As a Jewish person with predominately Polish ancestry, I found Michael’s short film—“Through My Own Eyes”—an especially pressing examination of the ethical considerations at stake in touring the sites of the Holocaust. This video montage combines historical and personal photographs with testimony and personal anecdotes to argue that locations of mass trauma such as Auschwitz-Birkenau have an important historical and cultural heritage that cannot be fully understood outside of personal experience. These sites serve as physical reminders that as Jews we must not only remember the historical events of the Holocaust, but translate our cultural memory into a personal responsibility to resist violence and oppression around the world. This is true even when that violence manifests in the form of anti-semitism in the very nations that house these potent reminders.
Conceptually, the experience of visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau is not unlike visiting the Hall of Names at Yad Vashem, Jerusalem’s Holocaust Museum. In that massive circular room, floor to ceiling bookshelves house the names and biographical information of every victim of the Holocaust. These “Pages of Testimony,” consisting of some 2.6 million pages written in over twenty languages and bound into countless volumes, are powerful visual reminders of the sheer scope and gravity of the Holocaust. Like the act of visiting Auschwitz, the experience of the Hall of Names is meant to translate historical fact into a ubiquitous ethical call to the Jewish people.
Yad Vashem is visited by every participant of Taglit-Birthright Israel, a non-profit organization dedicated to giving young Jews around the world the opportunity to visit Israel in a fully-funded ten day guided tour. I attended a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip in December 2013/January 2014, and like Michael I was excited to undertake an educational exploration of my cultural and religious heritage. What I found, however, is that while many young people are conscientious tourists toward sites of their own heritage, they too often disregard the experiences of others. On my trip, I witnessed people greedily and excitably photographing a poor Arab village from the bus window, a verbal assault on a Palestinian speaker that attempted to refute his lived experiences with subtly veiled racism and overt antagonism, and a general disregard for non-Jews that elided Palestinian voices and viewpoints whenever possible.
While Michael is correct in observing the power of tourism to translate historical records into personal experiences that can shape our lives (and especially our conduct), we cannot forget that the real lesson that sites such as Auschwitz-Birkenau teach us is that we must always be conscientious of other people—their suffering, their voices, and their experiences. Seeing these locations “through my own eyes” does not mean creating further divisions between my own Jewish eyes and the rest of the world, but seeing the rest of the world alongside me—as my own kind.