Auschwitz, Choeung Ek, and Beyond

The importance of travel in understanding the horrors of humanity

We all learn in school about the cruelties imposed by some groups of humans on others. Aside from a disturbing subset of deniers, most people recognize these atrocities for what they are and hope they never happen again.

There’s something to be said, though, for meeting history where it happened. Destinations like Auschwitz and The Killing Fields are not at the top of any traveller’s list of most enjoyable places to visit. Still, facing darkness up close is an important part of keeping these horrors in public consciousness, because the message of never again requires awareness to give it strength.

Auschwitz

Photo by William Warby on Unsplash

At least one million people are thought to have been killed at Auschwitz. One is “greeted” at the entrance by the sign “arbeit macht frei” (work makes you free). It’s revolting even to contemplate, but there’s something particularly chilling about seeing it in person.

What really triggered a shift from horror in the abstract to horror in reality was seeing the piles of personal items confiscated from people on arrival at Auschwitz, including shoes, eyeglasses, and suitcases. There are simply no words.

Wikimedia Commons

The crematorium at Auschwitz could burn 340 bodies per day, while the crematorium at the neighbouring Birkenau could burn over 4000 per day. For me, the gas chambers didn’t stir up the same degree of visceral reaction as the crematorium. The gas chamber was a haunted room, but the crematorium exuded pure evil.

After making our way through Auschwitz, our guided tour was going to continue on to Birkenau. My friend and I decided we were too overwhelmed by horror to carry on with the tour — a decision that so many had no such freedom to make. It’s a horror I’ll never forget.

The Killing Fields

Choeung Ek, also known as the Killing Fields, was where more than one million people were killed as part of the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia. The genocide took between 1.5–2 million lives. It was something that I never learned about in school, and while I’d heard of the film The Killing Fields I’d never seen it.

I was in Cambodia as part of a month-long trip to Southeast Asia. My foreknowledge of the genocide was limited to what I’d read in my Lonely Planet guidebook.

Before I headed out of the city to see Choeung Ek, I went to the Tuol Sleng (S-21) prison museum in Phnom Penh. It was a prison where people held were tortured relentlessly to extract “confessions” from them about their (and others’) involvement in plots against the Khmer Rouge government. Once these confessions were obtained, the prisoners’ next stop was death at Choeung Ek.

photos by author

Aside from the stupa filled with skulls excavated from, the site, other disturbing aspects of Choeung Ek require signage to properly appreciate. When entering by the main gate, it looks lush and serene; you need to get a little closer to grasp the horror.

“Ly [sic] was to kill off victims who were buried alive.” A seemingly pretty place, a simple sign, and then a hard punch to the gut.

The photo above shows just the entrance, at a scale small enough to show some of the skulls, but the memorial stupa is 17 stories high and contains 8000 skulls. It’s a number that’s large on a cognitive level, but standing below those skulls the immensity of it all weighs heavily.

There was a sign marking a tree against which young children’s heads were smashed in order to kill them without wasting bullets. The cold calculation of this is frightening.

Then there’s the sign beside the “magic tree”, which held a loudspeaker to drown out the sounds of those being murdered. The notion of this level of cruelty feels so foreign, yet the methodical approach to mass murder shows a seemingly paradoxical logic.

It’s so easy to sanitize what we’ve learned in school or heard on the news. Events are processed cognitively while our minds try to shield us emotionally.

When you come face to face with it, there’s no escaping the emotions that plow you down like a Mack truck. The experience becomes deeply etched in memory.

While I travel for pleasure, I also travel to better understand the world I live in. That means learning about both the good and the bad, and I feel tremendously grateful for all that I’ve been able to learn.

By paying our respects at places all over the world where terrible things have happened, we engage in active remembrance. There is much to be learned from the past, and travellers can be great memory-keepers.

Mental health blogger | Former MH nurse | Living with depression | Author of 3 books, latest is Managing the Depression Puzzle | mentalhealthathome.org