Significant Sites

When my last blog post was posted, I was on may way to Kraków in Poland – a place I didn’t know a great deal about but which I’ve always associated with the Second World War and the Holocaust (for obvious reasons). I didn’t know much about the old town or Wawel Castle (both of which I visited) but I knew my visit wouldn’t be complete without visiting the former Jewish quarter, the site of the Jewish ghetto, and Schindler’s enamel factory. As a writer of historical fiction, I find visiting significant historical places has a powerful, often visceral impact which informs not only my writing but my sense of self. On this visit, it was my trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau that left the greatest impression.

I can’t say it was an easy decision to even make the journey to Auschwitz but both my husband and I felt it was a necessary pilgrimage to make. I’ve never done extensive research on the 1930s but, as my twin boys were studying the Holocaust this last school year, I revisited Schindler’s List by Thomas Keneally and read for the first time Elie Wiesel’s memoir Night (the book my boys were required to read as part of their Holocaust unit). This helped, but it in no way truly prepared me, for what I would experience visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau. I was shocked by the immediate physical effect stepping into the camps had on me. I felt nauseated, upset, horrorified as well as, inexplicably, anxious. The initial, almost casual attitude of many of visitors angered me as did their desire to photograph everything – even the most horrific and terrifying aspects of what we saw (would you really show friends photographs of the ruins of the crematoria?) but I did notice that as the tour progressed a somber silence fell amongst even the most chatty groups of tourists. By the time we had completed our visit to Birkenau, you could sense that everyone had been profoundly affected by what they had experienced (and rightly so).

As a writer of a historical fiction, the act of visiting sites such as Auschwitz-Birkenau also gives me a renewed sense of purpose to my work. In many ways, though, I felt that my humanity demanded that I make this visit. I left feeling a renewed sense of outrage, horror, and also – after our visit to Schindler’s factory – hope.

So TKZers, have you ever visited a site that left a similarly lasting impression – one that affected you not only as a writer but as a human being?

36 thoughts on “Significant Sites

  1. Yes. The same site you just opined about. It’s quite understandable that it could leave such an impression, so I knew that going in, but your mention “that as the tour progressed a somber silence fell… you could sense that everyone had been profoundly affected” describes well the deepening of the horror everyone felt. A very quiet return bus ride. I’m getting chills even as I write this.

  2. I worked in the travel industry for most of my career, and was blessed to bring a group of journalists to Normandy in advance of the 50th anniversary of D-Day. Of all the things that blew my mind, and it was everything and everyone on that trip, the biggest was walking through the cemetery of U.S. soldiers. Walking at a measured pace, it took several minutes to pass row upon row upon row of graves. It was the longest walk of my life. I can’t describe it without crying still. It is worth noting that the people of Normandy spare no expense to keep the site pristine and beautiful as a measure of their gratitude to this day.

    • I felt the same when I visited Normandy a couple years back, Margaret. It was a cold rainy day. There was one group of boisterous tourists and listening to them was like…metaphors fail here…But as I got away from them and just walked down the rows, the full impact fell on me of the sacrifice, which comes to us usually through movies and some books.

      There’s a great museum there as well, which needs a full day to appreciate. A must-see place, Normandy.

      • Normandy is on my bucket list. My brother in law visited one of the WWI sites in France for Anzac Day and he said it was incredibly moving, so I’m sure visiting Normandy would have a similar effect.

  3. Auschwitz-Birkenau: the rooms full of eye glasses, personal belongings, prosthetic limbs, all belonging to real people of my same flesh and blood. Using the restroom on the Nazi schedule: “1, 2, 3, Pee Pee. Next.” The horror.
    I carried the memory of this injustice to Manzanar a few months ago. This California internment camp was not as cruel, but it was cruel enough and so wrong. The notion that Americans could deprive other Americans of their hard-earned property, imprison them in uninsulated long houses in a land of extreme weather and intolerable dust, and strip them of their privacy made me want to retch. These were honorable people of integrity. I know because I was a college intern for Dr. Yamaguchi, a survivor of the camp. I still can’t believe anyone would treat such a brilliant man like that. The horror.

  4. Gallipoli, Turkey. I was on a bus tour of Turkey and had no sense of Gallipoli, but the bus contained lots of Aussies and they talked about Anzac Day. I remember standing on the beach and finding it easy to see how soldiers would have been mowed down trying to arrive on the beach and wondering who had ordered such a hopeless invasion and how the men who came in the first wave had the guts to get off the boat and try to climb the beach. I wasn’t a writer at the time, but my imagination took over then as I imagined the sights and sounds and death of such a battle. Then, to see the cemetery of soldiers buried so far from their native land. Many of the Aussies on the bus were in tearful silence and yet this was a part of history I had no memory of.

  5. The World Trade Towers site, when it was just a bare gash in the ground with some plywood installed around. As we walked up a plank, the tourists were chatty and the cameras were clicking. But as soon as you got to the top and looked down, all noise stopped. In the middle of the city, you could almost hear a heart beat. You could hear people crying. It was overwhelming and awful.

    • When I visited the World Trade Towers site, I had a similar experience. We had lived in New York and moved just a year before the tragedy so we knew so many people affected…I remember on one of our early visits back to the city there were stil flyers up for people looking for their missing loved ones.

  6. I went with my parents to Valley Forge as a young adult. Just walking around the battlefield and into a house where one of the civilians was shot and died gave me a chill and took me back, made it all real to me. My son later gave me a book written after the television version of the battle. —- Suzanne

  7. Pearl Harbor. My husband’s grandfather served on the battleship Tennessee. During the December 7, 1941 attack, he rescued burning sailors by throwing them over the side into the sea. When the adjoining battleship, the Arizona, blew up, he was horribly burned but continued working to save shipmates. He spent a year and a half in a hospital afterwards.

    The memorial site is unbelievably tranquil and beautiful–blue sea, sunshine, blue skies. But amid the peace and silence, you can hear echoes of battle and screams.

    When my husband or I mention Pearl Harbor to younger people, they usually respond with blank stares. So much crucial history that changed the direction of the world is no longer taught. I’m heartened to learn your sons studied the Holocaust in school.

    I recently met a 90-year-old Holocaust survivor. He’s sharp, witty, and full of ironic wisdom. Yet the pain in his voice remains palpable. He continues to share his experience with audiences so people will not forget. He made a huge impression on me.

    There are few survivors left from Pearl Harbor or the Holocaust. Once they are gone, only memorials remain to teach us what they endured. Memorials speak for the dead so the living can learn.

    I doubt I will ever get to Europe to visit the camps where my friend was interned. So thank you, Clare, for giving me the vicarious experience.

  8. The World Trade Center. I visited on a day, just by chance, they had discovered another body at the site. A shroud covered the spot where they worked… I will never forget the cathedral-like feeling, standing there in a hushed NYC. Unreal. I had feelings of sadness and wanting to explode at the same time….Just last week I re-visited. When I walked out of the subway and saw that gorgeous white fretwork of the Oculus–reminiscent of the iconic fretwork against the sky that was standing after the attack–I caught my breath. Hundreds of oak trees–no ash or elm here. Serene beds of ivy–no impatiens and petunias for this place. When you look down into the pools, your hands rest on the names of those gone. The silver buildings, the blue sky. A fine tribute. I left with the feeling, America is great.

  9. The Old Idaho Penitentiary site in Boise had a profound effect on me. The tiny, barred cells with no privacy and nothing to do, the solitary confinement holes. How can anyone treat another human like that regardless of what they’ve done? Why would anyone reoffend after serving time in such a horrific environment? I was stunned to learn it remained in use until 1973. I thought we were more civilized than that by then.

  10. The Vietnam War memorial in Washington was particularly striking and chilling.

    But even more so to me is the black marble salute to missing Americans from several wars in Hawaii. I never thought much about the category of war casualties whose exact fate was never determined — the missing — until I visited. Here’s a description:

    “The Honolulu Memorial is located within the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in an extinct volcano . . . On either side of the grand stairs leading to the memorial are eight Courts of the Missing on which are inscribed the names of the 18,095 American World War II missing from the Pacific . . . and 8,210 American missing from the Korean War. . . Two half courts have been added at the foot of the staircase that contain the names of 2,504 Americans missing from the Vietnam War.”

  11. Although not as emotionally wrenching as your experience at Auschwitz-Birkenau, I was overwhelmed by the passage of time while on a tour under St Peter’s Basilica in Rome two years ago. The Scavi tour takes only 250 people daily underground to see the necropolis and artifacts. It’s stuffy, dim and uncomfortably close. While our knowledgeable tour guide spoke of historical facts, I found myself falling behind the group as I stopped on the dirt path between ancient Roman buildings and touched the 2,000 year old brick walls. How many thousands of people walked that same dirt and touched the wall over time?

  12. Several sites come to mind for their own reasons. USS Arizona Memorial, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii; Punchbowl National Cemetery, Hawaii, The American Cemetery in Luxembourg (WW2 General George Patton is buried here), in fact, any National Cemetery. Just seeing the rows and rows of white headstones near the end of the day as taps plays is moving. There is a sense of awe and thankfulness for those who paid the ultimate price.

    Along the same lines, having visited Dachau in 1992 with my family, despite having studied the war, to include its atrocities, I was immediately struck by the eerie silence when passing through the gate. Though much of the site is clear, several of the crematoriums remain as does the administration building which houses huge displays of hair, shoes, and clothing alongside the pictures. We slowly walked through the grounds, visited the Memorial, while trying to fathom how could “normal” people inflict such terror upon fellow human beings and citizens on such a scale.

    During our visit, we passed a reconstructed barracks. Inside were German high school students being taught the history of this place. (Our tour guide said all German students are required to visit a camp so as not to forget.) I wonder how many of our own students really comprehend the magnitude of these atrocities. And how do we imbue this in them without sounding preachy?

    As we drove home, my youngest daughter asked why did it happen. To this day, I still struggle to ascertain a satisfactory answer. The Nazis are an easy answer, but in reality, they were the latest on the scene in the antisemitism movement. Prior to them were the Russian pogroms. And the killing didn’t stop once the war ended. On July 4, 1946, a mob of Polish soldiers, police, and civilians killed 42 Jews in Kielce.

    Having retired and able to focus on a WIP, I’ve been doing the research to grasp the why. Recent nonfiction works based on “secret” taped conversations between senior German officers and letters from members of Einsatzgruppen shooting squads reveal that these atrocities occurred because there was no moral consequences during the war. True, after the war, the war crimes trials took place. But, they focused on the most heinous offenders and leaders. Many of those who performed the acts were simply ignored.

    I read in this past Saturday’s paper that the Nazi hunters are working to bring to trial the men of the Einsatzgruppen death squads. Most will be in their 90s. It raised several interesting questions. Will today’s readers care? And, will it reinforce the signal that “following immoral orders,” even at the threat of losing one’s own life, ultimately leads to justice?

    Claire, thanks for your post. It really reminded me why its important to finish my WIP.

    • Thanks for sharing this and yes, definitely sounds like you need to complete you WIP – though the whole question of how something like the Holocaust could happen isn’t an easy one to address. I am thankful my boys studied Elie Wiesel’s memoir, Night, in 7th grade so they have some appreciation of what happened.

  13. American Patrick Putnam founded a reserve for wild okapis, a small giraffe like creature. The place, in the Ituri forest on the Epulu River in the northeast Congo has been raided and devastated over the years, the last instance in July of last year.
    I was there late in 1977. Putnam had built an inn for visitors, in 1977 it was a burned-out shell. One of the interior walls was pocked-marked with bullet holes surrounded with blood splatters. Some poor soul had been executed at that spot during one of their recent civil wars. Don’t know who, whether they were good or bad, male or female. Thinking about that wall still gives me the chills.
    A few days earlier, in Kisangani, we drove over a bridge upstream from a waterfall. I had heard stories of massacres of the educated class by Che Guevarra backed Simba rebels. They had been thrown into the river from the bridge. Regrettably, for the people of Kisangani, educated meant anyone who could read.
    Civilization is fragile, once it breaks, anything goes.

  14. On a cool, cloudy day, I stepped onto the battlefield at the Little Bighorn. Most don’t know that the 7th Cavalry and the veterans of Vietnam were never given a formal welcome home, so I have a personal connection. As I walked the hills where the Battle of Greasy Grass took place, something in my mind took over and I could see the soldiers and the Lakota warriors engaging. Crazy Horse and Chief Gall moved their troops constantly, reacting to the situation and the 7th Cavalry hunkered down.
    The 7th and Custer faced a force led by two military geniuses, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. Custer was a celebrity but not a match for Crazy Horse. Major Reno’s forces waited not far away confused as what to do.
    I found that windy hill to be a haunting place. Everyone who died on June 25, 1876 was an American. I grieve for all of them.

    • Brian,
      My wife and I visited there in May. So true. And its appropriate it they renamed the battlefield.

      • When I was in the 8th grade my American History book said that we would never know what happened there because no one survived. Ironic since so many did survive.

        • Brian,
          True statement. There are some new books out about it now. In fact, just check Amazon and Soldiers Falling Into Camp is an updated version with more perspective from the Indian side. Haven’t read it, so can’t recommend. But at $2.99, thought it would be worth the try.

  15. When I lived in Oklahoma, I visited the Oklahoma City bombing memorial several times with tourist friends. Each time, it’s like walking into a church. It’s an impressive site but everyone who walks through it does so in silence. Over one entrance is the time the attack started. Over another entrance is when it ended. Such death & devastation in minutes.

    I hadn’t moved to OKC when the bombing occurred and remembered watching the horror on TV. When I first visited the memorial, I went with people who lived there & were near the site when it happened. Their personal accounts made everything a reality. I’ll never forget it.

  16. A few battlefields here in the States have left me feeling this way~
    Chicamagua, Kennesaw Mountain, Gettysburg ~ folks tossing footballs or frisbees where soldiers fought and died; Andersonville, where time and Georgia summers have covered the anguish and suffering…

  17. One more site that deserves mention: The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington. The hourly changing of the guard is very moving.

      • And the symbolism in each of the movements both doing the changing of the guard, and during the watch periods~ the number of steps, the shifting of the weapon away from the tomb~ very sobering and meaningful ~

  18. Visiting the gravesite of John F. Kennedy in Arlington National Cemetery brought me an overwhelming sense of the unfinished life and agency of this young president. More than overwhelming, it was crushing and sad.

  19. I’m a little late on this, but just wanted to say that I was moved by my visit to the Peace Park at ground zero in Hiroshima. There was an aerial photo of the river and the bridge (now rebuilt) where the bomb hit. I could tell it was right where I was standing. There was a blackened, half melted building that has been left just as it was, and many photographs.
    It was interesting to hear about the conditions in Japan leading up to the war and see copies of US documents concerning the bombing. The recovery of the city seemed miraculous to me in light of the devastation and what I’ve heard about radioactive half lives.
    My daughter spent six weeks living with a family in Hiroshima in high school. She brought me there a few years later when she was studying abroad in Tokyo, so I could meet the family. Our children certainly do enlarge our experiences.
    I’ll never forget it.

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