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Before you slam the girl who took a selfie at Auschwitz ...

Last month, nobody knew who Breanna Mitchell was.

But in the past few days, she’s become one of the world’s most famous teenagers.

Because of this photo:

selfie at auschwitz

Breanna was visiting the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, taking photos of the camp along the way.

But it’s this particular photo that’s attracted thousands of retweets and tweets, most of them slamming Breanna for the picture.

Slamming is a weak word – some of the commenters are calling for her death.

Breanna explained that she took the selfie in honour of her late father, with whom she studied the Holocaust – however, he never had a chance to visit the camp itself.

Although the photo originally comes across as incredibly insensitive and inappropriate, Breanna say there was no malicious intent behind the posting of the photo.

“That trip actually meant something to me and I was happy about it,” she explained in a later tweet.

This isn’t the first time a teenager has made headlines for an inappropriate selfie at Auschwitz. Last year, a guy named John Quirke tweeted a picture from inside the gas chambers, with a shocked expression on his face. Unsurprisingly, no one was particularly impressed.

Auschwitz selfieI am deeply invested in Auschwitz. The blood of my own Polish family is deeply intertwined with the location. And I don’t think that Breanna made a wise choice in posting that photo in such a public forum.

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But I wasn’t particularly outraged by Breanna’s smiling face when I read her story. And I wasn’t outraged by John Quirke’s shocked-gas-chamber face from last year.

You see, I have been haunted by the ghosts of Auschwitz for nine years.

I was 14 when I first visited the camp with my father.

What I remember is the rooms full of suitcases. Suitcases belonging to the people who boarded trains to their deaths, believing the Nazis when they told them that they were going to a better place.

I remember the baby clothes on display beside the suitcases. Baby clothes belonging to the babies who were burned in the crematoriums, along with their mothers and brothers and sisters and fathers.

I remember the displays of human hair. The endless shaving brushes, the shoes. I remember the prison cells – every single last one of them. I remember the photographs of the prisoners, lining the walls.

I remember the infamous irony of the Arbeit Macht Frei gate, looming over our heads as we walked through the camp.

I remember seeing the crematorium’s ovens and the old buildings which held the gas chambers.

I remember following our tour guide out to a beautiful river, one of the most beautiful rivers I had ever seen. It flowed gently and was surrounded by lush earth and native flowers and grasses. “Do you see how beautiful the vegetation is here?” our tour guide asked us. “It’s all because they dumped the ashes of the people here.”

I remember it all – particularly the way that I felt.

I really struggled that day. I struggled to breathe and to process all the horrifying information that was coming my way.

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I couldn’t cry. I couldn’t even speak, as I struggled to comprehend how such a thing had happened in the history of humanity.

I spent as much time as possible staring intently at every display. In my young mind, I thought that memorising every little bit of what happened at the site would be the best way to pay my respects to the dead.

History has a way of being forgotten, and I was terrified of humanity somehow forgetting the atrocities of the Holocaust and it happening all over again someday.

My dad and I didn’t cry at all during our visit. Many other people did.

Some grown men wept and clutched the walls as they walked through the prison. Others simply shed a single tear before moving on from the displays. Some women sobbed silently but uncontrollably as they saw the baby clothes and the suitcases.

Some people took photos. Of the gate, the cells. Some people stayed dry-eyed and took photos of themselves.

There was no right or wrong way to grieve for the dead. Whatever our reactions – our hearts all broke as we walked the same steps of the millions of prisoners who walked through that Arbeit Macht Frei gate.

I have zero doubt in my heart that John and Breanna were also absolutely heartbroken by what they saw at Auschwitz when they visited.

I also know that this is 2014, the age of the selfie, and that they are teenagers that use social media extensively, and that they both probably reacted to the camp in the first way that made sense to them.

If you are offended by their selfies, I can’t blame you for that. But I can tell you this. John and Breanna  are young. They’re  still figuring it all out. There’s no malice or cruelty behind their actions. It’s just their reaction to a horrible, horrible part of our history.

Let’s save our vitriol and messages of hatred for those who truly deserve it – to those who have committed true atrocities against humanity, rather than those who have just committed a lapse in judgement.

After all, you never know. Maybe, nine years ago, someone looked at a 14-year-old me while I was walking through the camp and wondered why I wasn’t crying. Maybe they couldn’t understand why I was completely dry-eyed while walking through all those displays. Maybe they couldn’t comprehend the blank look in my eyes. Maybe they thought that I was an insensitive monster that didn’t care about what had happened to the victims of the Holocaust.

When really, I had the same thought, whispering its way through my head, over and over and over again.

“I’m so sorry,” I said to the ghosts as I passed by their graves. “I’m so very sorry. And I, for one, will not ever forget you.”

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