets you free” — is the slogan that appears on the entrance to Auschwitz and other concentration camps).

Locations such as the Anne Frank House do have entrance fees. For example, as of 2022, entrance to the Anne Frank House comes to 14 Euros for adults. The Anne Frank House also has a gift shop, with products ranging from Anne Frank’s diary to tote bags.

Of course, the revenue of Holocaust-related destinations is usually invested in preserving said destinations. Nevertheless, the fact that Jews — including survivors and the descendants of survivors — have to pay to visit is morally questionable at best.

 

HOLOCAUST TOURISM INDUSTRY

The problem with Holocaust tourism is that it’s never limited to the camps. Even if 100 percent of the profits of Holocaust-related destinations are invested into the preservation of such sites, tourists still pay for plane tickets, buses, food, hotels, and more.

Poland, for instance, is the 18th most visited country in the world. Four percent of those tourists are Jews (Jews form 0.2 percent of the world population). Of course, it’s not just Jews that engage in Holocaust tourism: 2.3 million people visited Auschwitz in 2019 (in fact, Auschwitz is the biggest “tourist attraction” in Poland), and Auschwitz is far from the only Holocaust-related tourist destination in Poland. In other words, Holocaust tourism forms a significant part of the Polish tourism industry and economy.

In light of recent laws criminalizing Holocaust research in Poland, Jews have grown more and more concerned about Jewish contribution to the Polish economy via Holocaust tourism. In other words, as Jews, we are contributing to the Polish economy while Poland continues to engage in egregious Holocaust revisionism. Some groups have gone as far as to encourage a boycott of Poland’s Holocaust-related sites.

 

ARGUMENTS IN FAVOR

In 1996, the president of Genocide Watch presented a paper to the US Department of State known as “The 8 Stages of Genocide.” In 2012, the briefing was amended to include two more stages. The tenth stage is “denial.” The briefing states, “the perpetrators... deny that they committed any crimes…”

Holocaust denial — including Holocaust inversion (see my post HOLOCAUST INVERSION IS HOLOCAUST DENIAL) and Holocaust revisionism — is a serious, growing issue. Holocaust-related sites are a testament and living proof that a genocide took place. Often, it’s Holocaust tourism that keeps these sites afloat. In just a couple of decades, all Holocaust survivors will have died. As such, the preservation of Holocaust-related locations is more imperative than ever.

Holocaust-related sites also serve as an educational tool. Education is an important preventing measure for future atrocities.

 

OTHER ISSUES

Another main criticism of Holocaust tourism is that it reduces the Jewish experience and Jewish identity — particularly in Poland — to the Holocaust. As Konstanty Gebert, a Polish Jewish journalist and activist, wrote, “People tend to forget that the important thing about Polish Jews is not that they waited 900 years for the Germans to come and kill them, but that they actually did something for those 900 years.”

Other groups argue that Holocaust tourism places a heavy emphasis on Jewish death rather than Jewish life and also places an emotional emphasis on a mythologized Jewish identity. Others argue that said trips are nationalistic (i.e. Israel) rather than universalizing in nature (for what it’s worth, I vehemently disagree with that assessment).

 

TOURIST BEHAVIOR

A main criticism of dark tourism — and Holocaust tourism more specifically — is that of inappropriate tourist behavior. From speaking on the phone and texting to vandalism (e.g. graffiti) to selfies, Holocaust tourists have come under heavy scrutiny in recent years. In fact, over the last decade, 30 Auschwitz tourists have been charged with criminal offenses, including stealing. It’s important to note that the majority of those offenses are not perpetrated by neo-N*zis or other extremist groups, but rather, by regular tourists.

Importantly, it’s not just teenagers who commit these offenses, but also full-grown adults, including at least one man in his late 60s.

Arguably, this behavior is the result of the way that Auschwitz and other Holocaust sites are promoted to tourists. For example, a couple of Polish tourist websites (in the vein of Trip Advisor) describe Auschwitz as “creepy” and “haunting,” turning the site into more of a novelty visit than a memorial to a genocide. These websites generally do not even mention Jews.

 

MY OPINION

I’ve been to Poland. I’ve visited Treblinka, Madjanek, Auschwitz, and the Warsaw Ghetto. I don’t regret the trip. It was certainly impactful for me (especially Madjanek. Not so much Auschwitz, as it felt too “museum-like,” to be honest), particularly as a third generation Holocaust survivor.

I think preserving these sites is important. They will serve as a testament to what happened long after the last Holocaust survivor dies. I absolutely support any Jewish (or Roma) person who feels compelled to visit Holocaust-related sites.

That said, I don’t think Jews or Roma should pay a single cent. Whatsoever. Not for food, not for airplane tickets, not for an entrance fee. I have absolutely no clue how such a thing could possibly pulled off, but that’s just the way I feel. It seriously infuriates me that Jews are paying a government (Poland) that literally criminalizes Holocaust research. Why are we financially sustaining literal Holocaust deniers?

I don’t know what the solution is.

The fact that the Anne Frank House sells tote bags makes my stomach turn. They recently also refused to translate the guided audio tours into Hebrew because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict…which is a whole other level of outrageous (they later reversed this position).

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