Friday, June 9, 2017

A Jewish Perspective on Memorials to the Holocaust

A variety of views on pilgrimage are contained in Liturgy 32, no. 3, including the question asked by scholar, Brigitte Sion, whether Jewish tourism or pilgrimage is appropriately focused on Holocaust sites. Here she describes the need for remembrance while challenging the commercialization that so often attends places where tourists will gather.

What is presented here can only be an excerpt from the essay in Liturgy. For the full text, see your library’s subscription or visit The Liturgical Conference website tab “Liturgy: Our journal” for information on subscriptions.
Is Jewish tourism always death tourism, and sometimes exclusively Holocaust tourism? When visiting the Venice ghetto, I felt I was visiting places with dead Jews under my feet or on the commemorative monuments. Jewish death tourism has been increasing in recent years: tour operators, tour guides, blog writers, curators, and other cultural tourism professionals, are investing more on Jewish death tourism (or thanatourism. . . based on the Greek root Thanatos, which is a personification of death), not only because it is a lucrative niche, but because there is obviously a strong demand. It is not (only) about visiting Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, and other sites associated with the Holocaust. It is about re-creating virtual itineraries in former Jewish ghettos, opening a kosher-style restaurant in a place with no Jews, turning an abandoned synagogue into a cultural center, and establishing a museum whose collection was “found” (if not looted) from Jewish families. All this constitutes death tourism, and it is not a Polish exclusive because of the proximity of the Nazi camps: it is visible in Germany and in Italy, in Amsterdam and in Barcelona, in Slovakia and in Slovenia. 
. . . This form of negative sightseeing is incorporated into an industry that is otherwise dedicated to pleasure, time out of time, and escape, as well as to edification, spiritual experience, and personal transformation.  
The phenomenon is not new. Jews, like others, have made pilgrimages to the graves of holy men (Maimonides in Tiberias, famous sages in Morocco, Nachman of Bratzlav in Uman, Ukraine, and, more recently, the Lubavitcher rebbe in Montefiore Cemetery in Queens, New York City). However, the phenomenon of memorial pilgrimage that used to focus on famous Jewish figures has taken a new turn after the Holocaust. 
In Judaism, as in Christianity, funerary and mourning practices center on the body of the deceased. Relatives and community members symbolically mark the departure from the world of the living by disposing of the body. When bodily remains cannot be found, or have been destroyed, the mourning process is compromised, and a social drama unfolds in the absence of the main character. The Nazis’ murder of European Jews went even further: their political objective was not only to deport civilians to remote sites of death and to exterminate them in systematic, industrial mass-murder operations, but also to destroy any physical evidence of their crimes. Millions of Jewish corpses were cremated and the ashes volatized in the air. This conscious act of erasure has resulted in depriving victims of appropriate funerary rites and depriving relatives of a way to complete their mourning process. The Holocaust marks a turning point for commemoration in absentia, since it was the first occurrence of a genocide combined with the destruction of body remains, thus creating a mourning vacuum.
This blogsite will return to Sion’s exploration on June 23 with Part 2 of her essay.

Brigitte Sion, a guest researcher at the Global Studies Institute, University of Geneva, Switzerland, is an international expert on memorial sites, commemorative practices, death tourism, and historical museums particularly in Europe, Argentina, and Cambodia. Sion is the author of Memorials in Berlin and Buenos Aires: Balancing Memory, Architecture and Tourismand editor of Death Tourism: Disaster Sites as Recreational Landscapes. 

Brigitte Sion, “Memorial Pilgrimage or Death Tourism? A Jewish Perspective,” Liturgy 32, no. 3 (2017): 23-28.

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