The infamous Nazi death camps of Auschwitz are preserved as a devastating reminder of the atrocities committed during World War II, but it seems the important message they represent is being defiled by vandals and thieves visiting the museum and grounds in Warsaw, Poland. According to reports many tourists are scratching messages onto the walls or bed bunks which were used by prisoners, as well as actually taking various objects in a heart-less and abhorrent desire for “souvenirs.” The messages are often shockingly disrespectful as well with some reading “I had a smoke here” or just names etched onto the furniture and walls. Items which visitors have been stealing from the site include bits of barbed wire and spikes from the railway line used to transport the prisoners to the camp.
While many of the offenders were young people or students visiting the camp, the director of the Auschwitz museum stated that the thieves and vandals even included teachers and educators, as well as adult tourists, who had obviously seemed to think that defiling the former death camps was not a cause for concern. A prominent Polish historian who also sits on the Institute of National Remembrance in Poland has reacted with horror and outrage at the spate of crimes. Antoni Dudek points out that these acts are more than mere vandalism, as that is something people do to bus stops or other unimportant structures, instead, he feels these crimes are “barbarism.”
The size and scale of the Auschwitz environment means that it can be difficult to police crimes being committed and despite the best efforts of staff and security, people are continuing to get away with these petty and disrespectful acts. Auschwitz (which is comprised of two parts, including Birkenau) is the largest former Nazi death camp, although it is one of many, and covers more than 200 hectares of land as well as encompassing 150 buildings. Suggestions concerning the implementation of surveillance cameras or CCTV systems were met with mixed feelings from both the Polish Culture Ministry and the Museum administrators, both of whom claimed that it would be highly inappropriate given the nature of the site and everything it stands for. In particular they believe it would compromise the “authenticity” of the place. Many people feel the best way to discourage this sort of behavior is through more effective education. However, there are some who are calling for harsher penalties for anyone found guilty of these acts of stealing or vandalism. Perhaps the most convincing statement on this debate comes from a former inmate of the camp who states categorically that if people were fully aware of the true nature and reality of the site, they would not be so keen to leave their mark on such a terrifying heirloom of the Holocaust.
In a recent survey published by the Anti-Defamation League, it was revealed that almost half of the world has very dubious information and opinions regarding the existence and nature of the Holocaust. The fact that 46 per cent of people polled thought that the Holocaust either did not take place at all or the events which occurred have been exaggerated, only serves to highlight the need to preserve the terrifying legacy of Auschwitz. For such blatant antisemitism to be so worryingly wide-spread, and this combined with the rise in petty crime which the Museum in Poland has witnessed, is cause for serious concern. It is imperative that the mistakes and atrocities of history are taught on a global scale in order to impress on future generations the desperate need to avoid tramping down the same paths of violence and discrimination. These crimes might seem petty and insignificant to many, but allowing the memory of more than six million innocent people to be casually defiled and disrespected by vandals and thieves who should often know better, seriously undermines the message and legacy which is symbolized by the museum of Auschwitz and its former death camps.
Commentary by Rhona Scullion