I am going to try my hardest not to allow this blog post to evolve into an academic essay … As a history graduate, and one who specialised in genocide, I am always keen to visit memorial sites to see the different ways in which a culture remembers the victims of war, massacres, genocide, or natural disaster. I even have a few favourites sites. Yes, I’m a bit weird! I don’t mean favourites in the typical sense I suppose, more places which are “well done”. Where a place of remembrance, compassion, and sadness offers visitors an inevitably difficult and emotional yet stimulating and educational experience.
I first discovered that a place so filled with death and sorrow could be not exactly pleasant but somewhere one wouldn’t mind spending time in Belgium and France. The Western Front of World War One saw some of the bloodiest fighting in history. Dotted throughout the Belgian and French countryside are war cemeteries where soldiers have been laid to rest. After studying this area in detail during my second year of university at Cardiff, I decided I wanted to cycle the route during the summer. The remembrance sites along the way range in size from a dozen or so graves to vast, iconic places such a Thiepval, a memorial to 72,190 British soldiers lost during the Battle of the Somme. By lost I mean lost, literally. Their bodies were never found, alive or dead. I arrived at this monstrous structure at about 9am one August morning, having cycled about 15 kilometres from the campsite where I had left my parents. I was struck by the peace and beauty of the countryside around it whilst this reminder stood symbolising that, less than one hundred years prior, I would have been standing on one of the fiercest battlefields known to man. Although Thiepval has an onsite information office and mini museum, I think many visitors get more of a sense of what happened just wandering around the structure, weaving in and out of the giant pillars and pausing every now and then to read a few of names. Some names have a poppy beside them left by a relative. Every year on July 1st, a memorial ceremony is held here. There are many other such monuments to the missing. The Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium, bears the names of 54,400 soldiers whose last resting places are unknown. Every evening the Last Post is sounded by local buglers to remember the dead. Vimy Ridge in France is a Canadian monument commemorating 11,169 Canadian troops who went missing in action. Here also is an excellently preserved trench system where fantastic guides from Canada inform visitors about the events of the battle.
Each country has numerous cemeteries where soldiers whose bodies were found are buried. These cemeteries often have wreaths and flowers laid at graves or at the war memorial in the centre. Each country has their own style of remembrance. I personally think the British got theirs just right. Below are a few pictures from my trip of British, French, American and German cemeteries. As the Germans lost the war, they had very little say in how their fallen were buried. The British and Canadian cemeteries are expertly maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The American graves are also immaculate. The German graveyards sadly show signs of neglect.
As the granddaughter of an Auschwitz survivor, I have also visited the notorious Nazi Germany concentration camp. I commend the way in which this incredibly sensitive, emotional, and traumatising subject is approached by the museum board there but I don’t consider this a place anyone would enjoy spending time. The tours are very informative, honest, and harrowing. It’s a must see, yet an entirely unpleasant experience. You leave feeling drained, weakened by the experience, and struggling to comprehend the horrors that occurred on the ground you just walked over. And I’m a student of genocide saying this.
Finally, the prompt to this blog being written, Cambodia’s Killing Fields. I have visited Tuol Sleng, the museum in Phnom Penh, many times. Tuol Sleng is a former high school which became a detention and torture centre during the Khmer Rouge. Approximately 14,000 men, women, and children passed through in barely three years. The museum itself is poorly done. The information plaques are scarce and they’ve gone more for the shock factor of leaving torture instruments around the place. And their biggest mistake was perhaps moving the entrance a few years ago and neglecting to move the huge introductory board so many naive tourists wander around now quite knowing what they are looking at until three quarters of the way around. Typical Cambodia.
Detainees at Tuol Sleng were taken outside the city to be killed, to a place called the Killing Fields, or Choeung Ek. This was just one of hundreds of killing fields in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge. However, it is by far the biggest and the most well known. I always thought that, much like Thiepval, it is an oddly peaceful place to visit, despite the huge stupa filled with skulls of victims in the middle of the site. I returned to Choeung Ek for the first time in six years last weekend as a friend was visiting from England. It is now one of the best memorial sites I have ever visited. Complete with a personal audio guide, visitors are slowly and carefully guided around the well-maintained site, given all the information required to understand what happened here, with the option to listen to more if they wish. Of particular interest to me were the oral testimonies they had recorded, of both victims and perpetrators. The inclusion of the latter is, in my opinion, very important.
The mass graves at Choeng Ek are now covered and surrounded, protecting them from the erosion. It was these mass graves that, for me, best memorialised the Khmer Rouge. Each grave’s fence post is covered with brightly coloured bracelets, left by thousands of tourists and visitors. The sight is breathtaking. This little tradition offers visitors a chance to leave something of themselves at the site, to acknowledge they are saddened by the events, and to commemorate the lives lost there. It’s not a typical form of memorialisation, and I seriously doubt it is an official one, or one the designers of Choeung Ek even had in mind. But it is a beautiful and moving way to remember those who lost their lives at this place.
I will end this blog with a quote from my Grandpa, Ignacz Rüb. My Grandpa, lost every member of his family except one sister in the Holocaust, yet here he highlights the importance of remembering and yet, somehow, moving forward.
“If you hate someone, the one you hate isn’t hurt, he doesn’t know about it, he doesn’t care. But when you hate it hurts you. And if you hate, you cannot judge things correctly; try not to hate. Don’t forget, you cannot forget, but don’t hate.”