Wednesday, August 06, 2014

On Not Visiting Concentration Camps

A few years back I began periodically putting up pictures from my time in Prague. That series was far from finished, but it has been on hiatus because I have not had a working scanner for some months. I was however reminded of a Prague story recently by the photograph that went viral on the internet  that a youngish woman had taken of herself grinning fecklessly while visiting the Auschwitz concentration camp. The picture was, to say the least, unfortunate, in poor taste and revealing of a surprising lack of self-consciousness (considering that even in this day and age it takes some planning and effort for an American student to get to Auschwitz, such that one assumes they have some idea of where they are going). Doubtless many internet denizens were appalled or outraged, ones supposes not to the same extent that they are towards the actual atrocities and injustices themselves, but still with some degree of power. Outrage is a great response, provided one's sense has some kind of coherent form and organization. I wish mine did, but unfortunately I do not have that degree of righteous and sustained fire in my makeup. I never feel outrage. There was another story last year about the Auschwitz museum's having a gift shop that--apart from the question of the appropriateness of having a gift shop at Auschwitz in the first place--sold Woody Allen key chains and similar kitsch items that opened itself to suggestions of institutional insensitivity. I was somewhat surprised by this story, and 'uncomfortable'--middle aged people in the 2010s want to be comfortable, in body and mind, above all other concerns--but I am pretty sure I was not outraged by it.

But with regard to my Prague story. It does not involve my going to a concentration camp--I have never, in keeping with the title of this posting, gone to one--but rather a person who came to stay with us while we were there whose first priority in visiting that part of the world was to see one. This primacy of the desire struck me as strange at the time--the person in question was neither Jewish nor had any other personal connection to the camps, though even in those instances I probably would thought it an odd thing to want to do, or, as our visitor explained to me, feel it to be something they ought, or had to do. I admit I don't feel any compulsion or moral obligation to visit Auschwitz or Terezin (Theresienstadt, which is the camp nearest to Prague that our guest went to see), and the idea of going to a place where people were gassed to death and tortured and otherwise abused and humiliated does not hold any especial fascination for me. Obviously the camps were preserved, I have always assumed in the hope that ordinary people, citizens, functionaries in positions of moderate authority and their underlings, would remember what went on in them and develop their consciences to resist the establishment and execution of similar atrocities in the future. This may have had an effect for a time in certain segments of the West, though it seems that even there the nature of power is taking a form that is getting away from most people's understanding again. (This is not to say that I believe a mass genocide to be imminent, only that I don't think very many ordinary citizens at present would be equipped to effectively stand up to it in the form it would be likely to take if something of the sort did arise). At the time, and not much less now, I did not understand what good purpose would be served by my taking a day outing to the countryside to traipse through this ground of horrors, especially given that the horrors occurred in living memory, and the wounds of the period, the literal as well as the psychological ones, remain so raw and bitter (though I have never been there either, I have considered going to visit Andersonville in Georgia, the Civil War prison camp where men suffered starvation and horrible diseases and cruelties. Perhaps because this is far enough in the past that both the sufferers and the inflicters of the suffering are long dead, and even the differences in the identities of the same are no longer of such great significance that such guilt and anguish as are to be found there do not continue to fall especially heavily on some people more than others. While I know that many natives of the old Confederacy especially still identify with that rebellious era, I for my own part do not consider the Civil War to be an issue that has an active bearing on my life). There are sad reminders of history everywhere in that part of the world. It permeates most atmospheres, and no, the minor spirit is not going to penetrate it, or be very much penetrated by it, any more than he is by anything complicated that he is exposed to; seeing that a concentration camp is this type of evil atmosphere multiplied to an extreme, it seemed to me foolish and obscene to go to such a place without a sense of real purpose impelling me there; and I did not have any such purpose.

The visitor who went out (by himself) to Terezin did not say too much about it that I remember, other than what you would expect. He did seem as if he had undergone some kind of purging of emotions, though as I did not have those particular emotions I still cannot guess what they were and where they originated, and why my guest felt that something in his experience had caused him to be able to deal with them. I should have asked him these questions at the time, but I have never been very forthright with other people in this way, and when I have tried I have not been able to present my thoughts in a way that set people at ease. So I let it go.

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