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Surviving Auschwitz

More than a million people visit the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland each year, where they’re led by specially trained tour guides charged with telling—and retelling—a story of unimaginable horror

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Ya’akov Arbel guides a tour to Auschwitz. (Ze’ev Avrahami)
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When you first visit, Krakow charms you with everything it’s got. The Barbican Gate leading to the Rynek Glowny, the magnificent city square, the beautiful architecture of churches and castles, and the buzzing nightlife in the old Jewish quarter—they all seem like the embodiment of some carefully conceived tourist office advertisement. All around, hordes of visitors from the world over click their digital cameras, drink tasty Polish beer in darkened bars, and marvel at how seamlessly past and present coexist in Krakow.

But Ya’akov Arbel, an Israeli tour guide and an old Poland hand, has been around long enough to know that hasn’t always been the case. “Before Spielberg made Schindler’s List,” he told me on a recent visit to the city, “there wasn’t a dog coming to Krakow.”

***

On a rain-soaked Friday morning late last year, Arbel led three dozen Israelis visiting Poland. He was in a rush—the group was headed to Auschwitz and Birkenau, the highlights of the tour—but some of the visitors were enjoying the rain, a refuge from the Israeli heat. One by one, they climbed aboard the bus. Arbel, counting and recounting, was still two people short. Finally, the stragglers arrived. It was an elderly couple, and the wife, an Auschwitz survivor, had gotten cold feet and had to be persuaded to join.

A few minutes after the bus pulled out, Arbel took the microphone and started talking. He talked about Jews and Nazis, Poland and Germany, concentration camps and death camps. To ease the tension, he spiced his speech with bits of trivia, even the occasional joke.

“I must do all the talking here,” Arbel told me during a rare moment of rest, sipping tea to soothe his throat. “One of the most important attributes for a tour leader to Auschwitz is the understanding that he should talk as little as possible inside the camps, because the eyes tell the story there.”

Arbel’s bus joined another 30 in the huge parking lot outside the camp, and some of the visitors wrapped themselves in Israeli flags as we headed toward the entrance. There, in accordance with Polish legislation aimed to protect the local workforce, the group was handed over to a Polish tour guide, one of the 250 men and women employed by the Memorial and Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau. Arbel was there only to translate. Mostly silent, he followed his group, looking and listening.

***

Arbel was born in Germany. His parents, Holocaust survivors, fled to Israel when he was a year old. He is a banker by profession, and 10 years ago he decided to devote himself to his love of history and geography and become certified as a tour guide. “I love doing it,” he said, “and it’s a cheap way to go places.” In the last three years, he has mostly been accompanying groups headed to Poland, visiting that country three or four times a year. As we walked through the gate leading into the camp, Arbel paused for a moment. “Every time I come here I want to cry,” he said. “But I can’t cry. I must be professional and separate myself from the place, and one of the tools is to use humor. But you must be sensitive to the component of the group. Sometimes humor can’t fly here.”

The breakdown, he added, comes often after the tour. “When you are walking in Auschwitz, you are on a mission, a mission to tell the story of a foregone Jewish life. But once you are done, and you let it decompress, you get back to your hotel and just wrap yourself in depression. And since every tour is different, and unexpected things happen here, this depression goes home with you. I have many horrible flashbacks in my sleep long after I return from here.”

I commented that such a lifestyle, consisting of repetitive visits to this dark place and the bouts of depression that are bound to follow, was somewhat masochistic. Arbel shrugged. “It is the least I owe to my predecessors, to the history of Jewish life,” he said, before heading into one of the prison cabins.

***

Arbel is in the minority among Israeli tour guides specializing in Poland. Most of them are graduates of programs run by Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust museum and research facility, and sponsored by the Ministry of Education to train guides to lead groups of high-school students and soldiers.

There are 300 such guides currently working in Israel. To join their ranks, one must respond to a newspaper ad inviting people to enroll in the program. Each year, said Dorit Novak, the director of the International School for Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem, 50 people apply. “We pass the names and résumés to the Ministry of Education, where the first selection is processed,” she said. “Then, we invite the final candidates to one day where we conduct interviews and psychological assessment, and we usually end up with 20 finalists.”

The Yad Vashem course lasts almost six months and includes many seminars and workshops. The candidates then go on a tour of Poland, followed by two more tours on which they serve as guides. If they receive positive feedback they must take one final test, which examines the depth of their knowledge of the Holocaust. The drop-out rate is 15 percent.

“The guide is a key figure in the educational experience young students and soldiers go through while traveling in Poland,” Novak said. “A good guide must have great knowledge and even greater sensitivity for the group as a whole and to every group member. He or she must deal with an age group where the people are very sensitive and about to be exposed to a shocking experience.”

The challenges are part adolescent psychology and part crisis management. (The museum makes an exception to its Polish guide policy for these specially trained leaders.) “A good guide shouldn’t tease,” Novak added. “He shouldn’t manipulate and move people from one experience to the other, but let every experience sink in with the kids. Understatement is the most important thing, because words can never match the visuals.”

This being a delicate undertaking, it calls for a certain sort of person. The average guide is between 30 and 50 years old, has another job or has chosen to become a tour guide as a mid-career change of vocation, and is committed and knowledgeable. While the guides vary in gender, socioeconomic backgrounds, and places of residence, many are children of Holocaust survivors, Novak said.

Hanni Efrimov, 40, graduated from the Yad Vashem program in 2003. In the last few years she’s been to Auschwitz 12 times every year. “It is not normal,” she said. “I must admit that I am a little bit addicted.” But, she added, the tours are not “a pornographic journey into the Holocaust. We deal mostly with Jewish life in Poland, because in order to understand what we had lost, we must first learn what we had. The death camps are not the most important part, and it’s also the shortest trip. It is more important to see how people lived in the ghetto, what choices they have made in a world with no choices, to learn about the thinkers and writers. We must teach about the forces, because suffering doesn’t teach you anything.”

Another important part of the guide’s job, Efrimov added, is to tailor the experience to suit the sensibilities of young men and women who are either in the midst of, or are about to enter, their mandatory military service. The Holocaust, she said, is the quintessential lesson of the dangers of using force and the importance of preserving one’s humanity. “We teach them about the thin line between being a human being and a monster,” she said, “but also about the inspiration of true friendship, where you are starving but still willing to share your 20 grams of bread.”

***

Ya’akov Arbel’s tour group is now midway through its tour of Auschwitz. Their Polish guide, Magdalena Adamczyknycz (pronounced adam-chick-nitz), is a 36-year-old local woman, married and the mother of a young girl. She first visited the camp in the eighth grade as part of a class trip. “It was the first time I heard about the Holocaust,” she told me when we were standing outside cabin 27. Like most Israeli groups, this one had decided to hold a small, private candle-lighting ceremony and to share their personal stories about Auschwitz and the Holocaust. Adamczyknycz was waiting for them to be done, standing in the chilly fall breeze.

“I traveled a lot after school,” she said as she waited, “and I realized that when I say in Polish the name of the place where I was born, Oswiecim, no one recognized it, but when I was saying the name in German (Auschwitz) then everyone knew about the tiny place where I come from. That made me realize about the history of my birthplace and of my history and how I am part of it.” Like her Israeli counterparts, Adamczyknycz, too, had to pass a series of exams to obtain her position. With 1.3 million people visiting the camp last year—a steep increase from 2004’s record of half a million visitors—the demand for tour guides is only growing.

Adamczyknycz got her certification in 2005. “I felt that it is my mission to try and tell the story of every person who perished here, more than a million stories,” she said. She used to work full time but now works only three or four months a year. This, she said, was a necessary step she had to take after becoming a mother. “It is a huge conflict,” she said, “because you are facing a trauma, sometimes live testimony of a survivor, and then you must go home and switch it off, play with your daughter, switch immediately from the complete gloom into a shining mother. It made me very pessimistic about life and about human nature, and that’s why I decided to decrease my rate [of work].” Instead, she found part-time employment as an English teacher in the local school, but the camp, she said, is always on her mind. “The ability to keep the memory alive,” she said, “to educate kids about Auschwitz and one year later see them coming back here with their parents, I miss that.”

Not, she added, that being employed by Auschwitz was without its downsides. Apart from the psychological toll of constant immersion in such grim subject matter, Adamczyknycz said, identifying oneself as an Auschwitz employee kills all chance of small talk and makes sharing work stories with friends deeply uncomfortable. “But it is still worth it,” she said, “especially when we get a group from Israel, where you really don’t know what will happen.”

Such impromptu outbursts of emotions are common with Israeli groups, and one occurred when the group I had joined visited the second floor of cabin 16. Walking between a glass-encased display of suitcases and another filled with hair and shoes, someone let out a terrible shriek.

It was Yehudit Barnea, 72, from Tel Aviv, the Holocaust survivor who earlier that morning had had her doubts about joining the tour. Shaking, she stood in front of a photograph on the wall, pointing at two little girls. “This is my sister and I on the day the Russians liberated the camp,” she said in a broken voice.

Barnea arrived to Birkenau in 1944. She was 6 years old. “Usually, they killed kids my age,” she said after we finished walking in Birkenau, where she had to revisit the memories she struggled to forget. “But we were twin sisters, and we were immediately led to Mengele’s cabin.” She has strange memory about the place. “I remember that everyday he was taking blood from us and he was experimenting with our lungs, and I remember that we were his favorite kids. I was actually very disappointed to see him in a movie, because I remembered him as a very tall and blond and beautiful man who had nicknames for us. But after walking here, I can’t believe that I was here, that I got out of here. It is just a story, it’s not really me.”

***

The drive back to Krakow was long and silent. At the hotel, a much-needed rest awaits, followed by Shabbat dinner. Outside the door of my room, someone had hung a silhouette of an old Jew holding a Bible. From my window, I could see the old Jewish cemetery. And yet there is no real Jewish life in Krakow. The reality of Jewish life here oscillates between the cemetery and that silhouette, a kitschy object the likes of which clutter many stores and cafés. Drivers for hire offer a tour of the Schindler factories or the ghetto. Even the toilets in Auschwitz are a commercial enterprise, costing 1,000 zloty (about 30 cents) per use.

I was musing about commercialization, memory, and authenticity as I walked to dinner, passing on the way a steakhouse that featured a klezmer house band. But as I reached the restaurant, I was dismayed to find the other members of the group in a decidedly different mood. They, too, could see the Holocaust business and the profits Krakow gathers from exploiting the memory of its dead Jews, but it was a price they were willing to pay.

They came here to look for something that is long gone, to run after a metaphor, to see and forgive and forget. They had come here hoping to get lost in the past. For that, they needed good guides.

“A guide in this kind of tour, he owns great power over the people he guides,” Arbel told me after we finished the emotional prayer for the wine and challah, and waitresses were serving traditional Jewish food to the table. “You don’t show them here tourist attractions, but you guide them through their past, their purpose, you go through what could have been their alternative life.”

Ze’ev Avrahami is a writer living in Berlin.

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I am a young Polish woman living in Cracow and that is a really sad comment about using Holocaust in a commercial purposes. That’s a little misunderstanding connecting Auschwitz with Cracow. The truth is that Kazimierz (old Jewish part of the city) is using Jewish history. But what is wrong- and it’s my opinion as a student- it has nothing common with Holocaust. How my friends and I consider this: Kazimierz’s lifetime is more about nostalgia of life which has not been a reality any longer: and I mean neighborhood of Jews and Poles before the II world war, not what happened later.

salena says:

My experience this fall in Auschwitz was quite remarkable: my tour guide was doing a Vincent Price taking us through a house of horrows. We dropped him on the way to Birkenau and I complained to the management. It was horribly insensitive. And the guide, who was young, added insult to injury by recounting individual Christians killed at Auschwitz. If you are going, you need not to be rushed. It is amazing that it sits as noncommercial as it is.
I highly recommend the new Schindler Museum. Take plenty of time there too. You can do it on your own. Krakow, while a beautiful city, exists in the absence of Jews. When we arrived there were actors in the square pretending to be Jews reenacting a wedding ceremony for money. Remarkable!

Eric Furman says:

The majority of my father’s family perished in the Shoah, but we are a family of reasonably assimilated jews in the U.K.
In my student days my priorities were my degree, women and my heritage.
Over the years the degree became history,the women my wife,and my heritage my obsession. I have taken my family (sometimes kicking and screeming), all over Europe to learn and try to recreate in one’s mind eye the lives of my ancesters before the holocaust. In Riga (Latvia), a community still exists, saved by the Soviets exiling troublemakers to a god forsaken part of Russia, and by Russian Jews choosing to live in Latvia. I was surprised that my conversational Yiddish (last used whilst my grandmother had been alive, and she passed away 25 years ago,)came flooding back in torrents
Poland is different, half of the jews who perished in the Shoah lived in Poland, worked in Poland, were a part of Poland it’s history, culture and economy.
Krokov has lost it’s soul, almost bereft of jews, empty of the desendants that never were from the people who died of starvation, of disease, murdered, gassed, shot, or beaten to death, yet when I visted Auschwitz with my family our guide(a Pole)portrayed the disaster as a Polish tradegy, concentrating on Polish political prisoners, including a detailed account regarding a number of priests.
I have no doubt that many Poles lost their lives,but to be Polish was not an automatic death sentance, to be a jew was.
With reference to your article I’m sure Ya’akov will not portray the Shoah as a Polish tradegy(even though of course it was that for gentile Poles as well),but will redress the balance.
It’s important that we as jews do not leave the telling of the Shoah to others

It is galling to see thePoles making money on the Holocaust. When we would enter a taxi, the driver would play klezmer music. Every site we visited Poles were selling Stars of David etc. Yet their own memorials to World War Ii never mention that there were Jews who died also. These are the people who killed the Jews who returned from the camps. The Poles are still the most antisemetic people in the world. If there was not money to be made they would destroy any reminder that Jews ever lived there.

michael livingston says:

There is a value in having a Jewish guide because Poles and Jews emphasize different things. For example my tour spent relatively little time at Birkenau which is central to the Jewish story. I had to run up on my own to make sure I saw the memorials . . . and the crematoria.

I need to disagree with Pat Silver about what you’ve said about Poles. That’s true that antisemitic people live in Poland but in the same way as in other countries. What you’ve said it’s how stereotypes are created. as well, that’s true: generally we are very egocentric about history. I just ask for little understanding- Poland is democratic country for only 21 years-not so long for make its history ‘tidy’. i don’t really know why some Poles are antisemitic but for sure you can find out reading some books about Jews in Poland (they’re here for 8 centuries!) so imagine how their both relationship could look beyond years! I know it’s easy to postulated something knowing just a little percent of history but I cannot be quiet when somebody call me a killer basing that on his incompetence. I don’t try to explain anything or excuse anyone. I just want to tell you that making strong opinion about others doesn’t worth it.
I admit that there was plenty incidents when Poles were killing Jews but as well some of them helped them. all the best, Pat!

Daniel says:

The snide comment about pay bathrooms surprises me. Surely the author, who lives in Berlin, knows that, in much of central and eastern Europe, pay bathrooms are standard most places you go. Also regarding the linking of tourism in Krakow with Schindler’s List–I think the opening of Poland to the west with the end of the Cold War, alongside the resulting economic and cultural boom throughout the country probably had a lot more to do with it.

An interesting article about the tour itself, but could have done without the side comments about opportunistic tourism. Tourism is tourism, wherever you go.

My first visit to Auschwitz was one part of a journey that focused on the 1,000 years of Jewish life and culture that existed in Poland prior to the holocaust. That broader perspective made all the difference. While I will never forget what I saw there–including a Torah unrolled around a group of survivors during an outdoor memorial service and the overwhelming experience of watching Israeli soldiers marching and carrying the flag of Israel at Birkenau–I learned that the most powerful way to honor those who perished is to recapture and celebrate their lives and not to see only their deaths. I owe this transformative teaching to the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life & Culture, which is making a more in-depth and meaningful experience of Jewish heritage travel to Poland available to individuals, groups and families. It is a journey like no other and one that I will always be grateful to have taken.

Maruda says:

Eric Furman: Jews are emphasizing killed Jews and Poles are emphasizing killed Poles. I don’t think it’s something weird. In fact jewish part of history have got better “P.R.” so world don’t remember about killed Poles, Gypsies and other nations.

Pat: Yes, there were some Poles that killed Jews, but most of they were criminals (ther were trials for this after war). If you mention antisemitizm of Poles don’t remember about this what Jews (not all) did during WW2: they were welcoming the Red Army with open hands and often helped communist to gain power. Many Poles think that was a betrayal. And now: everywhere I read about Jew visiting in Auschwitz there are some comments that Poles are antisemitic and almost guilty of holocaust. How it could be good with this attitude?

I am a 2nd generation jew from both sides and have been visiting Poland for 16 years. In Krakow I wear my Kippa and have never rec’d anything but welcoming remarks and people wishing to communicate with Jews and wishing to learn and understand.
Yes a jewish revival without Jews but heartening nonetheless, visit during Jewish Heritage festival from the 24th June 2011 a real treat.
Further info http://www.jewishheritagetours.co.uk

Jarek says:

It’s sad that Auschwitz is related purely to Jewish Holocaust. My grandma is a living Auschwitz survivor, a catholic woman – who witnessed executions of catholics, jews, orthodox …. she even stood in a line from which people to be executed were chosen – she wasn’t selected. Someone wrote that Holocaust is used for making money – there’s a whole Holocaust Industry in the US and nobody is even talkin about it. All the smart americans know is about Jewish Holocaust (which is tragic), that’s a small fraction of what happened.

Barrie Rockman says:

I, also, was struck by the Polish guide’s stress on the murder of Poles. As someone has already said -to each his own. But then watching the B.B.C. programme by Michael Palin on Europe…In Warsaw he mentions the Polish uprising but not the Jewish one nor the jews and in Auschwitz Jews do not get one tiny mention. Like we were never in either place. Oh, how I wish that were true.

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Surviving Auschwitz

More than a million people visit the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland each year, where they’re led by specially trained tour guides charged with telling—and retelling—a story of unimaginable horror

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