Similar to the past’s effects on people, I believe that places with a history to them do leave an imprint to cause different emotions to bubble to the surface based on what occurred in those places. People are often affected or morphed by what happened in their past though they are not defined by the past alone. The same could be said for those places you visit who spark up powerful emotions within us based on what happened there during its usage by people. However, when you visit a place that is a couple of decades old or even hundreds or thousands of years old, it leaves a mark on the visitor where you can feel the actual ‘weight’ of that place based on the history of what occurred there.
For some examples, places like Disneyworld, Universal Studios, or your average local street fair or amusement park, which elicit emotions out of us such as joy, wonder, excitement, and general happiness. In a similar way, your average local restaurant, community center, or place of religious worship tend to give off those same positive emotions based on their shared history of bringing people together for a common cause or common purpose.
However, you also have the opposite in terms of certain places in the world where you can feel the several mixed emotions that can arise from visiting there such as a historic fort or a castle or a battlefield. Where two sides fought to the death, there is a lot of pain, tragedy, and regret but also there are emotions surrounding the victory, triumph, or even the thrill of survival that would emerge from such places. A few examples from my own life that I could cite include the beaches and military cemeteries in the Normandy region of France, the expensive battlefield of Gettysburg during the American Civil War, and the grasslands that cover the previous battlefield of Waterloo during the Napoleonic Wars in Belgium.
There are also a few places in the world which involve such universal pain and human suffering that the weight of being there to witness the places in person where atrocities against people no different from you and I occurred can be almost overwhelming in terms of the emotional pain. To see the concentration camps of Auschwitz in Poland or Dachau in Germany and to also be on the grounds of a plantation where enslaved men, women, and children had their futures and freedom stolen from them to be used as expendable economic tools can make you sick to your stomach.
Such vile places need to be seen to be believed but you can feel the emotional weight of being there to know that dozens, hundreds, or thousands of people were brutally treated, beaten, or even murdered there can chill your spine while you’re there. While it can be difficult to go out of one’s way to visit such dark places where the worst of people is on display, we must go to such places despite the negative emotions you’ll feel while being there to prevent new places like that from ever popping up again in our world.
We must not only focus on those places that give us a sense of joy and happiness but recognize that we have to also go to those places that are infamous for their cruelty, hatred, and pain as well. There is a duality in terms of humanity that we have to reckon with in that we can better appreciate the good in life but realizing that there is also the ugly side to human nature that has been controlled and held in check whenever possible.
It is not just to feel the emotional weight of going to places where slavery, murder, torture, and pain were a daily occurrence for the men, women, and children who experienced it but to also realize that you need to pay witness to such places to make sure that we witness them in person so that other people cannot deny that those places even exist or that any evil did not happen there. By paying witness, we commit ourselves to the need to defend against such horrible places popping up in the future and by also instructing the next generations of young people about what happened there and why such places are left intact for them to visit. It would be great to demolish any mention of a plantation, a concentration camp, or even a battlefield but to do so would to be creating a sense of whitewashing the past and making it easier for such atrocities or violations against humanity from happening again in the future. We cannot risk the history being wiped away, which includes getting rid of any physical semblance of those places or the information, research, and facts along with it.
Now, I’m not saying you should go out of your way to visit historically traumatic places, but we need to be on our guard against those people who would deny that those places ever existed or what atrocities were committed there. I think this is especially important for students of different ages when they are old enough to go on class trips to such battlefields, plantations, concentration camps to witness the worst of humanity so that we can better ensure that ‘history does not repeat itself.’ It is not easy to convince parents or teachers of the utility of such visits, but part of life is realizing that not every place is like Disneyworld, and we have to understand the importance of highlighting the weight of places, both good and bad, and not ignoring one or the other.
One trip to such traumatic places is good enough as it can be deeply disturbing for people to go there and see the photos, watch the videos, and see the physical evidence of such atrocities in person. Such visits should be done with respect, attention, and long enough where the full impact of the emotional weight can be felt by those visitors. Most folks will never forget what emotions they were feeling when they were there and about hearing the history be brought to life for them so they realize it is not such pictures or information on pages in a book but real places in the world that we can point to and are being preserved.
For as long as I live, I will always remember the winter chill of being inside the gates of what was Auschwitz death camp in southern Poland and seeing the camps that stretched for what looked like miles. It was brutally cold, and snow covered the ground. You can only imagine how the innocent men, women, and children there would freeze to death in such conditions while they were huddled together in the bunks of those camps to keep warm while they were given barely any clothing, food, or water. The elderly Polish woman emphasized to us the importance of remembering what we witness on our tour of the death camps and how the people who don’t visit Auschwitz will also deny there ever was a Holocaust or that this camp even existed.
She made it clear to us that we as visitors and the entire world have the responsibility to make sure another Auschwitz never happens again because sadly, as she noted, it can happen again and has happened in other parts of the world. Wherever people’s freedom is snuffed out, where their human rights are denied, and where people are beaten, mistreated, or killed for who they are, what they believe, and where they came from, the lessons of Auschwitz and other dark places in our world will never be learned. She lowered her head and said a silent prayer at the end of our tour for the dearly departed.