Thursday 24 July 2014

On visiting Auschwitz.

I've never visited a death camp. Not my kind of thing at all. I don't need to see such places, because they're in my mind, much of the time - a low dull throb, like toothache, making me feel unwell, unhappy.

Is that a reasonable reaction? I've been struck this week by the widespread public 'outrage'  (as the press calls it) prompted by the behaviour of a young woman named Breanna Mitchell who, while visiting Auschwitz recently, took a 'selfie' (a self-portrait obtained with one's own smartphone) and posted it online. You can see the image here along with the story as reported by The New York Post (which by the look of it is the American equivalent of Britain's Daily Mail).

According to The New York Post "one month later, the picture, complete with smiley face emoticon in the caption, went viral and sparked outrage among Twitter users". Breanna Mitchell has since been subject to considerable online vilification and has apparently responded: "“Omg I wish people would quit tweeting to, quoting, retweeting, and favoriting my picture of my smiling in Auschwitz Concentration Camp”

The issue seems to be not so much the taking of a selfie (although that strikes me as an odd thing to do anywhere, at any time, let alone at such a grisly location), but that she is smiling and is therefore happy, or rather insufficiently unhappy, insufficiently distressed, given her location. I suppose another issue (not under consideration here) is the breathtaking stupidity of pointing the camera at oneself and not at the place one is visiting - but in our vacuous celebrity culture what could be more normal? It's the kind of behaviour endorsed by the values to which Breanna's generation have been exposed all their short lives.

Breanna Mitchell is no more crass and insensitive and shallow than most of us, so let's call her typical, and let's sympathise. Her rather fixed grin (she resembles a costive Bonnie Langford) suggests to me that she may be straining to overcome some inner malaise, some uneasily-suppressed grief. It's not an easy, natural smile. Look at her forehead.

Her hoop earrings and coral-pink top are every bit as inappropriate for an Auschwitz visit, but haven't attracted censure. This begs the question: how should one dress when visiting a death camp? What's appropriate? Is it even thinkable in such a context to make any kind of effort to 'dress up'? To give the impression that one has chosen one particular GAP top over any other? Shouldn't anyone visiting such places dress sombrely or be refused admission? Shouldn't they be offered suitably funereal habiliments as they arrive?

Of course not. One reason I've never visited Auschwitz and never will is because I simply cannot picture myself in such a place surrounded by the living in all their rowdy variants. And how does one organise the day and marshall one's responses? Should the Auschwitz site be entered only in the grip of a sickening hangover? Would that be appropriate? If not, why not? Why shouldn't one arrive sick, and then be further sickened? There's no feel-good redemption on offer here, only the site of the end of humane values, the place where all hope and decency perished; a place where, famously, there was no 'why'.

Auschwitz as a memorial undeniably has (and I mean no disrespect) a theme park aspect. Outside there are parking zones and fast food outlets for those with an appetite; inside there are other catering facilities, a shop, guides to mediate the place in many languages - the whole thing amounts to an 'experience' (albeit a singularly ghastly one) and has been carefully commodified (and tastefully of course) to reflect the needs and expectations of people who are, for the most part, tourists on an excursion.

A friend of mine (Jewish, as it happens) once visited Dachau and was initially shocked (as she put it) when she realised that it was all in colour - blue skies, warm yellow sunshine, green grass and foliage. She'd grown used to the spectral black and white documentary footage of the camp (and surely Steven Spielberg's decision to film Schindler's List in monochrome recognises this cultural predisposition, and associates it with the nobility and high seriousness that early, and especially silent cinema, continues still to generate). But what shocked her as much, if not more, was the sight and sound of families and groups in bright summer clothing, determined, as it were, to 'have a day out' and in particular the unnerving sight of one dad in shorts with a bulky video camera barking instructions at his family to pose (unmoving, which rather undermined the value of a video recording) outside blocks like those seen in the Breanna selfie. 

Outfit aside, how does one start the day before visiting a death camp? A hearty cooked breakfast? Nothing at all? Something in between because you'll be on your feet for hours? To say nothing of the mental and emotional preparations (if any). How does one prepare to be harrowed?

Come to that - how do the locals employed on site in (say) the cafe, behave? I mean, they can't be expected to remain in a constant state of emotional anguish, can they? Is there no banter in the kitchens? If so what kind of banter? And if the staff in the catering department of Auschwitz are allowed to crack  the odd smile, the odd joke, why shouldn't a shallow American teen down there for a visit and without knowledge of European history but full of self-assurance, take a selfie? You commodify history, and especially infamy, at your peril. You create a celebrity culture and have to live with the consequences - selfishness, ignorance, dumb self-regard.

Her behaviour was tacky and inappropriate, but go to any public place and you'll see (and overhear) no end of equally crass tackiness by the clueless (and not-so-clueless). I recall the story of the magician David Copperfield and his girlfriend Claudia Schiffer being given (such was their fame back then) a private tour of the Louvre in Paris. Looking at one Old Master and informed by the curator of its date and provenance he said: "Talk about your old".

When  it comes to getting a purchase on the Holocaust I'll stick to reading Primo Levi in my shabby dressing gown and with a stiff drink to hand, reflecting only that if there were any sense or taste left in public life then all cameras (and smartphones and suchlike) would be banned from museums, galleries, concert halls, places of worship and scenes of genocide. This would eliminate a compensating tendency to crassness that afflicts us all.

I'd also (if you'll allow me to bang on) suggest that everyone should see, at least once, a film made in 2001 called CONSPIRACY written by Loring Mandel and directed by Frank Pierson. It's a dramatised account of the Wannsee Conference, the meeting at which the fate of Jews in regions of German influence was sealed. An extraordinary, vital film. The script is a harrowing marvel.

As for the cause of all this?  “I’m famous yall,” she tweeted last Sunday, according to The New York Post. Takes all sorts.

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