When I spent a week at Auschwitz Concentration Camp with a Buddhist-led interfaith group, I confronted the question, is such a visit meaningful or morbid? We may not be able to make sense of such places, but ‘bearing witness’ to their horrors retains a mysterious power

Thought for the Day 25/4/2012


Dachau. Chernobyl. Hiroshima. The very names of these places have an unsettling resonance. They embody the worst horrors that might befall us, yet growing numbers visit the sites each year. There’s even a name for the phenomenon: ‘Dark Tourism’; and yesterday we heard that a Dark Tourism Research Centre is opening in Lancashire. But are our visits to such places morbid, or are they a new form of pilgrimage?

Some years ago I spent a week with a Buddhist-led interfaith group at Auschwitz Concentration Camp. Members of my family died in the Holocaust and I wanted to participate, though I didn’t know why.

Images of that visit are still vivid. A pile of spectacles taken from the dead heaped up like a mound of insects; the constriction of the punishment cells; the unutterable bleakness of the Execution wall. When we visited nearby Berkenau I was unprepared for the camp’s orderliness; its barbarous symmetry; the implacable barbed wire fences; and the wretchedness of the barracks.

Why go? The question was present throughout my visit. Was I trying to confront the world’s darkness? Or my own? Was it about understanding how people can do such things, or learning lessons that might stop them happening again? None of that seemed important as I sat with others in the grounds of Berkenau, meditating and performing simple rituals. I’ve learned through Buddhist practice that the urge to make sense of or resolve something troubling can be a subtle attempt to control it and make it go away. Sometimes you simply need to pay attention without interpreting and see what happens.

It helped that we spent several days in Berkenau to sit with and absorb the experience. You can’t do that on a daytrip. Sometimes I felt rooted and whole, as if I could encompass the place’s horror, but more often I felt baffled and overwhelmed. Then my  attention would slip and familiar preoccupations filled my thoughts. One thing that did make sense was mourning my grandfather and other Holocaust victims and I found, to my surprise, that Jewish prayers helped me do that more than Buddhist chants.

Buddhist monks sometimes meditate in cremation grounds surrounded by corpses as a way of facing death. My visit to Auschwitz felt more like that than tourism, however ‘dark’. But perhaps all such visits ultimately reflect an intuition that, to be whole we must face our selves and the world as they really are, including dark as well as light and concentration camps as well as beauty.