Saturday, May 24, 2014

Lessons from Auschwitz

Vinita Dawra Nangia

It is important to record the dark periods of history in order to understand all aspects of humanity, lest we forget and repeat mistakes

If you visit Poland, a trip to Auschwitz is a given. Warnings of an emotional onslaught did not bother me; I wanted to explore my own emotions in the face of one of the world’s deadliest mass killing pogroms.

And so it was an anticlimax when walking through Auschwitz felt more like a pilgrimage than a trail of horror, emotion or tears. A fellow tourist echoed my feelings when he said, “I expected Auschwitz to be much bigger, and I thought I would be affected far more than I was.“ He sounded disappointed, almost as if a little more emotional wrenching was in order! Indeed, Aushwitz has the look of a place that has exorcised all its ghosts.

Scrubbed clean and almost antiseptic, the barracks that saw the torture and extermination of more than a million prisoners by Nazis during World War II, 90 percent of them Jews, have been wiped clean of the scent of fear and pain. The super sanitised environ is in sharp contrast with the depraved inhumanity and breach of human rights this site witnessed. But then you come to the rooms that house within large glass cases tufts of hair from the heads of more than a lakh Jewish prisoners, shoes, suitcases marked with their names, baby clothes and baby shoes ­ and the reality of the tragedy hits across the decades. These are the images you carry away with you. Indeed it is important to be able to feel. We wish to feel because we care. We choose to remember this tragedy and be affected by it as part of an unspoken resolve to not let it recur.

This is Dark Tourism ­ the appeal of sites associated with tragedy and inhumanity. Warsaw, with its history of battering at the hands of Germans and Russians, also has museums dedicated to the Warsaw Uprising and the Uprising of the Jews, as do most Western countries to record their dark eras. New York attracts tourists to Ground Zero.

In India, with our culture of blaming it all on destiny, celebration of life and moving on, we have a singular lack of sites that record the dark aspects of our history. We sorely lack museums that record the track of misery and suffering we repeatedly went through at the hands of invaders ­ museums that could serve as a constant reminder for the need to be sensitised to the possibility of recurrences.

As Prof J Lennon, who coined the term `Dark Tourism’ says in an article in The Telegraph, visiting Dark Tourism sites is a crucial way for us to learn the lessons of the past. He warns that not to record may encourage future generations to forget terrible periods of human history. “Dark Tourism, like our dark history, occupies an important part of our understanding of what it is to be human.“

To not record does not obliterate the fact that the horror did exist and as time goes by, more than an emotional journey, Dark Tourism sites are a journey of intellectual curiosity and a horrific, but necessary, reminder of the cruelty we are capable of. We go there to remind ourselves that this happened, and to sensitise ourselves to the need for preventing such atrocities.

Though we may reject the possibility, can we be so sure history will not repeat itself? The fact is, as historian Laurence Rees says, people don’t change, circumstances do. After all, technology makes it so much easier today to be able to perpetrate atrocities on fellow humans without having to look them in the eye, as you kill. And, then what? It’s too scarily like a video game… Just requires one kinky mind at the helm.

And so, it becomes exceedingly important to remember and empathise ­ else we repeat our dark history. Again, and again! Don’t we, in India?

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