Daniel Reynolds is the Seth Richards Professor in Modern Languages at Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa. His works examines the ways representation of the Holocaust has shifted in museums and memorial sites across the United States, Poland and Germany. His most recent book, Postcards from Auschwitz, was published last year.

In November, the Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies welcomed Dr. Reynolds for a lecture where he touched on the themes of his latest book and Holocaust tourism’s effect on how we remember.

Kathryn Huether: I wanted to start with Michael Rothberg’s text regarding migration and the Turkish immigrant in Germany, in your book you discuss the distinction between a Holocaust tourist and pilgrim, and it just reminded me of the “double paradox” that Michael Rothberg highlights. Could you speak more of your distinction between the pilgrim and tourist?

Daniel Reynolds: Yes, I guess I would be sure to say that it is a distinction but not an opposition, I would say that for me, when we think of pilgrimage, there are echoes of the sacred. There is also some echo of homage to one’s ancestors, one’s family background. I think that’s very much a part of many people’s purpose in going to Holocaust memory sites. In turn, it was also important to me to address the fact that not every visitor to sites of Holocaust remembrance can make a pilgrimage, and that I think many are there by accident. Maybe they happen to be on a city tour; many times it is school children who are often reluctant participants in a tour. But I also want to allow for the possibility that tourists—even if they don’t plan on it—can have experiences that are so deep and so meaningful that they can convert their experiences into a form of pilgrimage. Maybe it forces them to have a kind of reflective experience that we often associate with the Holocaust. I think we should use the word tourist without having to apologize for being a tourist at Holocaust sites.

Right. Yes. And do you think that perhaps certain sites are more conducive to that—because certainly, Auschwitz-Birkenau is where most people go…but sites such as Treblinka offers much more reflection, but it is harder to get to?

Yes, it is harder to get to. And I think that it is definitely a part of it. When I think of pilgrimage, it’s funny, when I think of sites of pilgrimage I think of Bethlehem and the Church of Nativity which gets packed with people. There are ways in which sites that we think of as typical destinations of pilgrimage actually highlight some of the more unpleasant attributes of tourism that we criticize, i.e. the crowds. But yea, I would agree that different sites lend themselves to more reflective experiences. I think Treblinka for me was very moving, and Belžec, of course is this massive installation, but it’s also very remote so you’re often alone there. And I would say at Auschwitz that Birkenau is by far the more reflective space.

That’s great. I wanted to bring it back to your book and much of your argument is based on this concept that you call phenomenology of tourism. Could you speak more of that?

So phenomenology of tourism, I’m not a trained ethnographer—I don’t have tons of interviews with tourists that I’ve conducted and I don’t have a method for quantifying anything experientially…I am not so interested in showing how some tourists feel one way versus how many think the other way. I am more interested in demonstrating the range of possibilities for responses. And I think phenomenology, which is how we come to know of the world, not just through logic and rational thought, but also through sensory perception and affect [, in relation] to tourism is always an embodied encountered in space. So you’re always experiencing the site sensorially, in ways that you are not necessarily consciously processing; affectively, responding to different behaviors in addition to the information you’re given—it’s never just about the information presented at the site. So I’m really interested in how all of those things kind of influence one another. I think it’s a way for me as a humanist, someone who is not trained as a social scientist who works with data, to ask questions about tourism and give as much knowledge as possible.

I agree—it’s very close to what I’m working on now. And I wanted to push this a bit further, you focus your phenomenological reading on the visual, and of course there are multiple senses that are impacted—last summer I was able to visit the preservationist department at Auschwitz-Birkenau with my fellowship group from the Auschwitz Jewish Center, and the preservationists dedicate a large part of their efforts to preserving objects such as shoes, suitcases, shoes, toothbrushes, etc.—but this act of preservation is strongly connected to the visual, and one of the preservationist said that within fifteen years “this toothbrush will be gone, this suitcase deteriorated.” And, I feel a bit dark saying this, but one of my colleagues asked, “what are you going to do with the human hair when that is gone as well?” Are you going to replace it with fake hair, for instance as the infamous gate that reads “Arbeit Macht Frei” is no longer the original, replaced after the original was stolen—so, is there something about the “authenticity” of the object that needs to be present, juxtaposed to sites such as Treblinka, when the materiality and object centered preservation is nonexistent? How is the visual of Treblinka, for instance, different from that of Auschwitz-Birkenau?

That’s great, yea, that touches on a lot of things…the ephemerality of these material traces is something problematic, but then also you can’t not talk about the hair as it’s human remains. I understand the impact of it…I wonder what they’ll do. I think, of course, the goal of these displays is to convey the enormity of the Holocaust, no one has ever seen that amount of human hair, or that many shoes before…

Yes, but even then, the presentation of the exhibits is very curated. The room with the shoes, the coloring is very specific, organized so that a pristine red heel sits on the top, you can see children’s shoes right up front…

Yes, yes that they are an assemblage—that is very important to acknowledge. And I know that the hair is treated with certain chemicals so that it is preserved longer…Yea, I think that probably, these sites are going to have to find another way to convey what they are trying to convey. The image that is largely associated with Holocaust sites is the thousands of shoes, and I sometimes think that maybe a single shoe, or a single pair of shoes, would be more powerful. I think we need to be aware that these displays are curated and assembled, that is very important, and that we need to think about a future when these objects are no longer there to display. That is a challenge that preservationists certainly need to take on […].Because John Urry, of course, is often faulted because of his preference for the visual dimension of tourism, and not all tourists are sighted, so what do you do when sight is not a category of perception? I remember when I was at Auschwitz and the sound of crunching of gravel beneath my feet, then trying to imagine how that sounded with thousands of prisoners on it…I don’t know if that answers your question.

No, no, that’s okay. Do you think that perhaps the emphasis placed on preserving these objects, I don’t want to say takes away from, I don’t want to say “better presentation,” but like at Auschwitz there are so many people there and everyone is walking around with headphones over their ears and it is so crowded.  It is the actual site itself, but perhaps there is a more effective way of presenting that without millions of people at the site?

Yea, I think maybe what this gets at, is that there are two impulses in this museum curation. First, what is an aesthetic choice, what makes the best arrangement of most impact on the audience—like the color to catch the eye? But the other, and what I think predates this, is that these sites were museum sites established to preserve the forensic evidence, originally to bring the Nazi perpetrators to trial. But we now live in an age where they still serve a forensic purpose to show Holocaust deniers the truth, so I think that is what’s keeping us grounded or rooted in this preservationist mode. But unfortunately, there will always be challenges despite all the material evidence.

Yes, so continuing off of that, with the graduate students we were talking about the Jewish Museum in Berlin and POLIN—Museum of Polish Jews in Warsaw, and you stated that you thought POLIN was more effective, but also I think it’s really interesting because Berlin has actual artifacts and POLIN does not, given the history of Polish Jewry and such, but could you speak more to that distinction and your preference for POLIN?

Okay, so it’s been a few years since I’d been to POLIN, and I was happy to hear your response to it, so I have a reason to go back. You know, I think that the building in Berlin is a really powerful space—the architecture is wonderful. Also the architecture in POLIN is really striking as well. I think, what for me, struck me about Berlin—and they are redoing the permanent exhibition, so I’m anxious to see—but there were always a lot of effects, and it just felt crowded to me. Just the way it was arranged, I found it hard to have the physical space to contemplate—whereas POLIN, it’s a more comfortable space in. So I don’t know if POLIN is more effective, but I found it a space that I could spend time and think in.

Did you use an audio guide by chance?

I did, and of course I didn’t follow it step by step, but I used it at both museums.

Yea, I don’t think most people follow it.

I wasn’t well versed in Polish Jewish history, so I think I learned something—but I was just really impressed by the space, and the reconstruction of the synagogue—that was is preserved beautiful, so I think appreciating the beauty of Polish Jewry is what POLIN offers. And, I talk about this in the book, I also think that the Jewish Museum in Berlin is kind of at the crossroads of its function, on the one hand it wants to celebrate Jewish life and Jewish culture, but it is also, built into its very bones, is that it is a Holocaust memorial, and the curators say, “we’re not a Holocaust museum, we’re a Jewish museum…”

Right, it was made to be one…in its mission, Daniel Libeskind designed it to reflect the Holocaust.

Right, it’s hard to be both. And some might say that perhaps that is how the museum is effective, because it is jarring.

That’s kind of what I argue, yes, that it is because you don’t really settle on either end…

Yes, I think I would just like the museum directors to be more direct about the fact that it is both.

Oh, I agree, they did actually change the audio guide, and I think this incorporates the narrative more. But back to POLIN, I also used the audio guide, and I did not have a contemplative experience, I thought the sound was overwhelming, but of course, that’s what I’m paying attention to specifically.

Yea, I need to go back. It’s not like the thumping heartbeat of Warsaw at the Warsaw Rising Museum.

Did you listen to it really closely? Because each strand is supposed to be a distinctive song from wartime Poland.

Fascinating, yet that museum is filled with points of inquiry.

But I wanted to bring it back once again to the sensorially aspect, and to Treblinka, which doesn’t have the materiality of Auschwitz-Birkenau. And presently, a visitor can download an audio guide from the app “AudioTrip,” which I think adds an acoustic architecture, a materiality of sorts.

[Listen to segments of the audio guide here]

Yea, I think that certainly takes away from the experience. I was not fond of the fake wind whistling through the barren landscape—that’s not what you experience, particularly if you go there in the summertime, which has lush trees and green grass. And the idea that you would have manufactured forest sounds, and block out the real forest sound, doesn’t make sense to me. I think that the space, even without its materiality, has a lot to offer. Under headphones you can’t listen to the reaction of other visitors, which can be really powerful, such as laughing when they shouldn’t be, or hearing someone say something really profound or insightful that you wouldn’t have thought of before necessarily. I think technology like that can certainly take away some of the agency of the tourist.

Kathryn Agnes Huether is a Ph.D. student in Historical Musicology with a Graduate Minor in Cultural Studies at the University of Minnesota. Her dissertation research is an extension of her work on Holocaust memory and sonic affect, assessing the usage of sound and music within Holocaust museums and memorials.