Auschwitz and Birkenau Travel Guide

We Should Not Have to Tell You This: Tourists to Auschwitz MUST Be Respectful

PHOTO: CL-Medien / Shutterstock.com

Your intention doesn’t have to be malicious, but it can still be disrespectful.

A Texas man (who has not been identified) was charged with trying to steal a metal part of the rail tracks at Auschwitz on Saturday. Malgorzata Jurecka, a police spokeswoman, told ABC News that though the crime can carry a prison sentence of up to 10 years, because the 37-year-old American admitted his guilt he will probably receive the much lighter sentence of two years probation.

The man was part of a guided tour group that was visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau when another visitor observed him attempt to steal the railroad piece. The visitor alerted museum security who in turn alerted the police.

“There are better places to learn how to walk on a balance beam than the site which symbolizes deportation of hundreds of thousands to their deaths.” —Auschwitz Memorial and Museum

A spokesperson for the U.S. State Department told ABC News that it’s aware of the incident.

Auschwitz-Birkenau was a concentration and extermination camp operated by Nazi Germany during World War II and the Holocaust. Over a million people (primarily Jews, Romani, and Soviet prisoners of war) were killed at the site between 1940 and 1945. The Polish government declared it a memorial site in 1947 and the rail tracks–where people were unloaded–are part of the memorial and museum.

This is, unfortunately, far from the first time a tourist has tried to steal items from Auschwitz. And this particular occurrence happened just a week after the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum issued a tweet asking that people not treat the railway like a balance beam.


But there’s another, more common ways that visitors behave disrespectfully at Auschwitz. Over the last few years, tourists taking inappropriate selfies have drawn a lot of (much necessary) ire.

It’s difficult understand the reasons people may have for behaving poorly. No 37-year-old man is ignorant of the Holocaust, and no tourist that’s come all the way to the site of Auschwitz itself could reasonably claim ignorance. At this point, selfishness, garden variety bad manners, and Anti-Semitism are all on the table.

By putting yourself at the forefront, you diminish the unimaginable cruelty done to the people the very site memorializes. And that is disrespectful.

One teenage girl who was at the center of a controversy for taking a particularly inappropriate selfie in 2014, explained her own reasoning. She said that she took the photo to commemorate her father with whom she’d studied history, and the Holocaust had been the last subject they’d studied before he died.

This shouldn’t need to be said, but memorials aren’t about anyone other than the people they’re meant to honor. They have been established as a sobering, somber reminder and preservation of history.

What makes selfies and photographs shockingly inappropriate at a place like Auschwitz is the fact that they are inherently not about the people being memorialized. And not in the cliché sense of, “Oh, people on Instagram are just so self-obsessed!” Taking a photo of yourself isn’t always a wholly narcissistic impulse, it is often one of self-expression. But what you’re expressing when you take a photo where you are the primary subject at a place like Auschwitz is that your presence—your story—is the dominant one. By putting yourself at the forefront, you diminish the unimaginable cruelty done to the people the very site memorializes. And that is disrespectful.

So how can you convey respect for people lost at Auschwitz through photography? Take a cue from the Auschwitz Memorial and Museum’s own Instagram presence, which features pictures taken by visitors. Most of them are of different parts of the site itself. Very few feature tourists and the ones that do are positioned so that visitors are minimized.

Their faces are obscured, they’re shown in shadow, or they’re very directly shown considering the lives of the people lost. The subject in these photographs are clear—and it’s not the tourists.