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This Is What Concentration Camp Tourism Looks Like

Photographer Roger Cremers captures our shifting relationships with a war that ended 70 years ago.

by Emmie Giesbergen
Apr 25 2016, 1:30pm

Auschwitz, Poland, 2008. Two Hungarian men in tracksuit visit Auschwitz-Birkenau. All photos courtesy of Roger Cremers

Dutch photographer Roger Cremers was on a visit to Auschwitz in 2002, when he noticed an American tourist standing next to the incinerators. The man was wearing a shirt reading: ‘Laugh, it’s an order.’ Cremers couldn’t resist taking a picture, but decided not to publish it. “On King’s Day in Amsterdam you can wear a shirt like that, but not to Auschwitz,” Cremers tells the Creators Project. On April 22, his new exhibition, World War Two Today, opened at the Dutch Resistance Museum in Amsterdam. The show entails a photographic overview of the diverse ways people deal with the Second World War today.

Cremers started photographing tourists in Auschwitz in 2008. He received a World Press Press Photo Award for his series, but the photos also led to a fiery debate. “Irony is my visual language, and some people feel it can not be combined with Auschwitz, even tough I believe irony can be a way to make matters negotiable. On top of that I only project the irony upon visitors,” Cremers explains.

Auschwitz, Poland, 2008. Tourists take photos of the barbed wire at Auschwitz.

The photos show how mass tourism often collides awkwardly with the past. For example, if too many tourists come to Auschwitz, an organization tries to manage them by bringing people to Birkenau by bus. Sound familiar? “There are so many of these parallels,” says Cremers.

Cremers immediately knew he found a niche in photographing tourists at places like Auschwitz. “I knew I created something bizarre, and I also suspected it would result in a debate of some kind, but above all I saw it as a possibility to get to the core of history. On top of that, there was no way I was going to stop.”

Helen Lazarovic Herskowitz (1924-2011) survived Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and the Death March. She shows her camp tattoo to a group of American students.

Since creating the series, the photographer has been looking for places where the war is still felt and present. On his many trips trough Europe, he documented the adventures and experiences of hordes of tourists, survivors and their relatives, and those who like to reenact the war. Eventually Cremers selected 52 pictures for the show.

The photos are fascinating because they evoke an awareness of the paradigm shift that is happening right now. The war is getting further and further behind us, and people are developing new and alternative ways to contextualize the events of the past, to make them fit the present. An Auschwitz survivor who shows her camp tattoo to a group of American school kids is a part of this shift, but two Hungarian men who go to Auschwitz in bright red tracksuits are so as well.

Auschwitz, Poland, 2008. A tour guide shows her group around.

The irony is palpable. Think about the picture of the tour guide in Auschwitz, almost marching with her umbrella up in the air to direct her group in the right direction. Or the boy cleaning tombstones in a war cemetery (below), while wearing a shirt with a skull on it. Yet Cremers also says a lot of the pictures give him goosebumps. He was completely frozen with fear in the forest near the previous location of the completely destroyed Uckermark extermination camp. All of a sudden, Cremers noticed a figure completely made out of chicken wire, sitting against a tree—one of the many memorials for thousands of nameless and faceless women who were murdered in there.

His visit to the excavations of camp Sobibor also gave him the chills. “In 2011 archeologists started looking for the foundations of the camp. I wasn’t allowed to take pictures, but one of the people working there showed me some of the things they unearthed. Before I knew it I held a little plastic bag of wedding rings engraved with Dutch names in my hands. I was literally holding history that had been buried for 70 years. It was so incredibly sad and overwhelming.”

Ravensbruck, Germany, 2012. The so-called Mahas' chicken wire figures are placed in the forest to commemorate the thousands of murdered women in camp Uckermark. The see-through figures refer to the anonymous fate of these women and girls - their names are still unknown.

Vasiljevski, Russia 2013. An amateur archaeologist uncovers a skull of a fallen soldier in Russia.

It’s also no longer a surprise for Cremers how rude some tourists are. Men publicly urinating in Auschwitz, for example. Unfortunately, he hasn't managed to capture these people yet. “I can’t make it; I only work with an analog camera so I can’t take a picture unless my subject is 10 feet away from me. Otherwise, it won’t work. They must have had a lot to drink before I can get there in time. I have fewer problems with it when someone is taking a leak against a Hitler bunker. It still means someone taking a piss on history, but it’s different.”

“I have an old Rolleiflex camera. It almost looks antique, so people don’t consider me a threat. I can get really close without anyone really noticing me.” Despite this, Cremers once had to outrun a group of Neo-Nazis. “At the laying of a wreath at a small church in Austria there were these old veterans that were ‘wronged’ during the war. They were accompanied by a group of young men with bald heads, black sunglasses, bomber jackets and big black army boots. They weren’t at all amused I was there. They felt I wasn’t one of them. Out of nowhere, one of these guys pushed me against the wall, while the others surrounded me. They wanted to beat me up, I was so scared.”

Ysselstijn, The Netherlands 2011. German school kids clean tombstones at a war cemetery for German soldiers.

He managed to escape in a press van, with the group of Neo-Nazis chasing after him. “We had to throw everything in the back of the van, hit the gas, and get the hell out of there.” In spite of the fear, Cremers regrets not being able to take their picture. “I want to document the ways Second World War is still present today, and Neo-Nazis are also part of that.”

Cremers also likes to photograph people who reenact events and battles of the war. He sees it as a new way of commemoration. “We are at a bit of a strange point in time right now. The war still feels fresh, because some of the people who actually lived through it are still around. But at the same time it lies far enough behind us to start reenacting [it]. This shows a shift. If kids play knights, everyone is totally fine with that. And if you like to dress up as Napoleon nobody will find that offensive. Perhaps that’s how people will look back on World War Two in about 150 years from now.”

Eben-Emael, Belgium, 2010. A group of people reenacting the fall of Fort Eben-Emael in 1940.

Auschwitz, Poland 2008. Two Jewish men visit Auschwitz.

The exhibition World War Two Today is on view through September 25, 2016 in the Dutch Resistance Museum in Amsterdam. On May 3, Roger Cremers will give a presentation about his pictures at SPUI25, and on May 11, he will be doing the same at Pakhuis de Zwijger. To learn more about Roger Cremers and his work, check out his website.

A version of this article originally appeared on The Creators Project Netherlands. 

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