A Teachable Moment: Exercising Discretion During Your Travels

Seventy empty chairs sit in the middle of what used to be known as Plac Zgody. Once the center of a charming Krakow neighborhood, the square and surrounding buildings were transformed into the Jewish Ghetto during WWII. 56,000 Jews living in Kazimierz and other areas around Krakow were relocated to the Ghetto, from which many were ultimately deported. Plac Zgody has since be renamed Plac Bohaterów Getta, “Ghetto Heroes Square,” and the memorial recognizes those in the Ghetto that actively resisted occupation while also elevating the other members of the community, their humanity, and the indescribable loss.

As I stood at the edge of the square, I could feel the emptiness. And as a Jew, the feelings of tragedy and loss are very real for me. So, you can imagine what crossed my mind when I saw a woman taking seductive pictures of herself draped over one of the chairs. 

Completely inappropriate.

The hairs on my arm stood tall and I could feel my face distort into a grimace. Our tour moved on, but I couldn’t. My mind raced with questions, confusion, and disgust. Years later, I still remember the woman, but now I see the experience as a teachable moment.

As travelers, we find ourselves visiting new places with a smile—we document our travels with elation, and it is nearly a reflex for our lips to curl when faced with a camera. Today’s social media-driven society values experiences and Instagrammable moments and doesn’t always encourage reflection. I am sure that there have been many photos that I have taken to “document the experience” and have paid little mind to what was in the foreground or what significance the location I am in has. I am simply excited to be there, and who wants a picture of themselves looking solemn?

Consider this: you are visiting the Ground Zero memorial in New York. You are standing at the deep Reflecting Absence memorial that bears the names of those who died in the attacks and pull out your phone to take a picture. Do you smile? Rhetorically, you probably answered no. But if you have a photo of yourself in front of the reflecting pool smiling, there is no need to delete it from your social media feed. The reaction is likely not borne out of misunderstanding or ignorance, rather an appreciation for the location and your excitement to document that you visited (because did you really go if you didn’t get a picture?).

Still, as much as I want to give the woman in the square the benefit of the doubt, I struggle. Her appreciation for the space was more to do with aesthetics than a recognition of history… And given the symbolism manifested in her prop, I find the entire situation disconcerting. The woman in the square was hardly my last experience of the sort, nor was it my worst. I have seen similar things happen at other memorials and have been on tours where the guides feel obligated to remind patrons to behave. As such, I feel that I must impart this lesson upon the next generation of travelers: be mindful, be respectful, and educate yourself. When taking your photos, exercise discretion and consider the historical and cultural value of the space. We should, of course, be excited about our new experiences, but reflection and understanding are equally important when going to a new place.

If you are still not convinced, Israeli artist Shahak Shapira’s Yolocaust series offers further insights and examples of inappropriate photos taken at Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.