Have you heard of the term ‘dark tourism’, the concept of visiting places historically associated with death and tragedy? From the concentration camps of WW2, to the memorial pools and museum of 9/11, millions of visitors arrive at each per year.
Debate often arises as to whether this is socially agreeable and if by visiting these sights, we are desecrating the memory of those who died there or somehow forgetting about the horrors experienced. As someone with an interest not just in travel, but history, culture and people, I believe this is important to discuss.
While a matter of personal opinion, I believe that a visit to a ‘dark tourism’ site cannot be avoided when it forms as much a part of the destination’s history as an ancient church, famous museum or respected monument. I have no fascination with the macabre or gory, but I do care about people. As years pass and those who lived through these times are no longer with us, we do not dare forget what happened: it is important we learn from the past and that history not be allowed to repeat itself. As global citizens, when we visit Cambodia, Poland or other countries who have suffered these atrocities, we must stand shoulder to shoulder to commemorate the memories of those lost.
During my travels, I’ve visited three very different sites which could be defined as falling into these categories: Auschwitz Concentration Camp in Poland, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields of Cambodia, and the site of the World Trade Centre Attacks in New York. Before visiting each location, my knowledge had just been what I’ve read in books, seen on television or ascertained from photographs. When it comes to Cambodia, while events which occurred only a generation before mine, I must admit I knew very little indeed. At each place, I moved between shock, numbness, pain and a sense of overwhelming sadness. Yet, in a strange way I felt glad that I had visited, to take just a small moment of my time to pay my respects. Here is what it was like to visit each:
Auschwitz Concentration Camp, Oswiecim, Poland
Probably the most renowned of all the Nazi concentration camps from World War 2, most of us will have some understanding of the atrocities that took place there from history lessons at school. It is not until you visit the camp for yourself however, stand in a gas chamber, or see the thousands of shoes, suitcases and even locks of human hair, that you can understand the full scale. Located two hours outside of Krakow by bus, this is a place which is haunting in its silence. Upon arrival, you are able to join a free guided tour which is both informative and respectful of the site’s history. Rather than raising their voices, each guide is equipped with a microphone they can speak quietly and respectfully into, while visitors can listen and learn thanks to a receiver pack and headphones.
The tours start at the first camp, former Polish army barracks turned concentration camp Auschwitz I which was mainly filled with political prisoners. The brick buildings are home to the collections of personal objects, as well as photographs of some of the prisoners who passed through the infamous archway entrance. This is also home to one of the remaining gas chambers, a humbling and honestly, upsetting place to visit.
Once your tour is complete, you are then taken by coach down the road to Auschwitz II – Birkenau, the infamous camp that brought carriage loads of people to their deaths by train. The size of the camp is over-whelming, originally home to endless rows of huts crammed with bunkbeds. The vast openness of the site must have been subjected to freezing winds come winter and a lack of shade in summer. At the rear of the site are the remains of the largest gas chambers, blown up by the German guards as they felt and left in situ as they were found today as a reminder and memorial to those who died there. More than a million people visit the sites each year, and I left with a sense of poignancy: my friends and I were lost in our thoughts and didn’t speak a word to one another on the journey back to Krakow.
The Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Prison, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
I felt somewhat ashamed before visiting Cambodia that I had not been aware of the genocide that took place there less than two decades before I was born. Under the rule of the Khmer Rouge, two million Cambodians were killed – intellectuals, businesspeople, professionals – in the bid to create their ideal society. When I visited Phnom Penh, I took the time to visit two sites which had become synonymous with this time, the first being Tuol Sleng security prison, now a Genocide Museum. Originally a school, the classrooms were divided into cells, with the prisoners tortured until they confessed to whichever crime they had been accused of. Walking around the ‘school’, the barbed wire is still in place, the brick cells standing, and in some instances, blood can still be seen. It’s a very gritty experience, yet outside the buzz of the city carries on regardless.
From there, we travelled a short distance by car to the infamous Killing Fields, outside of the city. Here, amongst beautiful rolling countryside more than 20,000 mass graves where men, women and children died have been discovered, totalling more than one million people. There was an eerie silence as you walked around the structures still in place, completely in contrast to the music that used to be played to drown out the victims screams.
Even today, when it rains, clothing and pieces of bone are often washed out of the ground. Signs respectfully ask that if you spot something to report it. A collection of this clothing reveals colourful t-shirts, bright shorts and pretty dresses which look like they might still be warn today otherwise. Yet chickens wander around, and nearby you can hear children laughing. It’s a sign that life goes on, even in the face of adversity. I left feeling awakened to a tragedy I never knew about, and an incredible sense of admiration for the Cambodians who have carried on with smiles on their faces.
The 9/11 Memorial Pools and Museum, New York, USA
Unlike the historical events linked to each of the above sites, 9/11 is a day I remember all too clearly. At the time I was 12 years old and watched the TV in shock as the second plane hit the towers, before both collapsed before my eyes. I was just old enough to understand the horror of what I was happening, too young to comprehend why. The events of this day are still incredibly recent, with it being fresh in the memory for many people. When I visited New York for the first time in 2013, I was fortunate to be able to watch the final piece being fitted on the new Freedom Tower, a symbolic moment not only for the US, but the rest of the world.
On ground level however there are still stark reminders of the total destruction of the day in the two memorial pools which mark the footprints of the two towers. Etched around the edge of each are the names of those lost: fittingly they are grouped not by alphabetical order, but by association – colleagues, acquaintances, family members, follow team members are remembered together as they were known in life. These pools had a greater impact on me than I first imagined when I first visited. This year, I returned and went to the now completed Memorial Museum.
Situated underground in the footprints of the buildings that once stood there, this museum was haunting and moving. Sensitively done, the exhibits provide a thoughtful timeline of events, a place of remembrance for the thousands that lost their lives and a sense of the reality of the event thanks to everyday objects pulled from the wreckage. For me, it was the smaller things that really hit me: the Sainsbury’s nectar card found in the wallet of British man only in the towers for one meeting on short visit, the soft toy belonging to a two year old on-board one of the planes heading to Disneyland, the recorded voicemail of an air stewardess telling her husband she loved him. I spent almost three hours in the Museum, and it went by in a flash of emotions.
Perhaps one of the most symbolic reminders of life continuing as in Cambodia was actually found back above ground. Here, you can stand in the shade of the “Survivor Tree”, a pear tree discovered in the wreckage, suffering from snapped roots and burned branches. The tree was carefully removed and care for, and remarkably replanted at the site in 2010. Today, smooth new branches have grown from the gnarled branches that had remained, a tangible demonstration of the resilience of life. Take the time to see it if you can.
Have you visited a ‘dark tourism’ site? How did you find the experience? If not, would you go? I’d be very interested to hear.