Jared Savage

Jared Savage is the New Zealand Herald's investigations editor.

Poland: The etiquette of Auschwitz

Jared Savage confronts a tourist who's seemingly unaffected by the former concentration camp's sombre atmosphere.

A warning sign at Auschwitz as visitors pass by on a guided tour. Photo / Jared Savage
A warning sign at Auschwitz as visitors pass by on a guided tour. Photo / Jared Savage

There's one in every tour group. You know the one. The person who asks all the questions of the guide. The one who then adds their own thoughts, opinions, or facts to the guide's answer. "Did you know ..." The person who stands too close to the guide's microphone, giving all the other tourists a running commentary.

Often, this person runs around taking photograph after photograph - looking, but not really taking in anything.

Slowly, but surely, all other members of the tour group begin to turn against this rogue traveller. You know this is happening when you exchange frustrated glances, sometimes accompanied by rolling eyes.

I had the misfortune of this experience in that most sombre of destinations, Auschwitz. There's not a lot of chit-chat while exploring the concentration camp where so many lost their lives.

Our guide was a lovely Polish lady, probably in her early 60s. Her father-in-law survived Auschwitz and on his deathbed made her promise that she would become a guide there.

That was 28 years ago - and she's done it nearly every day since.

So it was somewhat jarring when her softly spoken, slightly accented English was consistently interrupted by the nasal twang of a couple from New York.

The pair completely dominated all dialogue with our knowledgeable guide. She was gracious enough to patiently deal with their running commentary, which often contradicted or questioned what she was saying. Their presence began to irk, but the worst was to come.

Auschwitz is a place the Polish and Jewish communities do not want the world to forget.

Photography is welcomed in all but two places: the room full of the shaved hair of thousands of men, women and children, and a prison block with cells the size of broom cupboards. Both are off limits and clearly signposted as such. No photographs are even needed in those rooms - it's impossible to forget what you see.

Our snap-happy friend even double-checked with the guide - no pictures at all in those rooms - and seemingly made all the right moves to comply. Brazenly, as soon as her back was turned he pulled out the camera and whirred away. This is the hair of prisoners who were killed in the gas chambers. I was too shocked to say anything. But I was flabbergasted when, at the next no-camera zone, he put the flash on to illuminate the pitch-black cells, so small that prisoners had to stand up when the door was shut.

I quietly confronted him and he quickly deleted the offending frames. This elicited a few smiles from our fellow tourists and guide.

The embarrassment didn't last long. Towards the end of the tour, a Jewish group was openly mourning outside a memorial site at the larger Birkenau camp. In such a bleak setting, the sound was eerie and most travellers felt awkward about intruding on such a private moment, even from a great distance. Not for our friend.

He marched right up to the group, who were gathered around a praying Rabbi, their shoulders draped with Star of David flags. He then folded his arms, struck a pose - and asked his wife to take a photo. To be fair, the mourners had their backs to him. But this is a warning and a reminder to all travellers. Don't be the one.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Emirates flies from Auckland to Warsaw via their hub in Dubai.

Further information: See auschwitz.org.

- NZ Herald

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