Why We Visit Tragic Places

Dachau entrance sign

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.

DachauI 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.

Yad Vashem

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.

By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer.

18 thoughts on “Why We Visit Tragic Places”

  1. Chris @ CAroundTheWorld

    Interesting topic, Matt. I’ve been struggling with this as I write up my posts from our recent trip to Berlin. We went on a Third Reich history tour, saw several museums dealing with the Berlin Wall and visited the Jewish Museum. Needless to say, we were drained by the experience (Berlin may not be the best place to go for a romantic vacay, LOL). But Don and I discussed it later, and we’re both glad that we took the time to see all these places that are so important to world history.

  2. I really loved this. I agree entirely. I’ve been somewhat obsessed with seeing parts of the world ravaged by man’s cruelty (I, too, visited Yad Vashem). I think we become so numb to everything horrible that goes on. We hear about it on the news, we see it in pictures, blah blah. But you are separated from it entirely. You can keep an emotional distance. But when you’re there, face to face with it, that distance is gone. It’s impossible to relay that to anyone who hasn’t experienced it.

  3. Hi Matt, that’s a really interesting article. Just saw it re-tweeted by Lonely Planet. I felt the same about visiting the Killing Fields and Tuol Seng prison in Cambodia, but I agree with the sentiment. Travelling is about absorbing everything the world has offered, good or bad, and it is important to bear witness to these events so the world doesn’t forget. Also, if something terrible in the past can bring a brighter future and a certain amount of revenue to an area that might also be desperately in need of it then that too can help ensure there are positive future recriminations.

    Keep up the good work!


  4. I felt a similar experience while in Thailand on December 26, 2004. I was in a village a 2-hour train ride from Chiang Mai and was scheduled to be in Krabi on the Andaman Coast the next day. I was visiting my father, who works in the news industry, and he began to receive phone call after phone call about a giant wave that had wiped out several villages around Phuket. At the time, we didn’t know the extent of the devastation or how many were dead.

    We would later learn that over 250,000 souls were lost in a tsunami that hit several countries on the Indian Ocean. The damage in Phuket was horrific but the damage in Banda Aceh, Indonesia was just unspeakable.

    I spent the rest of my trip experiencing a mix of confusion and guilt. Although I had planned to be in Krabi for the rest of my vacation, my plan was diverted to spending a weekend in Chiang Mai. It was the first time I had seen this legendary city but it just didn’t seem appropriate to enjoy it.

    In a few days, I could get on a plane and fly away from all of this – but for millions, this Hellish ordeal of cleaning up and rebuilding their lives after a massive natural disaster had just begun.

  5. Nice post, Matt. I’ve often visited places that have been scenes of tragedy, disaster or immense sadness. I think it brings these things more clearly into focus for us, making it sadly more real. But it’s important to do so. As Lisa said above, when we visit these places, we are bearing witness “so that the world won’t forget”. On the other end of the spectrum, I think it’s also true that when we visit sites of great happiness or achievement, we are affirming that mankind is capable of doing such good. It’s important for to do that, too.

  6. I once had a huge row with an ex-boyfriend outside Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam as he said the house should not be a visitor attraction and the war should be forgotten. His point was that such places were keeping alive an uncomfortable memory for Germany. However if we don’t remember and visit, who does? Keeping such memories alive hopefully help make sure these things don’t happen again. Also, the sites are now there, it would be much worse to ignore them! Harrowing experiences they may be but this too is an essential part of travel and learning about the world around us.

  7. Thank you for this post. It came at the perfect time.

    I’m a solo expatriate who is good friends with a married couple. Over the weekend, we discussed travelling together and the husband in the couple mentioned wanting to see some Holocaust spots. I was glad because so do I but thought it was just me. They want to visit Germany in February and I’ll likely go with them. Now that you mentioned that Dachau is outside of Munich, I’ll tell them so that we can start planning from now.

    In addition, I intend to visit Elmina Castle in Ghana (and possibly The Gambia) to see the Atlantic slave trade sites. This is history – a disgusting part of (my) history, but history nonetheless.

    Again, thank you for this timely post.

  8. I studied the Holocaust in college and even wrote a senior thesis on how to teach the Holocaust to children since I was both a history major and an education major. I was often asked why I was so interested in the topic. Although the atrocities that occurred during the Holocaust are too numerous and horrible to list here, it is important that they not be forgotten. People need to know that large numbers of people got carried away by the thoughts and desires of a single man which led to the murders of millions. Without this important history lesson, I worry that history will repeat itself.

    Pastor Niemoller said it best:
    “They came first for the Communists,
    and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.

    Then they came for the trade unionists,
    and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

    Then they came for the Jews,
    and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.

    Then they came for me
    and by that time no one was left to speak up.”

  9. When we visited Auschwitz many years ago, our guide ended with the following: “It’s important for you and others to visit here, not only to understand what happened in the past, but to recognize genocide happening today and try to prevent this for the future.” He then went on to talk about Rwanda, Bosnia and Sudan.

    Each time we visit a tragic place, I remember our guide who lived through the Holocaust himself. I try to remind myself that the world today is not entirely peaceful – and is there anything I can do to try and do something about today’s issues?

  10. Thank you for this post! Not all of travel is vacation. To travel is to be a student of the world, and part of the greatness in this is to find the links that thread together our common humanity. To be an American touring the War Remnants Museum in Vietnam was awkward and uncomfortable but ultimately contributed much more to my ideology that war is wrong than to watch evening news updates. Even now, four years later, I struggle to come up with the words to adequately describe being given a tour of Robben Island by a former political prisoner but I am enarmored with the lesson of forgiveness and truth. Well written and important read!

  11. I believe the answer lies in our own attempts to be educated and understand such devastation in the world.

  12. Thanks for this great post Matt. We too visited Dachau last fall and struggled a bit with our emotional response to it. It is hard to understand how something like that could happen and continues to happen today in other parts of the world. I think that we should do more than simply bear witness to the events that took place at these monuments to human suffering. We need to actively try and stop current genocides and ensure that future minority groups don’t suffer the same fate as the victims of the holocaust.

  13. I’m currently writing a post on the Stasi museum and other DDR sites in Berlin and have similar feelings but this period of German history has been kind of airbrushed from the books, making it event more important to visit and understand that this happened only a couple of decades ago. People come and look at the Wall with its graffiti, take a picture of the actors pretending to be border guards and think those old Trabant cars are funny, but the realities of life in East Germany were awful and many people were imprisoned and murdered. Travel does indeed provide an opportunity to learn as well as just enjoy.

  14. Dachau was also my first visit to a place of horror. I found it to be life-changing – to the degree that it can still bring tears to my eyes 22 years later. Nobody should ever have to visit a place like that, and yet we all should, to prevent anything like that from ever happening again.

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