Tuesday, September 4th, 2012
November 2001 was not a good time to be in New York City. Even in the best of circumstances, the Big Apple has never been a city to draw me in. A city still suffering, still angry, still recovering from a horror that, until a few weeks earlier had been unimaginable was not high on my to do list.
Nor, for that matter, was flying. But I had a chance to visit a potential donor, and a former student in New York promised to show me around town, and the college was paying, so a month after “nine-eleven” entered the English language with more baggage than any two numbers deserve, I arrived in Manhattan to see the big city.
I’m not making this country boy attitude up. I’m from Kentucky. Rural Kentucky. Where I came from, Louisville was big time. A city of ten thousand was plenty big enough for anyone. Since graduating from Berea thirty years ago I’ve come to appreciate the benefits of urban life, but have never felt quite at home in cities. Though I live in Charlotte, I’m still a stranger there. In New York City, in November 2001, everyone was an alien. Everyone was getting used to a transformed environment. Where so much had changed so quickly, everybody was a tourist.
Naturally, reluctantly, inexorably, I was, drawn, with the rest of the country, to the still smoldering ruins of the World Trade Center. People were waiting in line to walk by one of the few breaks in the fence that offered a view. The air smelled of burnt insulation and fried electronics. I wanted to say that it smelled of death, and perhaps it did, but mostly it smelled ever so faintly, of wet, smoldering ruin. I was once a firefighter, and familiar with ruination, but usually in its hot, angry incarnation. This was different, and infinitely more sad. Later in the day, I met with a very nice lady who had other priorities for her money. Then I went to a play (Chicago—the theater was half empty and the cast came out before the play to thank us for being there). And I went home.
A few years later, I was interviewing Roma Christians in Hungary. I had a few days to spare before I needed to be in Bucharest to give some lectures, so I took the train to Krakaw and, like every other American to visit that loveliest of cities, I caught a bus to Auschwitz. There was snow on the ground and the wind was cold. How appropriate, I thought. One doesn’t need to be too comfortable when tramping about the grounds, staring at the furnaces, the ruined gas chamber, the “interrogation rooms.” It was all, like the World Trade Center, quite familiar.
I took pictures of the “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign, the empty cans of Zyklon B, the shoes, the unclaimed luggage. All of it was very poignant, and extremely well preserved. As I walked the grounds, poking my head into the mass latrine (the most evocative thing I saw, because it was most familiar, and therefore most disturbing) it occurred to me that my experience there was far more aligned with that of perpetrators than of victims. Like the SS guards, I was wearing a warm coat and boots. I walked like the perpetrators, able to leave when I wanted, able to put the unpleasantness behind me and go on with my life. The victims’ experiences were too hard, to painful to comprehend, so I tried not to.
After a few hours, I went back to Krakaw and had a very nice dinner: pierogies. Then I caught another train to Bucharest where I discovered that Hungarian beer is rather more potent than what Americans drink. While talking with an ethnic Hungarian from Transylvania, I discovered that I could no longer feel my lips. It was a nice trip.
I like to travel. Like Paul Thereux, I like to travel alone and by train if I can. But when I travel, with no particular place to go, something keeps drawing me to these terrible places: Cold Harbor and Gettysburg; Auschwitz and Dachau; the spread out misery of the Cherokee Trail of Tears; the concentrated suffering of battlefields and massacre sites; the cemetery in Halifax where dozens of Titanic victims were buried. I justify this accidental fascination as professional interest. I’m a historian. I write about and teach about the Holocaust, and about war as well as about missions and religion and transformational ideas. I need to see where Hitler got his start, where Marx wrote the Communist Manifesto, where Ceausescu stood on the balcony that last time before facing his reckoning. It helps me prepare for class better than any book.
But there is still something just a little disconcerting about all of this. The loci of human suffering, after being sanitized and memorialized, is big business. The Anne Frank House in Amsterdam brings in a million visitors a year, proving indeed that Shoah business—betrayal, cruelty, and indifference included—can be pretty good business indeed. It helps if the locale is lovely and convenient to transportation and fast food. My Lai will probably never achieve much in terms of tourism. What is there to see? Cold Harbor, however, where at least three thousand Union soldiers were killed in less than an hour, is lovely: a nice mix of old growth forest and open fields where Union soldiers tried to push through the Confederate line, only to be cut down again and again by entrenched, accurate rifle fire. In the open, the only protection against Confederate bullets was to be found by hiding behind the bodies of friends who had already been killed. It is a nice place for a picnic.
The blood of the martyrs may indeed have provided the seeds of the ancient church, and the ashes of heretics may continue to fertilize the soil from which intellectual inquiry continues to grow. And the blood of heroes may be well worth commemorating. But I am troubled by the way we commemorate suffering. Mostly, we remember everything except the suffering. We want to give Anne Frank a happy ending. We want to focus on the courage and sacrifice, but that is only part of the story. People do not simply die, they suffer. And if there is sacrifice to remember at these places, it is, like the sacrifice of Isaac, an unwilling offering.
No one who died at Auschwitz, or at the World Trade Center, or Cold Harbor, gave their lives. These were not places of sacrifice but of theft. Except for the 9/11 terrorists, everyone who died had their lives taken from them. Soldiers who offer the last full measure of devotion to their country may love honor more than life, and may undertake the risks and terrors of war voluntarily, but they all hoped to see home and family again. What happened in these now lovely scenes of battle should fill us with horror. Yet today they are lovely and peaceful.
I wonder if we would not better memorialize the loss and suffering of the people we seek to honor if we treated the scenery of suffering as if it were holy ground—holy in the ancient meaning—a place too imbued with history to be safely entered. The Tomb of the Unknown at Arlington is such a place. Once, when the crowd of tourists was beginning to act a little too touristy—chatting, laughing, killing time before their timed admission to the Holocaust Museum to come up, the honor guard, stopped his metronymic march and stopped to address the crowd, reminding everyone that they were expected to show respect by their silence.
At Arras, a World War I battlefield in the north of France, one can walk through the surviving earthworks and tunnels, but most of the battlefield is fenced off. Unexploded ordinance from a century ago makes the ground too dangerous to walk on. Grazing sheep keep the grass from growing too long. Running a lawn mower would be asking for trouble. The suffering of the Canadians and Germans who fought there seems far more fully honored by the warning signs, as if the suffering had not yet lost its power.
I am tempted to argue for a more reverent attitude toward these places made sacred by suffering. I wonder if we ought not treat them more like Chernobyl and less like Disneyworld. Could we grant them peace and freedom from our curiosity?
But what would be left? What particle of land has not been made sacred by the lives lived and lost there? When I was young I could find arrowheads in the cornfields around my Kentucky home. They served as reminders that once upon a time a people lived and hunted here, but were driven away from what was for many a “dark and bloody ground.” When the Indians were driven away, men and women had been held in bondage to work the same land. Children died. Farms were lost to debt. People loved and lost and gave up. Everywhere we walk, we are walking on holy ground.
Very few places are free from these burdens of history. Today’s leafy suburb was once a farm, a place loved and lost. Before that it was a contested frontier. Someone lived in this place, loved this place, and died here, or was driven from here by invaders or bad luck, changing weather patterns, lost opportunities, disease or drought. All of the grim horsemen of the apocalypse write their histories on the land. Every place I visit. Every place I have ever lived, gives witness to suffering. We cannot abandon all of it.
How then, do we honor the place where ordinary people lived and died and left part of themselves? Bill Bryson, in a short book about the history of homes and home life in England, noted that the average country churchyard in England seems to be raised several feet above the surrounding land. The church itself seems to be sinking into the soil. The church is not sinking. The land, constantly fed the last mortal remains of men and women who are buried there, tends to rise. And an average churchyard a few hundred years old could have been fertilized with tens of thousands of bodies, all contributing their mass to the acre and a half devoted to receiving them as they await, with or without hope, for the Resurrection.