Dark tourism

Why do we visit the scenes of atrocities?

By Vincent Bongers

When he saw the long queues of people braving the cold to get into the Anne Frank House, American historian Kenneth Marcus wanted to find out more about this strange sort of tourism. Mare accompanied him on a trip to Westerbork, a transit camp.

"Was this filmed in the camp? It’s almost unbelievable", exclaims Kenneth Marcus, a history professor from the University of La Verne in California. He studies the razor-sharp black and white images of a woman dancing gracefully on a stage. A man with a saxophone joins her and together they lose themselves in the music. In the next scene, two gentlemen do a sketch.

Later on, we can confirm that the images were indeed shot inside Camp Westerbork: a German-Jewish prisoner of the camp, Rudolf Breslauer, was ordered to make the film by the camp’s commander, SS-Obersturmführer Albert Konrad Gemmeker.

The performance was given at the gateway to hell. Almost certain death in the Polish and German concentration camps awaited the actors and dancers and, with that in mind, you can’t help thinking how hopeless those happy images are.

Between 1939 and 1942, Jews who had fled Germany were sent to Camp Westerbork in Drenthe, which became a Durchgangslager in 1942. More than 107,000 Jews, Roma and Sinti and resistance fighters were deported to the death camps from Westerbork.

The film’s director Breslauer did not survive the war. Gemmeker spent a short time in prison and died in 1982, denying any knowledge of the Holocaust to the bitter end.

Marcus, who is here as a guest lecturer at the history department as part of the Fulbright scheme, has launched a study into dark tourism. He wants to know why people want to visit the scenes of atrocities, how these sites are arranged and how their status changes over time.

This is a relatively new field; the term was coined in 1996 by John Lennon and Malcolm Foley at Glasgow Caledonian University. The phenomenon is also known as thanatourism, referring to Thanatos, the personification of death in Greek mythology.

"I grew interested in this subject because more and more people are showing an interest in the camps where Japanese Americans were interned in America during the Second World War and then, in Amsterdam, I saw long queues of tourists waiting outside in freezing weather to visit Anne Frank’s house. It’s so weird. I would like to know why we do it."

He turns his attention to the film images again. The revue was held on Tuesday evening, the day the trains left for Auschwitz and Sobibor. Anne Frank and her family were deported from here too. "Of course, you try to keep your hopes up at this point, even though you know it won’t do any good."

Nowadays, the camp attracts 130,000 visitors per year, half of whom are children. "But oddly enough, the site wasn’t demolished immediately after the war, it was still used."

Initially, it was used as an internment camp for members of the NSB, the National Socialist Movement of the Netherlands. "There were still 850 Jews living there at the time, as they had nowhere else to go yet. That must have been a difficult and surreal situation for them." They were even asked to guard the NSB members.

The camp was eventually closed in 1971, after it had been used to accommodate a group of Moluccans, and the barracks were demolished. However, the second generation after the war felt the need to set up a monument on the site and the National Monument was unveiled in 1970. Nonetheless, it was 1983 before any real work was done to commemorate the dead and before the memorial centre and its museum were opened. It was decided that the barracks should not be rebuilt, but the foundations should remain visible. A small area of the walls of the penal barracks has been recreated in concrete.

"I’m surprised about this ‘suggestion’: they did not want to reconstruct the camp, but ‘suggest’ it. I think I would have preferred to reconstruct it so that you can walk inside and experience how it was to live here. The museum gives you a glimpse of that life, with its reproduction of a small part of the interior, complete with bunk beds and wooden floor. It is very effective, and the sensation is enhanced by the sound effects of beds creaking and babies crying. The day-to-day life of the prisoners is almost tangible."

Tom Janssen (22) from Den Bosch pushes a push chair to a model of the camp and explains why he has come to Westerbork. "We’re interested in the war and we wanted to add a bit of culture to this family weekend - it’s not just about having fun. This is very impressive, mind."

Marie Louise Kooter (37) and Karin de Lange (29) have brought young children along too. "We want them to know about this, we want to educate them", explains Kooter, "It’s good to come here, to make sure it won’t happen again." De Lange adds: "It’s a tribute to all the people who were imprisoned here and then murdered. We mustn’t ever forget them."

Marcus remarks: "That aspect always strikes me: there is a great deal of interest in the camps in the Netherlands and Germany, but in France there is very little of this kind of soul searching and guilt. Well, at least, I didn’t come across it when I lived there."

How come? "It probably has something to do with collaboration. The French don’t see it as ‘What happened was terrible’ but more ‘That is just the way it was’."

Marcus stares across the camp. Next to the watch tower is the National Monument Westerbork: a ninety-metre piece of railway track, serrated along one side, full of bullet holes and one end leading off into the air as if some malevolent force has ripped it from the ground. Fourteen enormous parabolic antennae have been erected next to the camp, the Westerbork synthesis radio telescope array. "The site is now part of a hiking and cycling recreation area, complete with children’s entertainment. It has been converted into a tourist destination."

Not everyone is concerned with the past. "It doesn’t really mean much to us", says Antje Fleurke (67) who is visiting the site with her husband. "We just wanted go for a walk in the woods".

102,000 bricks have been placed so that they form the shape of the Netherlands on the former muster ground square. They represent the people who never returned home after the war. Photographs of victims have been stuck between the bricks in some places.

"It’s like an open-air museum", remarks Fleurke. "Some people see something in it, others don’t. When I see those pictures, I think ‘Is that really necessary?’ I just don’t see the point. It might be different to older people who lived through it. They are devastated after coming here."

According to Marcus, the numbers of tourists visiting the internment camps in America is growing steadily and money has been set aside for maintenance. "The government reserved 38 million dollars for the conservation of ten camps in 2006."

More than 10,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated in Manzanar in California during the Second World War. "It’s visited by far more students than schoolchildren, so that’s one thing that’s different, and there’s no mixture of fun and serious matters on the same site."

More than 750,000 people visited Manzanar between 2000 and 2010, but most of the other nine internment camps in the United States are not as likely to become hot tickets for tourists. "That’s mostly due to their relatively isolated locations, though I must say that Westerbork isn’t exactly easy to reach by public transport either."

Admission to the camp is free but the museum charges € 6.50, raising the question of whether more of this sort of dark tourism sites will ever be run as a business. After all, there is money to be made from them.

Marcus adds: "Perhaps one day they’ll even sell souvenirs: pieces of barbed wire and so on. It seems absurd, black humour, but it’s not entirely improbable. Tourists buy pieces of the Berlin Wall, and hundreds of people died trying to flee to the West.

Five dark places

The Anne Frank House in Amsterdam attracts more than a million visitors per year.

It is estimated that 1.1 million people died in Auschwitz concentration camp in the southwest of Poland. Last year, the camp attracted 1,430,000 visitors.

The Killing Fields in Cambodia: it is thought that between 1.7 and 2.5 million Cambodians were killed under the regime of the Khmer Rouge, which lasted from 1975 to 1979. Many tourists visit Choeung Ek mass grave and Tuol Sleng prison.

Chernobyl and Pripyat in Ukraine: In 1986, there was an explosion in reactor number four of Chernobyl’s nuclear power plant. Nobody knows how many people died, but Pripyat, close to the plant, has become a ghost town. Guided tours cost about 150 dollars.

Tourists in London can go on the Jack the Ripper-walk. In 1888, this mass murderer cut the throats of at least five prostitutes and nobody ever discovered who was responsible for the murders. Guided tours through the Whitechapel district follow the Ripper’s "bloodstained trail of terror".

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