Auschwitz showers highlight challenge of balancing tourism and memory

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Pawel Sawicki is an information officer at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Memorial and Museum, the sprawling complex in southern Poland that encompasses the largest and most notorious Nazi death camp. More than 1.1 million people, mostly Jews, were murdered there.

“I look out my window and see barbed wire and barracks,” Sawicki said. “It’s never just a job. You have to find ways to deal with the emotions.”

Auschwitz is a place where history, commemoration and, increasingly, mass tourism collide. The iconic symbol of the Holocaust, Auschwitz is also a major tourist attraction — the most-visited museum in Poland. Its complex identity — Auschwitz is also a sacred site of martyrdom for Catholic Poles — has made it an emotional and sometimes political battleground of memory since the end of World War II.

The latest instance erupted in August, when the museum’s effort to help visitors during an extreme heat wave by installing misting showers provoked outrage among those who felt they invoked the fake showers at Birkenau that spewed poison gas.

Facing a storm of criticism, the museum defended its actions. “Something had to be done” to help visitors cope with the sweltering temperatures, museum officials wrote in a Facebook post. As the heat wave abated, the showers were removed.

“The site is so complicated, with so many conflicting aspects, that nothing is easy,” said Tomasz Cebulski, a tour guide and historian whose doctoral work was on the museum’s political and international significance.

Created by an act of the Polish Parliament in 1947, the memorial museum comprises two parts: the Auschwitz I camp, entered through the iconic “Arbeit Macht Frei” gate; and the vast area of Auschwitz II at Birkenau, about two miles away.

One of the museum’s key challenges is conserving the site’s deteriorating buildings, ruins, archival holdings and artifacts. The museum is a state-run entity. The Polish government provides more than one-third of the approximately $15 million annual budget, and the European Union also contributes some funding. But more than half of the budget is generated by the museum itself through visitor fees for guides, sales of publications, onsite business concessions and other income sources.

In 2009, a special Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation was established to “amass and manage” a perpetual endowment fund of $120 million whose income is specifically earmarked for long-term conservation. Some 35 countries have pledged or donated funds to the endowment, with more than half of the sum from Germany alone.

A dramatic upsurge of visitors in recent years has put serious strains on the fragile infrastructure at the site. A record 1.53 million people visited Auschwitz-Birkenau in 2014, up from less than 500,000 in 2000.

The growing numbers of visitors prompted the museum to implement new visitor regulations and security measures in January. For the first time, there is a ban on bringing backpacks or other large bags into the site.

Basic entrance to Auschwitz-Birkenau is free. But during peak hours, entrance is now limited, and visitors must pay to tour the site in groups led by one of the nearly 300 guides, working in 18 languages.

A $26 million off-site visitors’ center is due to open in the next two years, and a new education center is also planned.


Ruth Ellen Gruber

Ruth Ellen Gruber is a writer for JTA.