05/07/2008 10:09 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Auschwitz Pilgrim?

On Thursday, May 8th, Israel will celebrate its 60th Anniversary. On hand to celebrate will be just about 2,500 North American teenagers, who will have come by way of Poland, after participating in what's become an annual ritual in at Auschwitz: The March of the Living. The march draws about 8,000 participants in total, covers the two miles that lie between what was the main concentration camp at Auschwitz -- the one that has the "Work Makes You Free" gate -- and Birkenau, which is bisected by a long train track, flanked by tall wooden guard towers.

The symbolic journey that the American teens will make from Poland to Israel in their two-week journey is pretty obvious -- from unspeakable darkness, suffering and torment to deliverance, independence and triumph. It's a pilgrimage, catered with Kosher food and a complete hero's journey -- in fact, a number of participants take this almost literally, and fashion capes for themselves out of the Israeli flag.

I never participated in a March of the Living, but I did visit Auschwitz last May. I'd gone to Poland with my first cousin Ellen, our idea was to see the places where our grandparents had lived before the war, including their last home in Krakow, inside the ghetto on Janowa Wola street -the place where they would have seen their parents, many of their siblings, cousins and extended family for the last time. We hadn't timed the trip this way, but as I waited for my bags to arrive at Jana Pawla airport, I did some math in my head and realized that it had been exactly twenty years since my grandmother had died, in California. She'd left her Krakow through sewers, and I arrived on an over air-conditioned Sky Europe jet with leather seats.

The day Ellen and I visited Auschwitz last May was grimy grey, cold, drizzling. The driver we'd engaged at our hotel was eager to save us time, so he drove us to the back entrance of Birkenau, on a road that took us past several new townhouse developments -- buildings with new vinyl siding, flanked by terracotta flowerpots filled with peonies, and full views of a certain UNESCO World Heritage site.

We pulled into a wooded area, tires bending uncut grass, tall trees, green leaves arching over head. We walked in the direction that the driver had pointed, and after a few steps reached a few concrete posts that had once held electrified barbed wire. Then, abruptly, we were out of the trees and into a big gray unbroken sky. Ahead of us, the horizontal lines of a raised train track, green grass on either side, guard posts, light posts, barracks, horizon.

We were standing on a wide plaza in front of the memorial sculpture, abstract, mottled gray concrete, shapes that suggested anvils, coffins, a tower, a chimney, a head, a hand. This sculpture is between the ruins of the gas chambers, which are rubble, collapsed gray concrete roof in pieces, pointing upward, rebar fringe sagging inward, orange bricks, stones. A red and white rope draped in front has a sign with stick figure walking and a line drawn through it. Don't walk on the ruins, this means. Eventually we walked along the train tracks towards the entrance, our exit, and our driver took us the 30 or so miles back to Krakow.

(A few pictures from the day here.)

Between 1940 and 1945, approximately one and a half million people were murdered at this concentration camp. Since 1947, more than 25 million have visited what is now a state museum. After Poles, people from the United States are the next largest group of visitors. What do we all come to see? What do we come away with? And what will it mean to the latest group thousands of young people who visited and marched in Auschwitz just a few days ago?

I surely don't know, and I have been trying to sort out my own reaction to my visit ever since. As this year's March of the Living drew near, I found myself mulling over a theory I found in a book called The Art of Memory: Holocaust Memorials in History, which contained an essay called "Why We Go to Poland: Holocaust Tourism as a Secular Ritual", by Jack Kugelmass.

Citing the work of several other scholars, he writes that the Holocaust has become something of an American Jewish civic religion, with Auschwitz particularly as "a place of revelation of new God of Absolute Evil," and a place worthy of a pilgrimage. (My own experience argues for that point of view, I have been to Auschwitz; but I have never been to Israel.) The purpose of the pilgrimage is to reclaim unambiguous victim status. American Jews are nervous about the degree of success they have achieved in America and that they are particularly afraid that the very security of the their lives in the United States poses a threat to their group survival. (Jews are certainly not the only minority group to realize that an advantage of persecution and adversity is its undeniable power to bind together, as it falls away, assimilation is the inevitable result.)

He writes: "One cannot help but think that the popularity of events such as March of the Living, a pilgrimage to the death camps involving thousands of North American Jewish school children, is increasing in proportion to the ambiguousness of the Middle East situation: as long as Israel was perceived as David against Goliath, there was not a need for a ritual to convince participants and spectators of the vulnerability of the Jewish people. ...[now] there is increasing need for Jews to formulate a counter rhetoric of remembered victimization." Visitors "are symbolically reversing reality, they are transporting themselves from what they are currently perceived as -in America as highly privileged and in Israel as oppressive -and presenting themselves as the diametric opposite."

It's an interesting point of view. While I'm not sure this is what drew me there -for one thing, I'm very annoyed by the "poor us" attitude that seems to permeate every Jewish religious observance- I do think it's part of what grated on me in my visit to Auschwitz. My fellow visitors seemed to feel that they'd been through something, survived it, simply by visiting this place, which is, now, a bona fide tourist attraction. Really, Auschwitz today is almost absurd in its ordinariness, with its parking lot stuffed with curved tourist buses, and "The Art of the Burger" serving ice cream and pizza to hungry tourists just across the street from the camp, and the school with its playground easily within eyeshot of the one reconstructed gas chamber.

I am sure my fellow visitors have good intentions. In all likelihood, they have gone to honor memory. But is it a desecration of memory to visit Auschwitz as a pilgrim, and tell yourself that you have survived anything other than visiting a museum?