The Auschwitz Memorial has recently implored tourists to stop posing for photos at the memorial site of the death camp. The announcement came in March in a Twitter statement, following a flood of social media posts of tourists balancing on a rail-road beam located at the former concentration camp operated by Nazi Germany.
“When you come to @AuschwitzMuseum, remember you are at the site where over 1 million people were killed. Respect their memory. There are better places to learn how to walk on a balance beam than the site which symbolizes deportation of hundreds of thousands to their deaths,” stated the Auschwitz Memorial on March 20th. Indeed, for Pawel Sawicki, who runs the museum’s social media operation, “… everything must be done to protect the dignity of the victims”, including affirming appropriate visitor behaviour.
Contrastingly, deceased American writer Leonard Michaels, whose grandparents had been victims of the holocaust, expressed his desire to “see the ghetto, not the camp” — in other words, to see where the victims had lived, and not where they had passed.
But for the museum, visitors — whose numbers were up to 2.1 million in 2018 — should exhibit a respectful and humble countenance while visiting the site where millions others had their final moments. The Auschwitz Memorial proclaims that ‘selfie-culture’ contradicts the ethos of the memorial, which is to understand the magnitude of the atrocities committed, and to effectively construct the much-needed cultural institutions to safeguard humanitarian values.
Through these ‘self-centered’ photos, visitors are disregarding the responsibility of solemn reflection. American student Breanna Mitchell’s selfie at the memorial, followed by a tweet “I’m famous y’all”, exemplified selfie-culture, and received heavy criticism for using the memorial at the expense of solidarity with the victims’ ancestors. Likewise, artist Shahak Shapira’s project Yolocaust consisting of photo-shopped selfies on top of historic footage, is a reminder of the importance of solemn reflection.
For others however, as the dialogue with the museum’s Twitter portrays, balancing on a beam is a “small and irrelevant” act, holding the argument that every individual has a unique way of respecting the deceased. Australian survivor, Adolek Kohn, alongside his grandchildren, had danced to I Will Survive in a viral video at the memorial, explained by Kohn to be “affirming his existence” upon his first visit to Poland since the atrocities.
The museum is adopting insistent rebuttals, engaging in discussion with various Twitter users, in an effort to protect the dignity of the millions of victims. The death camp had operated from 1940 to 1945, and although the primary individuals subject to imprisonment were Jewish, Polish or Communist, the camp also targeted homosexuals, the disabled, and other minorities. The opening of a Red Cross Hospital shortly followed liberation by the Soviet Red Army in January 1945, and the need for human recovery had been echoed by the hospital director personally collecting food for survivors, reflecting the start of a praise-worthy effort by the European-international alliance. The Auschwitz Museum, based in Oświęcim, Poland, has been open to visitors since July of 1947, enacted by the Polish Government to encourage awareness of the consequences of extremist ideologies, while also providing the opportunity to pay respect to the millions of victims.
Despite the Memorial’s polite request to discontinue displays of self-centredness, it may be argued that both descendants of the victims and tourists reserve the right to pay respects in their unique and humane expressions, in a reminder that, ultimately, intentions may be taken into account perhaps to bolster the individuality and freedom the holocaust sought to demolish.