Alert! Long (rambling) post.
We observed Holocaust Remembrance Day here two days ago, so this is very timely. It comes just 4 days after the end of Passover, and for those 4 days television and radio are almost complete focused on it: documentaries, interviews, movies and anything else that can be related. There are still thousands of survivors living here, too many of them in poverty and loneliness. One of the most interesting interviewees said that we focus too much on the victims and ignore the many who succeeded, in spite of what they were subjected to and often after losing their entire extended families. There are tens of thousands of second and third generation "survivors" (the children and grandchildren), many of whom have made significant contributions. We should be emphasize proudly what they accomplished.
Would Israel be what it is today if the Holocaust hadn't happened? No one will ever know. The seeds were sown in the 19th century by Jewish tradition and European anti-Semitism. By the beginning of the 20th, there were sizeable Jewish settlements in much of what is today Israel, budding social, economic, and political infrastructures and the beginnings of the army. But without the rise of Hitler, the events that followed, and world sympathy, who knows how many European Jews would have made their way to Israel to establish the state, how much political support there would have been from other governments or how much economic support from individuals, and subsequent economic and military support from foreign powers, or how many North African and Middle Eastern Jews would have arrived.
The most chilling thing I heard was a man whose parents were survivors. They never spoke about "before" and he and his siblings knew not to ask and also to avoid certain "trigger" words and subjects. All that is typical. One morning his father came home and said quietly, "today I burned Eichmann." He never said another word about it. Years later the man learned the whole story. His father was employed in making furnaces. He was asked to build a special furnace but wasn't told what it was for. On the day it was to be delivered he was told to go with and he was the man who operated it. (Note: Eichmann was hanged in prison and his body was cremated shortly thereafter; his ashes were spread over the Mediterranean.)
On to Auschwitz. As you can imagine, the Holocaust is an integral part of the school curriculum. Many high school classes take a field trip to Poland in junior year, as an (expensive) educational experience, including a day in Auschwitz. Many adults here have visited, either as chaperons on those trips, or on similar adult tours. Most just say it's very difficult.
Like you Brian, I don't believe that seeing a death camp would help me comprehend the incomprehensible, neither the enormity nor the inhumanity. And when I visit Poland, I plan to do as you.
I did spend a day at Theresienstadt (from Prague) which was not a death camp. It was very interesting, especially the museums, where you see the indomitable human spirit of the inmates in their artistic outlets (music, drama, art) in spite of the incredibly miserable conditions and the likely knowledge that they were doomed.
I don't plan to visit any others. I will continue to visit Holocaust museums and memorials. And light a candle on Remembrance Day.