My first, and to date only, visit to Germany was way back in 2003. Scott and I were on vacation touring through Austria, the Czech Republic and Germany. The trip was a great introduction to Central and Eastern Europe and continued to fuel my love of all things European.
It was early Spring and we spent a wonderful few days wandering around Munich, tasting the delicious foods and soaking in the sounds and smells of Bavaria. On our last day we decided to visit one more spot just outside the city, Dachau.
I had never before visited a site like that, a place known only for shocking horrors and cruelty. Dachau was the first Nazi concentration camp and held more than 200,000 prisoners from 1933-1945. After two, gut-wrenching hours we left without saying a word to each other – we were both simply too lost in our own thoughts.
Last month, while in Israel, I again visited an important but emotionally difficult place, Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Yad Vashem is a huge, 45-acre complex housing memorial sites, museums and research libraries. The centerpiece though is the Holocaust History Museum.
After walking through the museum, which is one of the best museums I have ever visited, the experience ended at the Hall of Names. The Hall of Names is the storehouse of more than 2 million Pages of Testimony, each adding to the important knowledge bank about the Holocaust. In the center of the Hall, a circular room really, are the pictures of scores of people who were murdered during World War II. Every day new faces and names are featured, so that all may receive remembrance.
Just as with Dachau, I left feeling shell-shocked. My mind was completely unable to process the level of horrors with which it was presented. Even now, I still think about it and reflect on the lessons taught at Yad Vashem.
Once again, similarly to Dachau, I found my experience hard to explain to others. It’s not appropriate to say that I enjoyed visiting these places; it seems too horrible a statement to make. Rather it is better said that these sites, and many others like them, are important to visit.
Travel showcases some of the best attributes of mankind. Art, architecture, preservation of nature – all of these exemplify society at its finest. But that’s not the full story. It is equally important to visit the places that are frankly hard to bear witness to in order to understand the full scope of world history.
Although not to the level of magnitude surely of Dachau or Yad Vashem, there are countless places around the world that are examples of man’s folly and cruelty. The local visitor’s bureaus may not always like to highlight them, but they are an essential aspect of traveling.
At a dinner in Jerusalem with some new local friends, the topic of Yad Vashem came up. I was surprised when they asked me why I visited the museum. While the question was unexpected, I was frankly more frustrated that I couldn’t give them an adequate response. I tried to explain that it is our duty to visit these hard-to-see places, to understand that our history includes incredibly horrible events along with the wonderful ones.
Their response though to this same question I think better encapsulates the reason why we all must visit places of incredible horror and sadness – in order to serve as a witness that these events happened and to make sure they are never, ever repeated.