—Daniel P. Reynolds
Scholars have been studying Holocaust memorialization with increasing intensity since the 1980s, the decade usually associated with the onset of a so-called “memory boom” in public efforts to honor the Nazis’ victims. The term invokes a Keynesian cycle of growth and contraction, allowing critics to acknowledge the sudden appearance around the world of new memorials and museums to the murder of six million Jews, while at the same time keeping a safe analytical distance from the phenomenon in anticipation of its imminent implosion. Though not as dismissive as terms like “the Holocaust industry” or “Shoah business,” there lurks behind the phrase the same kind of mistrust of historical memory in the hands of popular cultural institutions like museums and monuments that these more provocative terms encapsulate. The emergence of Holocaust tourism is one aspect of that memory boom that typically garners severe skepticism.
Despite the “boom/bust” metaphor, tourism to former concentration camps and museums to the memory of the Holocaust has grown steadily for over 30 years. Last year, the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Museum, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, and Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe experienced record levels of attendance. Tourism, that purportedly low-brow engagement with places of collective interest, has begun to assert itself as one of the most vital avenues for cultivating and preserving the memory of the Nazi genocide. Rather than dismiss tourism as an inauthentic engagement with history, it is time to look more closely at the phenomenon, to appreciate its complexity, and to take more seriously the motivations and insights of its participants.
If anything, the passage of 73 years since the last Nazi camps were liberated has lent a sense of urgency to seeing sites like Auschwitz, the Anne Frank House, the House of the Wannsee Conference, and many other sites that educate their visitors about the genocide. With each passing year, the Holocaust moves inexorably from lived memory to recorded history. The day is approaching when the last eyewitnesses will have left us. In their absence, tourism, especially to the sites of perpetration, becomes the most immediate way to grapple with this event in a more intense, embodied way. Histories, novels, films and testimonies certainly retain their place in ensuring that the Shoah remains a cornerstone of collective memory, but tourism offers something unique. It is a chance to inhabit the coordinates of traumatic history, to locate within the reality of one’s own existence a past experienced and so frequently represented by others, and yet, at the same time, to confront the absolute irretrievability of the event.
One of the most haunting experiences of tourism to sites of perpetration is the encounter with absence. As a highly visual practice, we tend to think of tourism as a confrontation with relics or even recreations of the past, and those features of museum culture certainly play a role in Holocaust remembrance. But often the encounter with a space offers very little in the way of visible traces, instead presenting the traveler with their erasure. Unlike Auschwitz-Birkenau or Majdanek, sites like Treblinka, Bełżec, Sobibór do not yield to the touristic desire to see the apparatus of genocide on display. Thoroughly razed by their builders by 1943 to hide evidence of their crimes, these places of absence can be among the most disquieting destinations.
Holocaust tourism confronts its participants with their own expectations about the event and its traces. It can lead to intensely self-reflective experiences on the part of travelers that challenge simplistic notions about historical trauma and one’s ability to understand it. There is no way to observe the past directly, much less redeem it through a cathartic experience of travel. Tourism’s value lies elsewhere: it provides a powerful way to acknowledge the Holocaust as real, to notice and preserve its traces in the present, to shape its representation to others, and to resist the treacherous voices of denial.
Daniel P. Reynolds is Seth Richards Professor in Modern Languages in the German Department at Grinnell College, Iowa. He is the author of Postcards from Auschwitz: Holocaust Tourism and the Meaning of Remembrance (NYU Press 2018), available for pre-order now.
Feature Image: Birkenau gate By Michel Zacharz AKA Grippenn (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons