Why Haven’t You Visited Auschwitz?

Auschwitz was liberated 70 years ago today.

Any human with the means should visit Auschwitz in their lifetime. Honoring the dead and contemplating the evil enacted on those grounds is a life-defining experience. With barbarism so close to the surface in humanity, we have a duty to face it with vigilance. In the 70 years since the killing stopped on this spot, our human record elsehwere has much to be ashamed.

It is emotionally traumatic to visit Auschwitz. When I visited in late 2013 I was dutifully following my car GPS. When I rounded the corner and saw the barbed wire fences of Birkenau stretching to the horizon, I nearly drove off the road.

Birkenau

I spent the next hours in quiet contemplation. First among the brick buildings and fall leaves of Auschwitz, an idyllic setting that should have been for a posh boarding school. Then to the stark, sprawling grounds of Birkenau, designed to industrialize murder. I took one picture at each of out of the way corners and felt any more than that was not tasteful.

Every visitor is jarred from equilibrium. You have the very elderly who lived that era, faces creased in memory with bodies no longer steady. There are young students from Israel with their nation’s flag donned as capes, weeping at the name rolls. There are people who, inexplicably, yet perhaps because the horror is incomprehensible, take smiling pictures of themselves in front of the sinister lie of the gate ‘Arbeit macht frei’ (‘Work sets you free’).

Auschwitz has the exhibits among its brick buildings so is the best starting place. Building to building proceeds through history, followed by country of origin-specific exhibits. Throughout the day there are free tours in several languages.

Auschwitz

Over to sprawling Birkenau, scale speaks. Wood huts remain on part of the grounds. The barbed wire fence marks the scope.

Logistically, Auschwitz is a simple day trip from Poland’s Krakow, one of the best, and increasingly popular, old towns in Europe. There are many companies to provide transport or tours for those without a car.

Ben at One Mile a Time kicked off a debate in The Hypocrisy Of The “I’m Cultured And You’re Not” Crowd. His argument to not judge others is grounded in the awareness of different cultures and lifestyles that comes from travel. Ben takes frequent heat for focusing in his blog and business on luxury flights and hotels. Readers assume the blog speaks for the whole person, which I know in Ben’s case to be far from the full picture of his pursuits.

Yet I get deeply frustrated by the messages put out in the travel miles and points community on so-called aspirational travel that is purely masturbatory indulgence. To have such great means at one’s disposal and consistently do nothing with it beyond the most excessive self-pleasure is a waste. Most anyone actively in this hobby can be at Auschwitz by this weekend and not even miss the points. Instead, so many embrace Vendoming, to the exclusion of personal growth or societal gain.

My own travels fall short of what I believe I should do. I go to places seldom visited by tourists and make efforts to have positive exchanges with people. To inform my life, I seek to learn and experience as much as I can in the little time I have available. But, I don’t volunteer or do direct social works, and there is a large environmental cost to my travel.

I have meant to get involved in programs like Pack With a Purpose, though have not gotten around to it. When arriving in Uganda last month, the plane was filled with NGO workers with huge suitcases of supplies. I had my little backpack, not using my elite status extra luggage allowance to bring items that could have been put to good use. Mile Donor allows us to use our miles and points to book travel needed by those who do not share our bounty. I have never contributed a trip beyond immediate friends and family.

So here’s my twin challenge to you (and me) in 2015:

  1. Next time you are Vendoming, add in a socially useful component.
  2. Auschwitz has waited 70 years for your visit, how many more will it be?

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  • Gene

    true

  • Tyler

    Great article. The main reason why you are the most legitimate travel blogger- you actually get out and see things.

    I just went to auschwitz two weeks ago. My advice is to do the organized tour. Normally I don’t recommend that route, but we found the auschwitz tour to be excellent.

  • jack

    Unlike yourself, who “Vendomes” a living through blogging, myself and most of the people I know in this hobby do our profound duties everyday at home through our “real” jobs and families. As a matter of fact, I couldn’t take a trip anywhere if it were not for this hobby. So forgive me if the one vacation I can take a year is one of luxury that can help me and my family forget our daily struggles. So please get off your pretentious soapbox.

  • Trevor

    He may get out and see things, but he doesn’t read web sites like airmiles.ca before he trashes them. Perhaps he should open his eyes and pay attention to northern cousins before he badmouths them…

  • Does Dachau count?

    I visited there some years ago; and your article evoked some very somber memories.

    Perhaps I will post my photographs and thoughts in a future trip report…

  • Ford

    Glad that you decided to write about something deeper than just luxury travel, all these blogs do get repetitive. That being said, your prose is that of a 15-year-old in its awful, awkward, jarring, forced style as you desperately try to sound “intelligent”.

  • Rapid Travel Chai

    @jack – perhaps you have me confused with someone else. I have a regular day job like you, duties like you, and used my vacation time in 2013 to visit Auschwitz. This blog is my hobby. Did you see a credit card link in this post, because some would have put the in even on this subject. If you go, and Krakow would make a great and educational family vacation, I stayed at Eva Hotel for $38.30 and recommend it.

    @Trevor – not sure why what was intended as a fun, humorous piece about a credit card offer has gotten you in such a fit. Other than those based in Canada, of the BoardingArea bloggers I probably visit Canada more, and write about Canada more, than any, and other than Toronto traffic and smash and grabs, my coverage has been almost unequivocally positive (archive here), in good measure because of the great natural beauty and general friendliness of your countrymen, but you have shown there are exceptions.

  • Rapid Travel Chai

    @Ford – plenty of room to improve then, other than that I don’t write about luxury travel, other than occasional notes from business travel. Hit with an alliterative slam, no less.

  • Rapid Travel Chai

    @Brian Cohen – Each I have visited is no less devastating. This past November I went to Terezin, outside Prague. Here the turn of evil was it was a deliberately more mild work camp, even with a Jewish prisoner committee and certain allowances such as Jewish rites at death, as part of an elaborate charade to dupe international observers on what was happening elsewhere. Sadly, it was broadly successful in that aim. The exhibits showed evidence that as late as 1944, international observers where still filing positive reports.

  • Andrew

    Stefan, years ago I visited Treblinka. Not sure how this place is like today, but
    back when I saw it, it was life-changing in a slightly different way.
    It wasn’t a museum, it was just as it was in 1944. You almost felt watched by the Nazis.
    An open field, snow, rail tracks used to transport people in, never out.
    Hard to even write about it…

    Feel so not appropriate to even mention this now, but the mentioned blogger
    is to blame for other vendoming followers. Defending him as he has a life
    outside LH first class is not fair. He is like reality tv – making people dumber.
    Of course not only him, but he’s pushed it to the extremes.

    I hope you keep visiting those obscure places, not that I will ever go to most of them,
    but I’ll thank you for one or two ideas – always better than Hyatt Paris.

  • Nice post. It reminds me that I need to get my Dachau trip report posted soon, just have a couple of others to get up first.

    I went there on a day trip during Oktoberfest, expecting it to be crowded, but it wasn’t at all. I get why some people might not want to go to a place they find depressing, but it’s worrisome that more people don’t visit, since it’s so close to Munich.

    For me, part of travel is experiencing local history, for better or for worse.

  • Moved

    @Brian Cohen – If you have seen Dachau, then the scale of Auschwitz-Birkenau is emotionally overwhelming – but that’s the point – never forget. Dachau was basically a smaller, prototype camp where the engineers learned what worked (and in other similar camps). They improved their processes and scaled everything up to design a horrific killing machine at Auschwitz-Birkenau – it is literally engineering gone mad. When you see the mounds of personal effects, especially those of the children, and look at the size of the camp – you can’t help but be moved as a human being. I have no personal connection to the holocaust but I can definitely say it was one of the most emotional experiences of my life.

  • JEM

    @RTC – thinking of adding this to a coming trip to Europe soon (tho’ not this weekend), and wondered whether you thought the season mattered much. Given that my only experience of Auschwitz and Birkenau to date has been via black and white film, I always imagined visiting in winter. A colorful fall day would, I think, make a surreal experience even more so.

    @jack – Hmm… The audacity and evident self-absorption required to deem it appropriate to give Stefan instruction on his blog’s content tends in my experience to belie the claim to profundity at home. Especially as you so thoroughly misapprehend the nature of his travel and financial support for the blog – have you read more than this one post? If Stefan’s assumptions about his audience don’t apply to you, why not chalk it up to different strokes and move on?

  • doniel

    Wow not one mention of the people killed in the camp! Jews btw of you cared! Shame on you

  • Dia

    And THIS is why you deserve every success you get. Thank you for stirring up an entirely needed conversation. I’ve never been to a Concentration Camp but have exposed the kids to poverty and am trying desperately to get them out of the bubble from time to time. That said, we are headed to Disney World today.

    And one way I have to give a shout out to Beaches/Sandals: for being such an enclave of luxury they’ve done an amazing job of corporate stewardship. The Sandals Foundation works entirely at the ground level with schools in the communities in which they have resorts. Guests can volunteer in schools and Pack with a Purpose is easily integrated into all they do. Just yesterday a $4,000 check was the CEO’s Birthday “Present” from Travel Agents and Social Media Influencers.

  • Andy

    I’m really puzzled by this post. You seem to be acting superior to those who haven’t been to a one of, if not THE most tragic place on the planet. It surely marks the lowest spot and point of humanity.

    Every day that I grow older and especially now I have a beautiful, innocent, infuriating, toddler that I love more than anything, I look deeper at life, good and evil with hard introspection. Apparently you are telling me I must immediately go to the place where our human race hit rock bottom with unbelievable hatred and evil beyond any comprehension.

    I’ve been to Kigali, Rwanda and the museum of genocide there, does that impress you? Why haven’t you been? I presume you haven’t or you’d be crowing about that. It was years ago and has stayed with me with unwavering strength.

    Miles, points and Etihad apartments have nothing to do with each individual’s choices of how they show respect to history and those lost to …well… There are no words.

    As you are demanding from your readers, maybe I could ask of you… Maybe stick to the subject of your blog?

    By the way, I probably could be there within a few months (not by the weekend as you presume) but I’m already jaded by this despicable world, and I know as a 45 year old man and airline pilot would be in fits of tears and despair. That’s my choice and reason not to rush there. Perhaps I will have the “balls” soon and maybe even should, but I don’t need you to tell me to do so.

  • Andrew C

    Haters on the internet will never ever fail to amaze me. But great piece, Stefan – it brings up tough memories of my own visit, and definitely gives me pause about some of my own habits.

  • Kate

    Great article, thank you! Perhaps you could consider doing some research for the many of us interested and spell out some not too complicated steps we could take, for. Ex. Pack with a purpose. Maybe blogging area.com as a whole could get involved. I backpacked around the world, the summer between graduating college and starting law school, on $10 a day decades ago. Seeing such widespread poverty changed my life. I do volunteer and contribute to international assistance organizations at home, but I could certainly load a cheap suitcase and leave it behind when I travel. Or maybe buy locally and take the items to a place once i hadarrived. One of my children was born into poverty in China, but she is flourishing with the advantages we are so lucky to be able to provide to her. Please email me if you want someone with whom to brainstorm about this.

  • Joe

    RTC – my general thoughts on the camps can be summed up like this: “there but for the grace of God go I.”

    Luckily, my great-grandparents emigrated from our little shtetl and were’t subject to the horrors that so many other Jews were.

    I don’t need to be reminded of what happened and I don’t want to be at a place where I and my entire family could have died if it wasn’t for luck.

  • Will

    Are you really suggesting that people have some kind of moral obligation to visit the death camps of Europe? What about those in Rwanda or Cambodia? Perhaps people should add a genocide component to all trips so they can later blog about the moral superiority derived from passively visiting them.

  • Howie

    Stefan –

    Very few places have been able to evoke such an emotional response out of both my wife and I like we did when visiting Auschwitz.

    After walking the grounds on our own we hit a point where we were simply exhausted; emotionally. Attempting to take in everything that happened at Auschwitz I when we arrived at Auschwitz II and only began to think through what arriving on those train tracks would have been like … it was as if we hit a wall.

    Disbelief and sadness sit right at the top of what we felt. Much like the sheer awe and impressiveness you might feel purely seeing the Great Wall it was an overwhelming experience.

    I remember driving up to the camps and thinking about the people that live in / around the area … I just couldn’t imagine living where such had happened.

    The museums are impressively done and tell a story that should never have had to have been told. I consider myself fortunate to have the means to be able to have made the visit; Poland is a beautiful country and regardless of your heritage a visit here is a look back on global history.

  • TJ

    I always wonder why it’s the holocaust that is always in the limelight, when this sort of thing has always happened through out history and is still happening now.

  • chuck

    In no way do I want to imply a minimization of the Holocaust but the Cambodia, Rwanda, DRC, Uganda, Native American, Armenian and many other genocides deserve our travel considerations as well. We owe it to ourselves and our children to learn and pass on the ugly truth of the capabilities that lie within the human mind. No one ethnic or political power has the corner on this ugliness.
    This summer our family will travel through South Dakota. It is my aim to to visit the Pine Ridge Reservation – the poorest county in the US. It will be a history lesson, it will be lesson on love and compassion and it will be a lesson on what can happen when intolerance and superiority get in the way of seeing people as we see our selves.

    One does not need to travel the globe to experience these things – though I seek to do them when it works in the itinerary.

  • Chametsky

    One miles at a times is too over the top for my taste. I am not quite sure why you want to say anything about it. And there is no need to patronize. Also, isn’t there a better word to use than *** masturbatory****????

  • Michael

    There are other, better ways to honor the victims of the holocaust. Try practicing more tolerance every day.

  • john

    YES on #21 and #22. Why is the holocaust more important?

  • Rapid Travel Chai

    @Andrew – I had wanted to visit Treblinka on the same trip, unfortunately it was closed due to a holiday. I hope to visit it sometime when I take my parents on a heritage tour of Poland.

    @Everybody Hates A Tourist – I looked forward at some point to travel Germany more expentively and visit both Munich and Dachau. I have only been to Frankfurt and Hamburg, both for business.

    @JEM – a cold winter day would allow for a more solitary experience of the site. In summer, Krakow is overflowing with tourists which is fun for some, not for others. I was there in a late October and the brisk weather and modest crowds worked for me.

    @doniel – I made every effort to be respectful and brutally honest on the place, sorry if I did not fittingly do that.

    @Dia – I had no idea about the good works of Sandals, I look to learning more from your experiences, especially if I ever become a father.

    @Andy – I went to Kigali last month and will post on that in the coming weeks. Horrific experience, understandably they do not let children under 12 visit the memorials. The intent of the post was to take a moment on a momentous anniversary, interrupt the nonstop deals and schemes feeds, and challenge readers (and myself) to think about why and how they travel and experience life. There are many paths and many ways to experience life and pursue self-improvement. We are so fortunate in this community to have these tools and resources at our disposal, I feel it is incumbent on us to think hard about how we use that bounty.

    @Andrew C – thank you for your continued readership.

    @Kate – I will take that on, as I challenged myself in the article, I should be doing more of this and have been remiss.

    @Joe – I respect that view, and this clearly is a subject that could not escape your thoughts.

    @Will – I believe people have a moral obligation to think about how they develop themselves and how they contribute to society. Visiting a genocide site can show respect to those killed, and create introspection and understanding. There are other ways to do it. Those do not include never leaving the hotel executive lounge. I criticized myself in the piece for falling short of what I believe I should do in my travel.

    @Howie – thank you for sharing your moving experience.

    @TJ – I wrote about Auschwitz-Birkenau because it was the 70th anniversary of liberation, mainstream news was filled with tributes, which in the travel/miles and points world, I was not seeing even a moment of reflection, by 10 pm I had to say my piece. I visited Rwanda last month and will write about that experience. Cambodia, Turkey, many others, unfortunately there are many worthy of this infamy and no intention to exclude others from the general point to draw from the one specific.

    @chuck – I grew up in Minnesota and have visited many of the places there and the Dakotas that you reference. I agree it is important for every American to learn and face one of the two original sins of America.

    @Chametsky – the debate in that post was interesting and showed how this community cleaves in their views on travel. As for word choice, the pornographic fetishization of luxury travel seems to deserve such language. I don’t feel I was patronizing, and was not my intent.

    @Michael – one does not need to be at the exclusion of the other, indeed one can inform the other.

    @john – I used a specific case are a very specific day to make a larger point that I believe you and I agree. There is much horror in the world, the 20th-century alone has so many examples. A life lost to genocide is a life lost and keeping count does not produce winners. I had no intent to argue that one is more important than the others. If I had listed 5, there would be a 6th that shouldn’t be excluded, or listed several Holocaust camps would have left out the ghettos and countless other places of murder. Auschwitz-Birkenau, because of the extreme scale and extreme infamy, I feel can in some sense speak for the broader evil of genocide across time and place.

  • Joey

    Why haven’t I visited Aushwitz? I visit the ground zero 9/11 site at least once a year since I live in New York City and was a college student downtown when it occurred back in 2001. I have many first-hand images of that horrible terrorist act and really do not feel a need to go out of my way this year to specifically visit Oswiecim even though I have the miles/points for it (though sadly I don’t have any more vacation days.)
    However, I will be in Krakow in summer 2016 and will do more research on the possibility of making a day trip to visit the former concentration camp. Thx for the recommendation.

  • Raghavendar

    Agree with you, Stefan…Auschwitz is a must-see if you are a travel enthusiast or a history buff or just someone who needs to slow down in life and see how much worse life has been at various points in time for some unfortunate people. I was there last summer and it was a truly moving experience. I tool my 11 year old son and was not sure how he would react to it. I think he learnt a lot on this trip and saw the horrors of war and mindless hatred.

    Sadly this mindless hatred is not a thing of the past as evidenced by the amount of vitriol seen in the comments section in this post. Just ignore them, Stefan. They don’t deserve a response.

  • Shannon

    Excellent post! So original and dare to be different.