When Ethics Alarms Don’t Ring: Fun At Auschwitz!

That’s an ice cream stand just outside Poland’s shrine to the victims of the Holocaust, the Auschwitz death camp. Isn’t it nice that tourists there will be able to grab a delicious ice cream cone for refreshment? Now here…

…a woman posed glamorously on the tracks that brought the railroad cars stuffed with captive Jews to be gassed. If I had to wager, I’d say the couple is American. In my various adventures abroad, I wanted to hide my head under a bag many times as I saw American tourists behaving abominably at such locales as Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London. But it isn’t just Americans: my wife’s sister reported that at Pearl Harbor she witnessed smiling Japanese tourists posing by the memorials to the Arizona, the Oklahoma and the Utah.

Where does this attitude come from? Over at Victory Girls, Kim Hirsch writes, “Money and fame have replaced honor and memory of the history which changed the world.” I’d put it a little differently: as our culture increasingly sends the message that history is just another tool of politics, the public is either ignorant of the facts of the past, unable to understand why those facts are still important, or believe that history is irrelevant to their lives.

23 thoughts on “When Ethics Alarms Don’t Ring: Fun At Auschwitz!

  1. And that Social Media culture has turned the lot of us into preening Narcissists desperate for the validation that Likes give us.

    • And that Social Media culture has turned the lot of us into preening Narcissists desperate for the validation that Likes give us.

      Like Chris Rock says, as only Chris Rock can:

      We Used To Just Want Love, But Now We Just WANT LIKES

  2. In college, I worked with people from many different countries. Many were surprised by how nice Americans were because their previous interactions were only with American tourists. I would point out that most Americans have never left the US (64%. 80% of you don’t count Canada and Mexico). I would tell them that generally, only the wealthy can afford to travel be tourists abroad and I apologize for their undoubtedly appalling behavior. Usually, they would think about it for a few seconds and then apologize for their tourists as well.

    In addition, almost all the foreigners were shocked by how poor most Americans really are. Their vision of Americans is almost exclusively shaped by American TV and movies.

    • I found myself having to sort of apologize for all Americans in London after I redirected some loud-mouthed Southern tourists and they commented that I, an accentless New Jerseyan, was the first person they could understand since landing, and a nearby UK couple asked me if all Americans were that cluelessly rude. I said no, just the obvious tourists (in nondescript black with what might be a camera bag I look a lot less tourist-like). I WAS slightly annoyed at a UK waitress who said that we Americans eat burgers all the time, but just said “right then, moving right along…” before ordering pork pie, since part of the reason for coming to the UK was to eat local cuisine. However, I did ok sharing a meal at an airshow with an Aussie couple and a Swiss fellow…then again, that was an event where most attendees had a common interest, so we mostly talked about that.

  3. I certainly agree with the general point, but I attribute the problem more to narcissism than to historical ignorance. Can you really go to Auschwitz without knowing why it’s significant? (Don’t tell me; I don’t want to know.)

    For some, visiting somewhere like Auschwitz takes on some of the feeling of a religious pilgrimage; for others, it’s just another famous place to put a checkmark next to and to tell your friends about. The result, whether we like it or not, is that it’s something of a tourist attraction. I can’t get too upset at the ice cream vendor. The preening tourist is another matter.

    But where to draw the line is a difficult question. Certainly Auschwitz is at one end of that continuum. But where do the Tower of London or Dublin’s Kilmainham Gaol fall? Is it okay to have a glass of wine in the onsite restaurant of a space where political prisoners, some of whom were almost certainly innocent, were executed? Or at literally any cemetery, especially those for war dead? What if it isn’t the site that’s special, but the statue (e.g., the statue in Paris commemorating the gallantry of the Resistance fighters?

    When I was taking students to Ireland, some of them were intent on climbing over gravestones at a holy site on Inis Mór to get a better backdrop for their selfies. This isn’t the same as chuckling it up at the site of a concentration camp, but it was certainly disrespectful and more than a little creepy.

    I don’t have any answers to these questions, only to urge people to have a little respect.

    And to get off my lawn, you damn kids.

    • I get that not everyone feels the same way about various sites. However, it should be a no-brainer that you need to respect any site that deals with death or the dead, especially massacres or battles. It should also be a no-brainer that you have to respect any site that deals with faith, even if you follow a different religion or no religion at all, even if you loathe the faith whose site it is. Somewhere we acquired the idea that it’s all right, even desirable, to insist on displaying your disagreement with everything you disagree with. Somewhere we also acquired the idea that it’s all right, even desirable, to behave like 14-year-olds and be as obnoxious as possible while taking nothing seriously and holding nothing worthy of respect.

  4. I’ve never understood visiting former German industrial murder sites. I think they should be scraped off the face of the earth and the grounds should be salted. How do people do it without collapsing in grief and horror?

    • In the closing narration of the classic Twilight Zone episode “Death’s-Head Revisited”, Rod Serling read, “There is an answer to the doctor’s question. All the Dachaus must remain standing. The Dachaus, the Belsens, the Buchenwalds, the Auschwitzes – all of them. They must remain standing because they are a monument to a moment in time when some men decided to turn the Earth into a graveyard. Into it they shoveled all of their reason, their logic, their knowledge, but worst of all, their conscience. And the moment we forget this, the moment we cease to be haunted by its remembrance, then we become the gravediggers. Something to dwell on and remember, not only in the Twilight Zone but wherever men walk God’s Earth.”

    • I went to Dachau and I can say that while I had understood the horrors of the holocaust, nothing brought it home like standing there, in Dachau, having them explained to me. Standing in the places that people lived and died was…cause for wonder, amazement, and horror. Collapsing in horror and grief is actually part of the plan.

      It was heart wrenching to be allowed to find a spot to listen and told that here was the fate of the people in those spots. Walking the path that some folks walked when they were brought in, to see that it led directly to an unassuming gray building that felt wrong BEFORE they explained that it was the crematorium was shocking. It shocked me out of so many of my preconceived notions about the war. Knowing, as I did, that so many people underwent so many horrors, I still was unabashedly crying to learn that I didn’t know anything like enough about this.

      I truly do believe that these should stand as memorials to what went on. A picture may be worth a thousand words. This place is worth a million or even a hundred million.

      • I agree. It’s one thing to read words on a page that you forget about as soon as you close the book or look at some black and white, grainy photograph that is only a partial record of the past. It’s quite another to look down from Little Round Top and realize just how difficult of a situation Joshua Chamberlain and n the 20th Maine faced and how last ditch what they did was. It’s quite another to stand on the battlefield at Princeton knowing that Continental and British soldier alike lie beneath the monument in front of you and feeling the link to that moment when Washington leaps on his white horse over the fallen Hugh Mercer to rally the Continentals to a badly needed victory.

        It’s not for individuals to decide when a monument or a piece of history has expired and it’s time to destroy the physical link to that history. That applies more and more the more important the history is. In another decade or two the last Holocaust survivors will be gone. Before this decade is out the last few World War II veterans will leave us. In 2 years it will be 25 years since 9/11 and even the youngest firemen from that day will be long retired. That does not justify making all the physical history of those times disappear, particularly not if it’s to make way for a new strip mall or something like that.

  5. The real lesson if the death camps is not that Men are Evil. It is that civilization is a choice made by each one of us, over and over again.

  6. Speaking of the ubiquitous, rampant narcissism that cell phone cameras have produced I would like to survey this community. How many of you all have taken a “selfie?” I have not!

      • Whoa, I feel a need to defend myself here.

        Surely we can’t be universally repulsed by the mere act of taking a photograph that includes the photographer in it? Are we opposed to the use of technological innovations that, had they been existent in my childhood, would have allowed my father to be consistently IN photographs of his family, instead of rotating photographers or wrangling tripods or asking passersby for assistance?

        If I want to remember myself at a place and time (narcissistic of me I know, wanting to create a memento), is it morally or otherwise preferred to ask someone else to take a photo instead of taking one myself?

        • I should reveal here that I have always hated being photographed, don’t own a camera, and don’t keep photos as keepsakes or souvenirs. I believe this virtual phobia arises from my father’s obsession with taking shots of everything, despite having no talent for photography whatsoever. But the trauma did keep me from the selfie addiction, and for that I am grateful.

  7. Where does this attitude come from?
    Somewhere along the line, we stopped teaching the principles of honor, integrity, and hard work. Legions of progressive educators have spent countless hours explaining away bad behavior. Telling disruptive individuals their bad behavior was not their fault. That they were victims of circumstance. The emphasis was placed on building our children’s self-esteem and not correcting bad behavior. It should not come as a surprise that a significant portion of society today is made up of self-absorbed narcissists. While social media has helped to debase social behavior, social media is what we make it. Social Media, a hammer a knife, and a gun are just tools. It is how we use tools that determine if the result is positive or negative.

    Regarding teaching history that in itself is an interesting topic. I think it is true that history is written by the victors. This is why the German Blitz of England is so derided in history teachings whereas the Allied bombing and utter devastation of Berlin and other German cities doesn’t get as much coverage. Likewise, in the past, the lives of the founding fathers of the United States historically have emphasized their positive contributions to our country while simultaneously ignoring their human failings or the customs of the times. Progressives wishing to tear down our society focus only on the warts of historical figures. They use that aspect of history to cancel and negate anyone’s positive contributions to the country. As always finding balance can be difficult additionally a balanced approach to anything can make it problematic to advance an agenda. It is easier to promote hate than cooperation and compromise.

    Why do progressives want to rewrite history? I hypothesize that progressives favor totalitarianism which is diametrically opposed to the founding principles of the United States. The principles of personal liberty, individual property rights, and capitalism transformed a fledgling nation from essentially nothing but an idea into the wealthiest and most powerful nation on earth. The envy of the world. The aspirational destination of so many. This transformation occurred in just a little more than one and a half centuries.

    I further believe that for the progressives to complete Obama’s goal to “fundamentally transform America” two more things are needed. First, expand and flood the social welfare system with more recipients than it can support thereby collapsing the economy under mountains of debt. Erase how the United States created the miracle it became by the mid-20th century.

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