If “dark tourism” is not an entirely new phenomenon, I would guess it has at least become more popular in the twenty-first century. The subject has stuck in my mind since last week’s HUSI lecture on Chernobyl given by Dr. Plokhii, after which one of our Summer Institute students spoke up about foreign tourism to Chernobyl’s exclusion zone. The student said that the Chernobyl disaster is the only thing some tourists know about Ukraine and raised the question of whether this kind of tourism should be encouraged. Such a question is commonly posed in the face of dark tourism to all sorts of places, from creepy abandoned towns like my native Pennsylvania’s ghost town Centralia, to more politically and emotionally charged sites like Ground Zero in New York City and various sites of genocide around the world.
Maybe I care about this question because I know that I am not immune to the attraction of dark tourism. During my gap year last winter I decided to travel to Poland, a country with which I was acquainted only through two exotic outliers from my Russocentric undergraduate classes: Witold Gombrowicz’s novel Ferdydurke and Andrei Wajda’s film Ashes and Diamonds.
I travel with intent, which takes the form of lists. My checklist for (vegetarian) cuisine included paczki, zapiekanki, and of course pierogi; as for sights, I made sure to see Wawel Castle, the main squares of both Warsaw and Krakow, a performance of Chopin… But as anyone would guess, these were not the things that initially prompted me to invest my time and money into the trip, nor were they the highlights. I came for the historical trauma. I spent an afternoon in the Warsaw Rising Museum. In Krakow I visited the museums of Schindler’s factory, The Eagle Pharmacy, and the Gestapo Headquarters. I took a day trip to Auschwitz and Birkenau. In both cities I shuffled around the former ghettos.
Why a person would want to visit sites such as these is self-evident to me, so I sometimes forget that most lucky Americans’ first trip to Europe doesn’t include sites of Nazi brutality. I don’t have personal connections to the World Wars or the Holocaust; it’s even difficult for me to see their influence on the small, somewhat insulated town where I grew up, where history seems to be buried under dispirited strip malls. Yet World War II and the Holocaust have somehow affected me more profoundly than any other event. Describing it in this way sounds trite to me; learning about this chapter of world history, does anyone come away unchanged? Still, this is the only reason I have to offer. Reading history and particularly literature about this period shattered every sense I had of the measure of human baseness and resilience, destroyed my shaky understanding of hope, of faith, of the meaning of life or lack thereof. In many ways I have had to put myself back together so that I could live in the shadow of this secondhand trauma. Thus, just as my Russian degree and current Slavic coursework are in some way part of my attempt to understand and reconcile with that devastation, so is my dark tourism in Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe a kind of pilgrimage.
I left Poland with valuable impressions to turn over in my head, and not all of them were connected to Nazi and Soviet occupation: Krakow was, and so far remains, the only old European city I’ve visited, and Wawel the only castle. I adored the winding streets and pretty buildings of its center. On the bus ride there from Warsaw I dreamed of ditching the States and becoming a driver on that same country route, teasing tourists and writing poetry on my breaks. (Later, after I shared this dream with a film buff friend, he insisted that I must watch Paterson about a New Jersey bus driver and poet; I’m afraid I didn’t enjoy the film as much as I enjoyed the daydream.) Looking back, I’m glad I gave myself at least a week to divide between Warsaw and Krakow. Perhaps because I had some time to sit still and think, I began to recognize, if not understand, some complicated aspects of Polish pride and identity along with some of the tension underlying the nation’s expression of its history.
Still all of this is overshadowed by the images I purposefully burned into my brain of gas chamber ruins in the snow (absurdly dotted by the fresh pawprints of some housecat); of inscriptions on stone walls scratched by battered Gestapo prisoners; of plaques with their paragraphs of descriptions of calculated cruelty; of the swastika-tiled hall of one of the more unsettling rooms of the Schindler museum.
I had done what I could to put myself in one part of the geographic setting of the war and the Holocaust where everything I had read about it could take root in three dimensions before my eyes, and of course this is the main aspect of all of Poland that I have internalized.
So what should I do when I visit Ukraine? Despite my summer language class here, I fear I know just as little about Ukrainian people, history, and culture as I do about Poland. I feel drawn to travel to Ukraine, to put my reading knowledge to the test, to explore the more famous cities, to make my Ukraine-enthusiast diad’ko proud. I want to see things that have inspired patriotic poetry. I want to seek traces of what I’ve heard and read in descriptions of the Maidan. I want to take long walks with Ukrainian friends I haven’t even met yet! In essence, I want what I think most scholarly-types want when they travel: To spend enough thoughtful time in that place so that I can come closer to understanding it and integrating it with myself. This is why I feel conflicted about the lure of dark tourism.
What does my attraction to historical trauma say about me and about my relation to the place I want to internalize? What does it mean for the relationship between “us,” outsiders, and “them,” the locals? I may not be planning a trip to the Chernobyl exclusion zone, but I know I will want to spend some time in Ukraine trying to come physically close to the scars left by empire, war, hunger. Yet I would hate to be the kind of tourist that makes locals cringe. I feel I must find other positive, perhaps even forward-thinking ways to “get to know” Ukraine. Luckily, I am in a good place to start here at the summer school where I can turn to my Ukrainian instructors and peers.
Originally from Scranton, PA, Alexandra Bernosky is in a Slavic languages & literature PhD program at the University of Virginia.She has been researching expressions and stories of national identity and nationalism. Currently her main interest is national identity in a post-truth context (mainly focused on Russia so far), and closer to Ukraine, the national identity of emigres of Ukrainian heritage. She is taking the Ukrainian for Reading Knowledge course at HUSI and hopes to put her skills to the test in Ukraine's archives.