Apr 5th, 2018, 12:25 PM

Dark Tourism: a Reaction

By Lorenza Aranda
Image Credit: Lorenza Aranda
Experiencing dark tourism first-hand and what it entails for the human condition.

Have you ever been to a place where the main attraction is the suffering and death of people? If yes you are part of the so-called world of dark tourism. AUP's latest study trip was to Poland, it was led by professors Charles Talcott and Brian Schiff. The program of the trip included going to Auschwitz and Auschwitz II (Birkenau), which are considered dark tourism spots. These concentration camps were the witnesses of a lot of suffering during the Jewish genocide, and they receive thousands of tourists every year. They are the most popular sites in Poland, but also the most depressing. 

So, what is dark tourism? Dark tourism is visiting sites that are somehow connected to death, disaster or tragedy. Whether it is for mere curiosity or fascination of the macabre, dark tourism is very common. Places like Auschwitz, Chernobyl, Hiroshima, and Culloden are great examples of dark tourism destinations. Everyone experiences it differently and some tourists don't even know they are being part of it. 

When I signed up for the Poland trip I thought it would be very interesting to know more about the Jewish genocide, especially since Poland was where all the deportations, ghettos and concentration camps started. However, I never thought it was going to be one of the hardest experiences of my life. The trip was extremely exhausting, both emotionally and physically. From Thursday to Sunday, everything that we talked about had to do with the suffering of Jews in the Second World War. It wasn't just the concentration camps, but all the museums and tours that were part of the trip were in a way, dark tourism spots. Places like the Schindler factory, the Jewish ghetto, and the pharmacy kept reminding me of all the suffering that happened in Krakow less than a century ago. 

The trip did not have the same impact on all of us, but I would dare to say that it was very emotional for everyone. 

Even though dark tourism has been around for a while, I didn't know that there was a term for it until recently. It was strange to know that there was a term for such places, especially one so disturbing. 

It is true that I learned a lot about the genocide, and how hard it was to live in Poland at the time, but I never imagined it would be that hard. The trip did not have the same impact on all of us, but I would dare to say that it was very emotional for everyone.  

The first day we got to Krakow we had a long walking tour of the ghetto and we learned about the history of how Jews settled down in the city and how the community functioned there. We visited synagogues, buildings, the Galicia Jewish Museum and we heard a survivor speak about her experience. Thursday was an introduction of sorts, about what we were going to see the next day—the concentration camps.

After learning about the Jewish community and how the deportations worked I thought I was ready to visit Auschwitz and Birkenau, but nothing can really prepare you to be standing in a place where 1.1 million people were killed.

We had to leave our hotel at six a.m. to get to Auschwitz in time. After taking a bus to the countryside for an hour, we got to the camp. The day was overcast and it was very cold. When we pulled over at the parking lot at seven thirty a.m., there were a lot of buses and groups. We had to leave all our bags behind and go through security, which made me feel anxious. The fact that you have to go through security to get to a concentration camp threw me off balance.  

Image Credit: Lorenza Aranda

Once we were inside we met with our guide who told us to get audioguides. We had earpieces that she talked into with a microphone and we all heard her in our headphones. It was the same with all the groups, so there was a frightening silence that dominated the camp, which made it all much more intense. When we first got out of the security building, we walked into a big courtyard with train tracks, which are signifiers of how Jews were welcomed in the camp. In front of us, there was a huge wall of barbed wire and a gate with a sign: "Arbeit Macht Frei", meaning "Work sets you free".

Image Credit: Lorenza Aranda

The guide explained how there was a selection process when Jews got there. If they were men, young and strong, they were sent to take a bath, and if they weren't, they were sent to the gas chamber. According to her, 75% of Jews didn't make it into the camp. This was one of the first facts she gave us, which was a really hard introduction to what we were going to see through the entire day. 

I had to take the headphones out and breathe; I didn't know if I could keep experiencing the agonizing sights.

When we got past the gate, there were several buildings that were constructed before the Nazi occupation. All 22 buildings aren't accessible today, but we got to go inside a lot of them. Every building had a different display. Some had information about the camp and the war, some about life in Auschwitz, but the most shocking one was the one that had all the Jewish belongings, including the seven tons of hair that were cut off prisoners when they first got to the camp. It is hard to describe what seeing that made everyone feel. There was an absolute silence and we could only hear the guide. I had to take the headphones out and breathe; I didn't know if I could keep experiencing the agonizing sights. 

I thought I had seen the worst, but sadly, I hadn't. What terrified me the most was that young girls and boys were taking pictures of everything they saw without even paying attention to what they were seeing. It is hard to judge them because everyone experiences dark tourism differently, but it was extremely distressing to witness it. 

Image Credit: Lorenza Aranda

As we moved through Auschwitz I, the guide kept giving us information on how life was for the prisoners in the camp. We got to see what they ate every day, which was almost nothing. Everything in Auschwitz was not just about the history of the camp but about the brutal suffering of prisoners that were in it. 

The last thing we saw before leaving Auschwitz was what I was feared the most: the gas chamber. What I felt when I stepped inside is inexplicable. The guide warned us that the scratches on the wall were made by visitors. I could not understand why someone would dare to disrespect a space where so many people agonized and lost their lives. And still, tourists were taking pictures.

It is almost as you can't see the end of it; you just get to see trees, without leaves on them, and no sunlight. 

The gas chamber was followed by a morgue, where they burned the bodies afterward. Seeing that, I realized what the feeling I had earlier was: pure sorrow. I tried to hold back tears because I thought it would be weird to cry there, but, as hard as it was, I had to hold back the tears. It is impossible to see that and try to understand how people suffered in that space, and how 80 years later tourists use that time to share what they are seeing with people that are not even there. 

After Auschwitz, I thought I had seen the worst, but we still had to go to Auschwitz II, also known as  Birkenau, another camp that was part of Auschwitz. We took the bus there, it was just ten minutes away. The entrance of this camp devastated me. We pulled over in the parking lot and had to walk to the entrance. It is a big gate with an arch in the middle for the railway, as soon as you enter you see this enormous space, it is almost as you can't see the end of it; you just get to see trees, without leaves on them, and no sunlight. 


Image Credit: Lorenza Aranda

We came in from the same gate that the railway used, so it made me feel awful and as if I shouldn't be there. I think that this happens to most people when they get there; a horrible feeling overcomes your body, it makes you shiver. That is the problem with dark tourism, it draws the morbid part of yourself to places of suffering. That is what I felt as soon as I walked in that camp: the suffering of others. It is hard to explain a feeling like that and the fact you have to be there to feel it is what makes this kind of tourism so popular. 

I was silent the entire time, I couldn't process what I was seeing.

The camp is divided by the railway into two parts: on both sides there where prisoner blocks. We got to see the ones on the right side. There were dozens of them, made of wood. The prisoners used to sleep on bunks made of wood, with straw mattresses, they slept five per bunk. When we went inside it was cold, and a lot of student groups were there. As soon as we got inside, everyone kept quiet. We didn't have the headset anymore so we had to respect the space. People started taking pictures again; I tried to take as little as possible. I could not understand how it was more important for some people to take photos than to see and try to understand the inhumane conditions prisoners lived in. 


Image Credit: Lorenza Aranda

After that, we moved through the end of the camp and we saw the gas chamber that was destroyed. Somehow, this camp was even harder to see, especially because it was out in the open. Imagining how the prisoners suffered was heartbreaking. We kept moving through the camp, but I was silent the entire time, I couldn't process what I was seeing. 

We kept going and saw more bunks and more buildings. At that moment I felt surrounded by death and suffering. It is surprising what a place like that can make you feel and understand history. That is why dark tourism prevails. In a way, it can be offensive to a lot of people, but it also teaches these same tourists about humanity's worst mistakes. So there is a contradiction in experiencing dark tourism, for some, it is a way to satisfy a morbid curiosity, and for others, it is a way to pay tribute to people that suffered. I didn't agree with the tour at first, but I realized that without it, a lot of people wouldn't be able to learn about the past, especially in places like Auschwitz.