Over spring break, I got the opportunity to travel to the Baltic nations and Poland. After studying some Jewish history and literature in a class on Jewish American literature, my interests, like so many tourists to the region, were two-fold: to see what was there, and to see what wasn’t.
The inclusion of Poland into the European Union has meant that tourism has increased drastically. It also means that many poorer EU citizens are now living in what is generally considered to be one of the cheapest countries in the EU with the lowest living expenses. Prior to the beginning of the Warsaw tour, it became apparent that the tour would be offered in two different languages: English and Spanish. I was taken aback. Why Spanish? I asked the guide why there was both a Spanish-only tour, as I had come across predictably few Spanish speaking persons in my my travels of the Balkan and Baltic regions. What brought these people to Poland? The guide explained that the economic downturn and the low employment rate in Spain means that there are a lot of unemployed young people. Asa result, many of them decide to live in Poland, take whatever jobs they can, or pursue their studies there in Warsaw where they can afford to study and not work full time. I was fascinated. In the States, I recalled hearing about the economic downturn in Spain some time around our recession, but I thought it had more than recovered. Apparently, it had not, and by the time our free tour left, the Spanish group (made entirely of people from Spain proper) had more people in it than our English tour which, in typical European fashion, contained a diverse mix of Italians, French, Canadians, Americans, Germans, and a couple Israelis.
While in that moment I witnessed what I would call EU economic tourism, that is, people who are attending a free tour in a country they intend to put down roots in for the lower cost of living, I also was able to get an insight into an even more popular trend: disaster tourism.
Disaster tourism is no new fad, but it is increasing as the sites of the world’s greatest atrocities become easier and easier to visit. This sector is difficult to define, as a person’s motivations for visiting sites of immense tragedy are varied. I considered that, for the two Jewish Israelis on our tour, the motivation for taking a Jewish walking tour of Warsaw was different than some of the non-Jewish Canadians and Americans. As I took the tour with my father, we struggled to understand why we were taking the tour. I imagined my dad’s feelings were not dissimilar to my own when I visited the killing fields outside of Phnom Penh, or the new World Trade Center monument. These were tragic events that occurred well before we were born and we found it impossible to even visualize a world wherein they did not happen. I wondered, did I want to see the walls and boundaries of the old Jewish ghetto in Warsaw because I wanted to be reminded of the perils of discrimination, or just because it is something to see that provokes an emotional reaction. Surely, the Israelis felt something more than I did, a feeling of loss over people in their community. But, for non-Jewish, non-Europeans, is a history tour just a history tour? That is to say, we simply learn about history to not repeat it, or is there something more (or less)?
After returning from a trip to Serbia and Bosnia in January, my dad was flipping through the pictures with some close friends and family and landed on a picture I took of him at the Latin Bridge in Sarajevo, where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was killed.
“I was counting how many assassination sites I have been to,” he said. “I think it is around seven.”
He began listing them. He had been to Ford’s theater, he had been to where JFK was killed in Dallas. I tuned out. “Is this a conversation we are meant to be having?” I thought. Does it show more, or less, respect for the dead to memorialize them in cocktail-party listicles on people who were shot, and famous enough for their shooting to be called an assassination. What’s more, are we doing the same thing when we visit sites like Auschwitz of the Warsaw ghetto?
I mentioned my father, but this is not to say I am not guilty of the same thing. I was born in 1998, and the war in the Balkans in the early 90s has always been something I knew nothing about, until I went to Bosnia, and to Serbia, and to Kosovo. I read books, Wikipedia articles, and we walked through a number of museums in the region. I admittedly suffer through chronic museum fatigue, and often exit a museum thinking “wow, I just spent $10 and I don’t think I learned anything.” However, the one thing that got to me in Belgrade was the still-bombed-out Ministry of Defense building, two blocks from the international bus station. I may forget which Balkan nation declared independence first. I may forget which of the Balkan languages are Latinized, and which ones use the Cyrillic script. I will not forget that, twenty-five years after conflict ended, a half-in-use Ministry of Defense building has its other half turned to rubble behind metal fencing, a reminder of what NATO had to do to end such an atrocity. I don’t know what this fallen monument means, whether it is a admonishment to ward off further evil, or a painful reminder of a bloody conflict that still tortures its victims almost three decades later.
All I know is that I’ll remember it too.
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.