My friend Tom had come to visit from Australia and we had decided to do some travelling around Eastern Europe. We nicknamed our trip ‘Tom & Lara’s Wonder Tour (Plus Auschwitz)’ and we organised to meet up at the airport in Krakow. Unfortunately, Tom’s flight got completely fucked around and he ended up getting in much later than we originally had planned, and I had already organised for our tour out to Auschwitz-Birkenau – with a pick-up time of 6:30 am. This is how, on very little sleep, we were trying to pick something appropriate for Tom to wear.
After rejecting a t-shirt with a flat-line ECG that said “Sorry, you almost bored me to death”, a Breaking Bad top – “Cooking with Chemistry”, and there was definitely one where two cacti were trying to shoot each other, we settled for a plain black tee that was more than slightly in need of a wash. This took up about 20 minutes of our precious morning, and also meant that we got on the bus without coffee.
We arrived at Auschwitz and even though it was August, it was bloody freezing. Fortunately, Tom had a jacket in his backpack. They called our group as it was our turn to enter. As we walked under the infamous gateway, I grabbed Tom, and hissed in his ear “Do you know what’s written on your back??”
Watching the realisation dawn on him, I couldn’t help but laugh. So, despite our best efforts not to offend or upset anyone, we walked into Auschwitz trying to stifle our over-tired giggles.
Tom quickly took his jacket off, but if there’s one place in the world you can’t complain about being cold…
Now, I’m sorry if this sounds glib or irreverent. We were both truly and deeply embarrassed about our snickering, and honestly, I don’t think anyone else even noticed. It’s certainly not the worst thing I’ve seen someone do at a place that should be respected. Here are some of the ways I’ve seen people act like a douche, and why you should try to avoid them.
Selfish Selfies – Holocaust Memorial, Berlin
You might have heard some of the discussion about this earlier in the year after Shahak Shapira’s project Yolocaust*, where he took selfies of people from the Holocaust Memorial and photoshopped scenes from concentration camps into the background. He didn’t ask permission from any of the people whose pictures had been used (taken from Facebook, Instagram, Tinder and Grindr) however there is an email address at the bottom of the page – firstname.lastname@example.org. The Tumblr page Selfies at Serious Places is also bandied around a lot in this discussion. Some of the retractions are worth a read.
I have very mixed feelings about this memorial. Degussa, the company that covers the 2,700 concrete pillars of the memorial in an anti-graffiti coating, once owned Degesch, who in turn produced the Zyklon-B used in Nazi concentration camps. Initially, when the news broke, Degussa was shafted and construction stopped until a more suitable product could be found… Except that sacking Degussa would have been too costly, so work was resumed. Now, while Peter Eisenmen, the architect, said that “One must always forgive. That is the essence of this monument,” I personally don’t feel that forgiveness extends all the way to allowing Degussa to profit from their participation in the memorial.
#Holocaust selfies are always going to happen when you turn sombre sites into tourist attractions. (#holocaust currently has in excess of 400,000 public posts on Instagram). Having said that, show a bit of respect, forgo the selfie and save the histrionics for a place that isn’t commemorating the murder of six million or so people.
* What, you’re annoyed I didn’t come up with the term Yolocaust? Nothing is original. Just ask James Joyce, who thought he’d written a decent book, but it was actually just The Odyssey.
Not Wearing a Shirt – Srebrenica, Bosnia & Herzegovina
The Srebrenica Genocide saw more than 8,000 Muslim Bosniaks (mostly men and boys) murdered by the Bosnian Serb Army of Republika Srpska from the 13 – 18 July 1995. It was the worst episode of mass murder in Europe since World War Two, and the United Nations (UN) have accepted a portion of the blame for their failure to protect the Bosniak people in Srebrenica, officially a UN ‘Safe Zone’ since 1993. In 2011, it was ruled that the Netherlands was responsible for the deaths of three Bosniak men who were forced out of the UN camp at Potočari and subsequently killed by Bosnian Serbs.
When I visited the Srebrenica-Potočari Memorial Centre, it was July and pushing 40°C. In my opinion, it’s never so hot that you have to take your shirt off. Apparently, the lads on tour who were there the same time as I was don’t share that opinion. Even with their Santa Cruz muscle shirts tucked into the back of their Dickies, they couldn’t help but look disgusted when one of the girls they were with exclaimed: “Okay so I know this is what started World War One, but what is this place?”
Pro-tip: If you know that someone died in the spot you’re standing, do your best to keep your nipples covered.
Taking Shit That Isn’t Yours (AKA Stealing) – Every Urban Exploration Site Ever
After I visited Ilyicha in Dnipro, I started wondering about why there was absolutely nothing Soviet left in the place. It had been picked clean. Then, after reading an article by Darmon Richter from the Bohemian Blog called “Here’s Why I Don’t Share Locations”, I really started drinking the don’t-take-shit-that-isn’t-yours Kool-Aid.
It seems bizarre to suggest treating an urbex site like a national park – but stick with me here. Take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints. If you do anything other than that, you’re devaluing the experience for the person that comes after you, and reducing the potential for that stuff to be put in a museum in the eventuality that the community does get its shit together. It might seem unlikely right now, but how does that make it any more rightfully yours?
There’s a myriad of other knock-on effects that I’m not going to lecture you with any more than I already have. But, do you really need that bullet from the sniper tower? Or the doll from Chernobyl? The newspaper from the Soviet bunker? Why? If you can answer that with anything less pathetic than “I thought it was cool…” or equivalent, then go ahead. But my money’s on that you probably can’t. Impress others with your stories and your personality rather than the shit you stole.
Wear a shirt around dead people and don’t steal stuff.