Having now visited six concentration camps throughout Europe, including camps in Poland, Germany, and Austria, I have developed a sense of unspoken etiquette and would like to share some of the unwritten rules that have served us well.
Many people may visit just one concentration camp in their life, so if that’s you, here’s how to get the most out of your tour while demonstrating the utmost respect. It’s a privilege to be granted access to these sites so that we can reflect, contemplate, and remember what happened there.
The bottom line is that nothing you do should impact any other visitors’ rights to experience the site with their own thoughts and emotions, and as little distraction and interruption as possible.
Here are my top tips to help make your visit more memorable.
1. Take The Right Photos
When traveling, especially around Europe, it’s only natural to want to take photos. That way you can remember what you visited and can share the images with your family and friends back home. However, the types of photos that are appropriate to take inside a concentration camp are worth noting.
This is not a place for smiling selfies, or any other kind of selfie for that matter. Nor is this the place for happy family photography. Save these for other European treasures like the Eiffel Tower in Paris, or the Trevi Fountain in Rome.
In Poland’s Auschwitz concentration, you will be asked to refrain from taking photos of the human hair that is piled up high, as this is deeply personal and understandably off limits.
When taking photos, be patient to allow others to finish reading and then move away. I have witnessed people rushing around taking photos and getting in the way of others.
2. Quietly Does It
These areas are akin to visiting a church, so there’s an unspoken code of silence, or at least low noise, at most of the concentration camps.
Whispers are more appropriate than voicing your opinions loudly for others to hear. Likewise, refrain from calling out to your friends or family from across a crowded room or open yard.
If listening to an audio guide, use the headphones provided, rather than playing it on high volume for everyone else to hear.
When accompanied by children, ensure they know to keep quiet and understand this isn’t a place to run around, play, or climb. Typically, children under the age of 12 are discouraged from visiting concentration camps as some of the sights could disturb them.
3. Pets Not Permitted
Unless you have a guide dog, these sites are not pet-friendly, so make alternative arrangements for your beloved four-legged family members. Guide dogs and assistance dogs are nearly always welcome as long as you can demonstrate the need for them.
4. Dress Appropriately
Typically, when visiting churches or other sacred sites throughout Europe, women are expected to cover their bare shoulders and legs. Concentration camps are no different. I carry a pashmina in my backpack just in case I feel it is appropriate to cover up more.
Give consideration to what is written on your t-shirts. Is it appropriate and could it offend or distract other visitors? Any clothing with potentially offensive symbols or messages should not be worn, or should at least be covered up.
5. Eat Beforehand
These places are typically not set up with park-like grounds where picnicking is encouraged. So have a snack or meal before your visit. Alcoholic beverages are prohibited for obvious reasons.
6. Leave Your Luggage Behind
Particularly in the busy summer months, your luggage is likely to cause an issue and you will do well to leave it behind. The unsealed nature of the grounds does not make it easy to roll luggage and the noise can break the silence and annoy others.
Some sites do offer luggage storage at a small fee. At Auschwitz in Poland, anything larger than the smallest of backpacks was forbidden and had to be stored in the lockers. Sites like Dachau in Germany do not offer any luggage storage at all.
7. Looking Is Encouraged; Touching Isn’t
Think of these sites as museums for our generation and for those generations yet to come. Many of the items are displayed behind glass cabinets to preserve them, but for those that aren’t, it’s important that they are not touched. These items are of irreplaceable value.
8. Keep Inside Appropriate Boundaries
Some of these sites have regular reconstruction underway as well as other areas that are unsafe or not yet ready for public viewing. It’s best to refrain from venturing out of bounds so that you stay safe and the workers can carry out their duties without disturbance.
When visiting Gross-Rosen in Poland recently, there were a number of areas cordoned off due to reconstruction. This didn’t detract from our experience or hinder us from learning about the concentration camp’s overall history.
9. Plan Ahead For Wheelchair Access
If you require wheelchair access, do your research ahead of time to investigate whether the site is wheelchair accessible.
A visit to the Church of Reconciliation at Dachau, for example, requires scaling a series of stairs.
10. Respect Others
You will find people of many different European cultures and countries are also visiting these places. Please be conscious that their culture or belief system could vary from yours.
When visiting Treblinka in Poland recently, we shared the site with seven busloads of Jewish teenagers from Israel who obviously had a very emotional historical connection with this site where over 700,000 Jews were murdered. They carried out rituals which were meaningful to them and we observed these without getting in the way.
It is important to allow everyone the freedom to express their grief or other emotions in whatever way is appropriate to them, and without fear of judgement or interference from other visitors.
11. Rest In Peace
Allow those who perished in these places to rest in peace. Don’t stand on graves, and behave as though your best friend was buried there. Be respectful, mourn if appropriate, and leave only your footprints. When writing or talking about your experience, please do so in a way that is appropriate to what the victims and their families went through.
12. Understand Cultural Differences
Before taking photos recently at Dachau, we removed some autumn leaves that were partially obscuring a place where ashes from the crematorium had been buried. I almost removed a stone, thinking I was doing the right thing. However, I recalled -- just in time -- something we had been told in Poland. Jewish visitors throughout Europe often place stones on headstones as a symbol of respect. This stone, left in place, will be a reminder in our photo about this important cultural practice.
If you intend to visit a European concentration camp -- and I recommend everyone should at least once in their lifetime -- I hope these tips make your visit more fulfilling.
One last but very important tip: Publicly saying that the Holocaust never happened or was far less horrific than all of the facts portray could land you in hot water, facing hefty fines or jail time in many countries! This is a serious offense, so don’t even do it in jest.
In addition to Europe’s concentration camps, consider these 10 World War II sites to visit in Poland.