Budget Airline Markets Town of Auschwitz as 'Must-see' Tourist Destination

Oswiecim, city of the death camp, is being promoted as WIZZair hopes to show it has more to offer visitors than tour of death camps.

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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A plaque is placed by March of the Living participants on railway tracks at Auschwitz near Oswiecim, Poland, May 2, 2011.
A plaque is placed by March of the Living participants on railway tracks at Auschwitz near Oswiecim, Poland, May 2, 2011.Credit: AP
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

WIZZair, the cheapest airline on the market these days, has a list of recommendations entitled “Must See Place in Poland,” that includes a few spots in southern Poland. The name is no exaggeration – they are truly must-sees. One of them, the city of Oswiecim, is better known to Israelis by its German name from the World War II period – Auschwitz.

It is fairly easy to get to Auschwitz from the airport in Katowice, which is serviced by WIZZair directly from Tel Aviv. What does the city of Oswiecim have to offer during the summer? The airline’s in-flight magazine reads: “Welcome to the city of Oswiecim, where you can enjoy walking through the narrow alleyways of the ancient city, or climb up to the top of the hill and visit a majestic fortress from the middle ages.” The fortress’ museum features an interactive exhibition which takes viewers back through the city’s 800-year history. If that’s not enough, the “40 meter high tower offers an incredible panoramic view of the surrounding area.”

Vacation in Oswiecim

High up in the air, somewhere over Cyprus en route to Warsaw, I wondered to myself if I was the only person on the plane bothered by the sentence “panoramic view of the surrounding area.” I wondered if I should call the flight attendant over to make some clarifications. I even thought to press the call button. I wanted to find out if the panoramic view included the memorial site at the nearby death camp? Later, while we were crossing Turkey, after the turbulence calmed down a bit, I took another look through the magazine. Auschwitz, it turns out, has quite a bit to offer during the summer. “Don’t miss the recently renovated synagogue, where you can learn about the mix of Jewish and Polish culture in Oswiecim,” read the magazine. What else? The city also features a marketplace with remnants of the 16th-century city hall, as well as “mysterious churches.”

But what does the city have to offer nature lovers, I wondered, still up in the air, somewhere over the Black Sea. “There’s a beautiful park just a stone’s throw away from the city, along the Sola river … it’s the perfect place for bike riding, skating … or just doing nothing at all. Come enjoy!” was the feeling I got from the magazine.

An attraction in southern Poland

Did the magazine’s editors forget about the death camp, or purposely not mention it in order to market the city as a nice summer vacation spot? It’s pretty implausible to market the city as a tourist attraction without mentioning a single word about the camp. After all, it’s an important tourist destination. Perhaps not for a summer vacation, but still. I got my answer on the next page, where a few general words were written about the hot spots in southern Poland for the summer of 2014. After some marketing for the Galicia Jewish Museum in Krakow, it said, “and then there’s the beautiful forest outside of Oswiecim. Many of you have perhaps already visited the nearby concentration camp, but did you know that the forest features an incredible fortress, which looks out over narrow, winding streets, as well as a serious of exciting events throughout the year? All of them can be reached by flying WIZZair to Wroclaw or Katowice, so there’s no excuse not to add southern Poland to your summer vacation plans.”

Again, I wondered if I was the only one on this flight bothered by the problematic use of the term “concentration camp” for the death factory that was Auschwitz. The camp did include a concentration camp, where Polish prisoners were sent, but that’s not why it made the history books. And now, with your permission, a few words in a more serious tone. Over the last year, I visited Poland many times. My passport can attest to that. I’ve accepted the fact that Warsaw, the capital, is a legitimate tourist destination, and not a city to be shunned. Not everyone in Israel agrees. I respect them, of course, and understand their sensitivities, especially among those whose families were murdered in the ghetto there, or sent from Warsaw to the death camps. Others too, who left the city before the Holocaust, took with them memories of persecution and anti-Semitism. It remains their right, and the right of their family members, not see Warsaw as anything but a tourist destination, and refuse to travel there.

But I, being third generation, am able to see other sides, too. Warsaw’s restored old city, for example, is definitely a beautiful site. Its cafes and restaurants are pleasant, as are the young Polish. Other cities have a great deal to offer to Israeli tourists as well. A couple can spend a wonderful romantic weekend in the old city of Krakow, which has a great deal of Jewish history to offer as well. I’ve also visited the port city of Gdansk (Danzig in German), and have had wonderful experiences there.

Regardless, where does one draw the line? Every individual, of course, can draw the line for themselves. On the one hand, residents of Oswiecim, which included Jews before the war, are certainly not responsible for the proximity of the death camp to their city, and do not need to be punished for it. On the other hand, I believe WIZZair crossed the line when it sought to market the city to tourists – including Israeli tourists, who boarded their flights in Tel Aviv – as a tourist attraction in and of itself, regardless of the death camp. This lack of sensitivity is distasteful, and a bit stupid, I would say. I wonder how an Auschwitz survivor would react to the magazine. This whole thing is a bit of a shame, by the way, because aside from this unfortunate pamphlet, WIZZair has been the best thing to happen to Israeli-Polish relations in many years.

The Polish ambassador to Israel told me during an interview that Poland is not just for “Holocaust trips,” and urged Israelis to choose his country as a destination for a weekend getaway, shopping, spas and good food. The Polish Institute in Tel Aviv, also, is a great example. Poland is a friend of Israel, and tourism relations between the two should be lauded. But at the same time, all should remember where to draw the line.

In response, the Polish Embassy in Israel asked to stress that the materials mentioned in the story are not connected in any way to Polish authorities. "We are not responsible for PR products of private foreign companies and we deeply understand sensitivities related to Oswiecim, where the biggest German Nazi Death Camp Auschwitz-Birkenau was located."

"Oswiecim was an unique place for a long time before the German invaders decided to locate the camp there," the response said. "Oswiecim was a multicultural town where Poles and Jews used to live together with Roma minority that still lives in the city." The embassy added that Oswiecim is making efforts to "keep the memory of the history and preserve the remains of the death camp in order to educate the generations to come."

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