Saturday, 19 November 2011

Holocaust Tourism: Auschwitz and Phnom Penh

As luck, or fate, or low-cost airline schedules would have it, I ended up in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, about three weeks after I visited Auschwitz near Krakow in Poland.

To quickly summarise 20th Century history:
  • Auschwitz is the site of the largest concentration camp used as part of the Nazi holocaust of about six million people in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s.
  • Phnom Penh was the centre of the Khmer Rouge’s holocaust of at least one million Cambodians in the 1970s and 1980s.
The closeness of the two trips was coincidental. I was in Krakow with a friend because we wanted a break from the expense of travelling in Western Europe (have you ever tried to get drunk in Rotterdam? Well, I have, and it’s extremely bloody pricey), and everyone raves about Krakow (which is warranted – it’s a lovely place. Medieval castles and cheap beer).

I was in Cambodia because I stuffed up booking the connection between leaving Bangladesh and arriving back in Sydney (by, like, a week, because I’m just that hopeless), and Air Asia offered me a cheap and easy way to re-brand myself from “possibly illiterate, definitely incapable travel organiser” to “intrepid south-east Asia adventurer!”

There is a lot to do in both Krakow and Phnom Penh aside from visiting the sites of and memorials to massacres. Fun, life-affirming stuff (take note, Switzerland). Krakow has a castle, a salt mine (no really, trust me, all kinds of cool) and a museum with a handbag exhibit.

Phnom Penh has a royal compound with bright and shiny treasures on display and more temples than you can waft an incense stick at. Moreover, it has that spark that I sometimes find absent in ancient, eroding Europe; Phnom Penh is still recovering and reconstructing, and people move from place to place with purpose and urgency. They’ve got stuff to do - rebuild their city and do aerobics in public squares and start really awesome fashion lines that they sell out of their Dad’s garages (I, ahem, may have shopped).

So Krakow is more than a place near Auschwitz, and Phnom Penh is more than Khmer Rouge collateral.


I'm unsure about what to write about the actual visit to the Auschwitz camp and the exhibits. It’s unsettlingly familiar, partly because you’ve seen it before on TV and at the cinema, and partly, for me at least, because the duplicated buildings and institutional layout reminded me of a primary school.

There’s lots of other people there and you don’t actually look anyone in the eye but everyone goes out of their way to be polite and behave respectfully. You lower your voice and hold doors open for other people and just try to be good.

Trying to be good, or at least better, is, I think, kind of the point of Auschwitz as a museum/memorial/monument. Or, as Seth Freedman writes when talking about the Holocaust Industry in Poland, the continuing existence of the place is “a necessary course of treatment for humanity”.

Unfortunately, as Freedman points out, Auschwitz as a memorial and a warning, whilst absolutely necessary, is a treatment rather than a cure. Holocausts have continued to occur since the end of World War II. Which brings me entirely too neatly to Cambodia.

As with Auschwitz, I’m not sure what to say about the actual visit to the Cambodian memorials. The first place I visited in Phnom Penh was S-21, a former school where the Khmer Rouge detained and tortured political prisoners. It still feels like a school, and as with Auschwitz, visitors behave like very well-behaved students. Heads are down, you speak only when spoken to and read every sign and leaflet or plaque conscientiously, as if there’s an exam at the end.

Several classrooms are now galleries, full of mugshots of people killed there. At first glance (before you register the bruises and the cuts and black eyes), the photos could be reprints of all the images taken one year at a particularly busy passport photo booth, or a big company’s database of photos from employee identification badges. There are people with freckles and pimples and bad haircuts and sometimes, somehow, people with smiles on their faces.

From S-21 I followed all the other tourists out to Choeung Ek (Holocaust tourists, even the Intrepid South East Asia Adventurers like myself, move as 12 little girls in two straight lines), a Killing Field on the outside of Phnom Penh. It’s exactly as described – a field where 17000 people were taken to be killed, and about 9000 were buried in mass graves.

Not that I would have been able to recognize the mass graves, if they hadn’t been signposted. Choeung Ek now features buildings developed since the site became a memorial, but there’s little obvious structural evidence of what happened there. In the years since the killing stopped, the man-made traces have faded and trees and grass have grown in their place.

And I guess that’s why I’m glad my dwindling budget and my woeful attention to detail led me to both Auschwitz and Phnom Penh; because tourists - as nosy, ignorant and loud as we can be – will help keep Auschwitz and the Killing Fields memorials going, long after the physical evidence has eroded.

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