Every year since 2007, more than a million tourists have visited the concentration camps of Auschwitz–Birkenau to pay respect to the innocent men, women and children who were murdered there. Because they come and go on the same day, most travelers are oblivious that Auschwitz is located in the old Polish town of Oświęcim. Those who notice the nearby shopping mall, high-school sweethearts holding hands, and nicely dressed families headed to church are faced with the impossible question: how can life exist in the aftermath of such overwhelming evil? Many people are unaware of the complex history, and conflate the camp and town as a death zone that should be left uninhabited. On the other hand, many residents say Oświęcim is a perfectly normal town, claiming a clear delineation between past and present.
In Oświęcim, like in centers of tragedy around the world, symbolism is projected onto spaces and inanimate objects. Residents continually negotiate between this space and their memories under the shadow of trauma. Beyond the town, the words ‘Auschwitz’ and ‘Nazi’ are so often used in the wrong context that they lose power to evoke the horror of genocide. Over time, society becomes distanced from the original pain of tragedy, leaving only the shell of symbols in its wake, both in words and images. Simplified applications of these ideas are common trump cards in discussion of discrimination, or conversely, used as false labels for minor offenses in daily life. In the absence of substantive meaning for the symbols, it often becomes difficult for rational discussion to emerge over hallowed ground.
As a grandson of a Holocaust survivor, my decision to explore Oświęcim was personally motivated. To me, Poland primarily represented the epicenter of the Holocaust. It was once the hub of Jewish life and learning in Europe, but its population was reduced to ashes during WWII. I wanted to confront these notions on my own terms and reconsider the aftermath of the Holocaust in its present-day context.