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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

Ze'ev Avrahami
March 22, 2011
Ya’akov Arbel guides a tour to Auschwitz.(Ze’ev Avrahami)
Ya’akov Arbel guides a tour to Auschwitz.(Ze’ev Avrahami)

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.

Ze’ev Avrahami was born in the Sinai, expelled to Israel, and now lives in Berlin. He is a father and a writer.

Ze’ev Avrahami was born in the Sinai, expelled to Israel, and now lives in Berlin. He is a father and a writer.