Auschwitz and Newtown, CT: Sites of Atrocity and Remembrance

January 29, 2015 § 7 Comments

Monday was the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.  Survivors gathered there to recall their horrific experiences, and we continued to draw lessons from the Holocaust. Auschwitz, a collection of concentration and death camps, has become a tourist site.  Upwards of 1.5 million people a year visit, and over 30 million have visited since it was opened as a tourist site in 1947.  Most who go do so to draw on the lessons to be learned, to ponder the evil of Hitler’s plans to eradicate the Jews and Roma from the face of the Earth.  Some who go are survivors, other are their siblings, children, grand-children. Others seek answers from the dead, they seek to understand the Holocaust. People also go just to say they went.  And some people go to take horrible selfies.  Auschwitz as a site of atrocity and remembrance continues to hold a powerful grip on Western society.  It is one of the very few words that crosses linguistic boundaries and is instantly recognisable for anyone who hears it as a site of horrific acts.

Each time I hear the word “Auschwitz,” I think of Ann Frank, who was amongst the last ‘shipment’ of prisoners to the camp, before she was processed and sent on to Bergen-Belsen.  I also think of Viktor Frankl, who was also shipped there and then sent on to Dachau.  I feel the same slightly nauseous feeling that is connected to the word for me.  Each time I’ve typed the word in this post, my stomach has turned bit.

Far away from Auschwitz in Poland stands the Lanza family home in Newtown, Connecticut.  A week ago yesterday, the town council voted to tear down the home of shooter of the infamous Sandy Hook Massacre.  Neighbours had been demanding town council tear down the house, as it was a painful reminder of the massacre.  The house has stood empty since the morning of the massacre, when Lanza killed his mother, Nancy, before heading to the school.  Nancy’s other son, Ryan, sold it.  The bank that purchased it then turned the building and property to the town.  Everything in the house was incinerated, to avoid macabre tourists looking for keepsakes. Not that this kept tourists from visiting the property.

The house will be torn down this spring and, at least, for the time being, remain an open lot.  A proposal exists to create a fund so that any proceeds from a future development of the property will accrue to the victims.  The town also demolished the school in 2013, with plans to build a new one on the same spot.

I find the difference in response to these two sites of atrocity interesting. Clearly, there are huge differences between Auschwitz and the home of a perpetrator of a mass shooting.  Auschwitz was built for purpose, the Lanza home was not, nor was Sandy Hook Elementary School.  The Holocaust tore nations asunder, Hitler’s goal was the destruction of Europe’s Jews.  The Sandy Hook Massacre tore a town asunder.

The massacre took place in a small New England town.  The shooter was neighbour to the children he killed.  The families of the victims still live in the neighbourhood.  The school bus stop had to be moved because its location near the home was frightening for the children.  Residents of the neighbourhood spoke to town council of being unable to move on because they pass it multiple times a day.

I find all of this interesting for the simple fact that sites of atrocity, the remembrance of places of evil, and our public histories of them interest me.  How do we deal with atrocity? How do we deal with sites of horror?  Auschwitz is now a park, of sorts, to serve as to educate and preserve.  The Lanza family home will be torn down.  On university campuses, where shootings have taken place, the buildings, even the classrooms are still used.  Tuol-Seng Genocide Museum in Cambodia exists on the site, and using the buildings, that was once a high school, but became S-21, a prison during Pol Pot’s genocidal reign. The house where the Charlie Manson and his ‘family’ murdered Sharon Tate and her family in 1969 has since been demolished.  But not until 1994.  The last person to live in the house was Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails.  He recorded two of his own albums, as well as Marilyn Manson’s début album, there.  When he moved out, however, he said he couldn’t handle the history of the place.

So that is what I am pondering. How do we handle those histories?  We do not do so consistently, obviously. Some sites of evil are preserved as memorials to the victims, as at Auschwitz and Tuol Seng.  Others continue their initial usages, such as the classrooms. Others are eradicated.  But, while some would suggest that the actions of the council of Newtown to destroy both the school and the home of the shooter are calculated acts of forgetting, I’m not so sure.  Tearing down the buildings will simply remove them from the landscape. They won’t remove memory of the atrocity from the people of Newtown any time soon.


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§ 7 Responses to Auschwitz and Newtown, CT: Sites of Atrocity and Remembrance

  • Watching a special on Auschwitz the other night, one of the survivors spoke of people not believing that the holocaust had ever occurred. I think this is a significant difference in the two events.

    No one is denying what happened in Newtown or many of the other events. I think scope makes a difference as well as the fact that it was perpetrated not by individuals, but systematically, through legitimized government.

    Not to say that the horror or grief is in any way diminished or less than in the other events you mentioned, but these genocidal murders are part of global history. I read the article you linked regarding the selfies and I’m just aghast with the lack of respect for the human suffering and anguish that these sites mark.

    • You are very right, the events are massively different, in scale, purpose, and outcome. I’m thinking more of the sites of the events, though, and I’m thinking my way through how we respond to sites of atrocity.

      I find the comment about a survivor not believing it happened interesting. When I was in graduate school, we saw a documentary on the the Cambodian genocide, and one of the survivors said the exact same thing: that this was a horror so great, and so evil, so unbelievable that he had a hard time believing it was real, it wasn’t just some horrible nightmare he had.

      At any rate, the differences you point out between scope, governments v. individuals are bang on. I think the same thing, but chose not to complete the thought to leave it open for now.

      As for the lack of respect people have for sites of atrocities and victims of atrocity, yes. It is shocking. And nauseating, isn’t it?

      Thanks for reading!

      • Brian Bixby says:

        Actually, there have been people who denied the Sandy Hook shootings happened, and others who claim it was a government-sponsored “false flag” operation; both groups believe it is part of a plot to take away people’s guns.

  • Margo Shea says:

    I think this is where geographer Ken Foote’s work is so important. His taxonomy of responses (sanctification, designation, rectification, obliteration I think) help us to see how we understand and live with or don’t live with atrocity. The book is dated so there weren’t school shootings when he wrote it, but he deals with things like the childhood homes of serial killers, etc. and makes a compelling set of arguments parallel to what you are suggesting here about remembrance and historical consciousness surrounding acts of violence and how our incapacity to address particular kinds of violence in our presence is reflected in the absence of presence in the memorial landscape.

    • I had Foote in the back of my head writing here, but you’re right. I was also thinking of an article I read a few years back about the childhood home of some random serial killer.

      I wonder, though, if it is as simple as the fact that something like the Holocaust or the Cambodia genocide were massive, state-sanctioned acts of terror, affecting a whole society, whereas something like Newtown, despite the glare of the media, is, at core, a private affair?

      The classroom I am referring to in this post are primarily the ones at École Polytechnique in Montréal, where the 1989 massacre occurred. The rooms are still in use, and they look mundane and banal, just like any other classroom/auditorium.

      And maybe that’s it. Auschwitz or S-21 are not banal, everyday structures, or at least in the case of S-21, its use by Pol Pot’s régime changed it away from that. Whereas, the classrooms at École Polytechnique, Sandy Hook Elementary, and the Lanza home are just that: banal, uninteresting, unremarkable structures and places, replicated millions of times across North America.

      • Brian Bixby says:

        I had been thinking of Foote, too.

        Banality is an interesting factor to consider. But so is media exposure. Consider: how many school shootings have there been since Sandy Hook? Quite a few. Can you name them, date them? I can’t. Unlike Sandy Hook, they didn’t hold the attention of the media and society for any length of time. Sandy Hook became symbolic, and that symbolism has swallowed up shootings before and since.

        Another factor to consider is that homes that host murder in one way or another become marked places. Having a ghost is chic, having a house where a serial killer lived is a downer on the market. Trent Reznor might like living in one, but many other people will be wary, worried about resale value.

        Institutional buildings aren’t so affected. And frequently the institutions in question don’t have money to burn. In contrast, Newtown is a wealthy community and can afford to destroy and rebuild a school.

  • Brian: I’d rather not think about those who say Sandy Hook never happened, but they’re no doubt the same ones who say that the US government arranged for 9/11 and for the Marathon Bombings in Boston. And that the Holocaust never happened.

    I can’t name the shootings that have happened before and after Sandy Hook, it’s all too overwhelming. They occur far too often and with far too great regularity. But, yes, Sandy Hook transcended, perhaps because it was an elementary school and the victims were little children, as opposed to high school students or university students, so it’s all the more shocking.

    And, yes, there is the question of property value, though I don’t like to think it’s that basic. It is worth noting that some of the victims of Sandy Hook have since moved away from Newtown, for obvious reasons.

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