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Auschwitz is a place to pay respect, not to take selfies

The first thing you notice as you get closer to its grounds are the buses; they pack a large parking lot and line a nearby street, disgorging people by the hundreds who have arrived to take in one of the world's most improbable tourist destinations – Auschwitz.

A group of us soon gather with our English-speaking guide to begin a 3 1/2-hour tour that will include Birkenau, the sprawling 160-hectare addition to the original camp and which the Nazis built in an effort to ramp up their extermination project. Within minutes we are off, walking underneath the iconic arbeit macht frei sign that once greeted prisoners as they arrived.

It was here that I first began to get an unsettling feeling.

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For many of us of a certain age, those words – arbeit macht frei (work sets you free) – are among the most chilling we know because of the horrors they represent. It made my stomach churn to see them. But so, too, did the sight of people in our group, some putting on sad faces, taking selfies with the sign in the background.

The tour took us through many of the original brick buildings of Auschwitz I, most of which include disturbing historical displays. Behind one glass panel are mounds of hair (two tonnes of it) that were shorn from the prisoners when they arrived. Some of it is still braided. But gone are the natural colours it once possessed; it is all a uniform grey now, giving it the eerie appearance of wool. It would have been nice to ponder this exhibit for more than a moment but there was no time. The crowds were so dense, people so tightly packed into often tiny rooms, that everyone was forced to move along quickly.

Many were teenagers who wore the bored expressions of adolescence. Several checked their phones while they walked. Others chomped down on potato chips and sipped pop while their guides talked. Some wore ripped jeans, others gym shorts and T-shirts. Perhaps it's just me, but their behaviour and attire seemed, at times, inappropriate and disrespectful.

More people are pouring through Auschwitz's gates than ever before; a record two-million-plus last year. Since 2000, the numbers have been increasing each year. There is a voyeuristic demand to witness the scenes of some of man's most incomprehensible and evil conduct. It has been called "dark" or "Holocaust" tourism. It has also led some to express concern over what they see as the commercial desecration of what is effectively a massive cemetery.

There is debate over the morality and ethics of allowing the public to visit such places. Auschwitz remains an important destination for anyone with familial connections to what took place here. I was with a woman who saw, for the first time, the site of the now-disintegrated barracks where her mother was kept at Birkenau. Auschwitz also serves as a place of important historical instruction. A group of university students from Israel followed us, rapt in attention.

But is it truly possible to fully comprehend the atrocities that took place there? Should that matter? Should Auschwitz be open to such a vast invasion of tourists, likely hastening the degradation and decline of original structures?

There has been argument around the maintenance of the grounds themselves. Some buildings, mostly at Birkenau, have been reconstructed to appear the way they once did, compromising the site's authenticity. Some argue for the "controlled decay" of Birkenau, in which most of it would be allowed to crumble and disappear over time. Robert Jan van Pelt, a cultural historian and Holocaust scholar at the University of Waterloo, has also expressed reservations about some aspects of the memorial, suggesting it is "kind of a theme park cleaned up for tourists."

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Auschwitz has certainly become big business for the people of Oswiecim, Poland. Our guide, one of 300 employed here, gave up his job as a local school teacher to conduct two tours a day, six days a week. There would be major resistance in this town toward any effort to close or scale back accessibility to the museum.

Personally, I couldn't help feel that for many people on our tour, Auschwitz was a box they wanted to check off their "to do" list, a visit that somehow reflected their righteousness.

But for others, it unquestionably left a profound impression, something memorable and everlasting. And perhaps that's reason enough to keep Auschwitz open to the world, with all that it invites, the good and the bad.

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Gary Mason began his journalism career in British Columbia in 1981, working as a summer intern for Canadian Press. More

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