Friday, June 23, 2017

Unmasking Death Tourism

Brigitte Sion, scholar of memorial sites, asks whether Jewish tourism or pilgrimage is appropriately focused today on Holocaust sites. Here she offers an option to death tourism. This is one of a variety of views on pilgrimage contained in Liturgy 32, no. 3.

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.

. . . The traditional pilgrimage to a cemetery to honor an individual has shifted to the visit of former Jewish quarters to honor a community that was killed or forced into exile. This is particularly visible in Poland. . . .

In October 2014, the gigantic Polin, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, opened in the former Jewish quarter on the plaza where the Rapoport monument still stands. The museum aims at telling 1,000 years of Jewish presence on Polish soil. It refuses to be called a Holocaust museum, and rightly so. It devotes significant space to the medieval and modern periods, and considerably less to the second half of the twentieth century, for which there are still many witnesses. The reason may be found in the type of visitor that flocks to the museum, including mostly Polish citizens who do not identify as Jews but are curious about the topic, schoolchildren on field trips (who have no choice), Western Jewish and Israeli tourists who will see “everything Jewish” in any given place, scholars and experts, and random people who might be interested in architecture, history, Jewish heritage, or simply in new landmarks. The Polin Museum attempts neither to be a site of dark tourism nor a pilgrimage destination, but rather a social, educational, and artistic forum that is dynamic, modern, and innovative. In it, the visitor finds that technology takes over material culture, reproductions are considered valid artifacts, and death cannot be the final word.

This effort to celebrate life where everything screams Holocaust is quite an achievement, particularly in the twenty-first century when the development of mass media, as well as the democratization of travel and tourism—particularly the niche of “roots tourism”—on a massive and global scale, have contributed to the transnational promotion, attraction, and consumption of sites of violent death. In their book, Dark Tourism, and in earlier articles, John Lennon and Malcolm Foley argue that “‘dark tourism’ is both a product of the circumstances of the late modern world and a significant influence upon these circumstances. . . . This definition situates the phenomenon in modernity and intimates that technology, mass travel, consumerism, and other modern features are core to death tourism, thereby precluding the inclusion of premodern sites.

. . . . We began by arguing that memorial pilgrimage was a subset of death tourism. In fact, we should rather state that memorial pilgrimage has been replaced or at least overwhelmed by death tourism: the individual journey is now a group tour, and the individual tribute becomes an homage to an entire community, town, country, or people. The tourists wear casual clothes, take a food break between two sites of desolation, buy a pencil or a booklet, maybe say a prayer or sign the visitors’ book. And then the tourists leave the death site, content with the visit, with a sense of commemorative duty that is accomplished by their sheer presence and purchase of a postcard.

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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