10 Commandments of Jewish Heritage – Part 3

by Sally Berkovic

23 Aug 10 Commandments of Jewish Heritage – Part 3

Read Part 1 and Part 2

6. Thou shall not make it cool to visit the death camps

Jewish tourism is a bourgeoning business. A range of Kosher cruises, luxury hotels offering Passover in the Swiss Alps, and tour groups to countries where there was, or is, a strong Jewish presence are all popular. There are ‘family roots’ tours to Eastern Europe (and let’s not forget that many Sephardi families would like to explore their roots in Iran, Iraq, Libya, Egypt, Algeria or Yemen) that take young people back to their grandparents’ home in the little villages and towns throughout Europe. A cadre of professional translators, drivers and local ‘fixers’ are available to help families piece together their personal story, and savvy government officials are closely monitoring the revenues generated by Jewish sites and their spin-offs such as hotel rooms.

But Jewish tourism is also being actively marketed to non-Jews – Jewish heritage walking tours such as those promoted by the European Association for the Preservation and Promotion of Jewish Culture and Heritage are gaining ground, the Czech Ten Stars programme and the Slovak Jewish Heritage Route provide information that allows visitors to curate their own tours and there are phone apps offering visitor guides for Jewish sites in Berlin.

‘Holocaust tourism’ including the week-long tour of concentration camps by Israeli high-school children, the day-trips to Auschwitz under the auspices of the Holocaust Educational Trust in the UK or the global March of the Living programme that re-enacts the 3 kilometre march from Auschwitz to Birkenau gets bigger and bigger each year. Handled sensitively, and placed within a context, there is great educational value in many of these trips. However, the psychologically manipulative nature of many of these trips to Poland (which is beyond the scope of this article and has been addressed by others) that uses the Holocaust for building and affirming Jewish identity is problematic, if not perverse. Anxious teenagers suffering FOMO (fear of missing out) if they haven’t been to Auschwitz by the time they’re 18 – since when did visiting the dead become such a cool thing to do?

FJHY0B Young Israeli visit the concentration camp Auschwitz II - Birkenau, Oswiecim, 15 April 2007. Some 3,000 Israeli meet at Auschwitz II - Birkenau to mark Jom Hashoah, the Remembrance Day of the Holocaust victims. EPA/ANDRZEJ GRYGIEL POLAND OUT

Visitors in Auschwitz-Birkenau EPA/Andrzej Grygiel


7. Thou shalt ensure appropriate, sensitive and multi-lingual signage

The first stolperstein, a bronzed cobblestone-sized plaque commemorating Nazi victims, was laid in Cologne in 1992, Now there are 48,000 stolpersteine dotted around 18 countries, and deeply embedded in the Jewish tourist landscape. They are set in the streets, usually placed outside the homes of victims, with minimal information pending what’s known about the person e.g. name, date of birth, date of deportation, place of death. In Budapest, the Shoes on the Danube Bank memorial is a row of shoe sculptures to remember the Jews who killed by the Arrow Cross militia in Budapest during World War II. They were shot at the edge of the water so that their bodies fell into the river and were carried away. The memorial represents their shoes left behind on the bank. In Paris and Amsterdam, the names of Holocaust victims from those cities are etched into dedicated memorial walls.

There’s no shortage of signage, and the attempts to give some physical form to memory seem to grow every year. There are hundreds of Holocaust memorials and museums dotted around the world and a plethora of books and PhD theses attempting to understand the rise and role of memorialization in the collective conscience. In Europe, abandoned buildings that were once Jewish schools, ritual baths, yeshivot, alms houses or community centres deserve some recognition. Designing thoughtful signage in at least two languages is an artful responsibility as that plaque is a micro-history lesson and the story it tells may be the only one that the visitor ever reads. Local government needs to take responsibility for the signage, if only to acknowledge that they are duty-bound to recognise that Jewish life was deeply entwined within local society and is part of the country’s heritage.


Shoes on the Danube bank in Budapest


To be continued

Sally Berkovic is the CEO of the Rothschild Foundation (Hanadiv) Europe

The essay was first published in eJewish Philanthropy.

The opening image is the Torah shield (Vienna, before 1807) from the collection of the Hungarian Jewish Museum and Archives.