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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