Many years ago, Chef Boyardee and I visited Pompeii. We walked down the Via dei Sepolcri (carefully avoiding the grooves made by chariots 2,000 years ago); admired the fresco of Priapus, the god of fertility; and examined the remains of an unfortunate victim, perfectly preserved by the volcanic ash that engulfed the city in 79 AD. It was amazing, and when we returned home, I told everyone I knew about it.
Some years later, Elder Daughter and I visited Auschwitz. It was also amazing, but in a completely different way. Not only did I not talk about it when we returned home, I didn’t tell many people we were going in the first place.
Both Pompeii and Auschwitz are sites of terrible suffering and tragedy. Why did one feel like a delightful day out, while the other felt like a ghoulish intrusion that left me with a lingering sense of shame?
According to John Lennon (no relation to the Beatle) and Malcolm Foley (no relation to me), the reason for these differing reactions is time. One visit took place two millennia after the event that wiped out the population, and the other occurred only six decades or so afterwards. Lennon and Foley, authors of Dark Tourism: The Attraction of Death and Disaster, write that although it’s acceptable to visit death sites immediately after a tragedy to show respect and engage in a public display of collective mourning (think Diana, for example), society demands there be a cooling-off period before there’s any attempt at “interpretation” of the calamity.
“Opportunities come later when the infrastructure has been repaired and when investment…is secured,” they write. “Under these circumstances, a former concentration camp, battle site, assassination or killing site, or the location of a disaster becomes a tourism resource to be exploited like any other.”
In their examination of dark tourism (the touristification, if you will, of sites of tragic death), the authors note that interest in these places has grown steadily since the latter part of the 20th century. Death and tourism have become big business. The question is: why? Lennon and Foley blame “a mix of reverence, voyeurism and maybe even the thrill of coming into close proximity with death.” So of course, now I’m examining my motives for attending every dark tourist spot I’ve ever been to.
Before I travelled to see them, I knew very little about Terezín concentration camp outside of Prague, and I’d never even heard of the Cu Chi tunnels in Vietnam. It was mild curiosity that led me there. (You can throw Tiananmen Square into that category as well.) We went to Phuket 3 months after the 2004 tsunami because we thought our tourist dollars would help with the rebuilding. In Amsterdam, I bought tickets to Anne Frank House because her story had touched me when I was a little girl, and I was curious about the secret annex where she lived.
Auschwitz/Birkenau was different. I went there because I wanted to know what evil felt like. It was the only place that made me feel soiled. I spent weeks questioning what had compelled me to go. Was I using the pain and misfortune of others for my own entertainment? Was I exploiting the dead? Commodifying misery? They were uncomfortable questions to ask, and I struggled to find satisfactory answers.
The ethical issues of dark tourism are considerable, but I hope my base curiosity is balanced by the other reason I visit macabre sites: my children. I take them with me because I want them to learn compassion in the face of suffering, and gratitude that they live in a place that’s been spared tragedies such as these.
There’s a simple stone monument at Auschwitz that is engraved with the words of Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel: “Forgetting them means letting them die again.” I don’t want to be a grief tourist. But I do want my children to bear witness and to remember.