Five Somber Experiences

1.) Shoah Memorial-Paris, France
The Shoah Memorial is the largest research, information, and awareness raising center in Europe on the history of the genocide of the Jews during the Holocaust. Located in Paris’ historical Jewish quarter the Marais, the Shoah Memorial offers visitors a look into Paris and France’s darkest days. Security to gain admittance is strict, but once through you again pass outside to the Wall of Names where the names of 76,000 French men, women, and children who were deported to death and concentration camps in eastern Europe are inscribed on its pillars. Of this large number only 2,500 survived deportation. The memorial says that “the wall restores identity to the children, women and men the Nazis tried to eradicate from the surface of the earth.” Seeing all those names there was sobering, especially the names whose year of birth clearly indicated they had been children. The other tough moment for me when visiting was towards the end, where  the photos of all France’s child victims of the Holocaust were displayed.You are surrounded by the living ghosts of children whose lives ended entirely too soon.

2.) Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)-Korea
 The most heavily militarized border in the world. A 160 mile (250 kilometers) long  strip of land that has been on the brink of war for more than half a century. Although I learned much of modern Korean history prior to visiting the DMZ during the summer I studied in Seoul, nothing could actually prepare me for being there in person. I viewed a border that has divided a people for so long, that has taken so many lives and caused so much pain and suffering for individuals on both sides of it. It’s easy to think of the Korean War as just another event in history, something to read about in a classroom textbook. But it’s not. The Korean War has never officially ended and the DMZ is the most vivid reminder of this.

Image courtesy of treehugger.com

3.) Madres de la Plaza de Mayo (Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo)-Buenos Aires, Argentina
 Tango and Eva Peron may be the two things that most people think of when the country of Argentina is mentioned, but the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo are equally important. It is an association of Argentine women whose children “disappeared” during the Dirty War of the military dictatorship, between 1976 and 1983. For over thirty years, they have tried to be reunited with their abducted children, many whom were tortured and then killed. In protests, they wear white head scarves with their child’s name embroidered, to symbolize the blankets of the lost children. The name of their association comes from the location in Buenos Aires (Plaza de Mayo) where the mothers and grandmothers first gathered seeking answers. For the last decade, they have continued to meet there every Thursday, although today they meet to protest in support of action on other social causes. But the majority of the women still go without answers as to the fate of their sons and daughters, the whereabouts of their bodies never known. I was fortunate enough to have seen these valiant women when I visited Argentina in 2007.

4.) Valle de los Caidos (Valley of the Fallen)-(Madrid environs, Spain)
The thing that haunted me the most from my semester in Spain was the legacy of the country’s most infamous dictator, Francisco Franco. Nowhere is this felt more than at the Valle de los Caidos, near to the famous palace of El Escorial on the outskirts of Madrid. It is a Catholic basilica and memorial that was conceived by Franco to honor and bury those who died during the Spanish Civil War, a conflict fought between those who supported democracy and free ideas and those who didn’t. I would go on to write my undergraduate dissertation on a topic related to the Franco years through the analysis of three modern day Spanish films so I know that the valley was not intended to memorialize the losing side’s dead of the war. Although the valley contains both Nationalist and Republican graves, the tone and feel of the monument is distinctly Nationalist and anti-Communist, Franco’s side. Ten percent of the construction workers for the memorial and basilica were convicts, some of them Popular Front prisoners (soldiers who had supported Spain’s short lived Republic) . Franco, the man who ruled Spain with an iron fist for more than 30 years,  is also buried there, making the entire area highly controversial.

5.) Gettysburg National Battlefield-Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
The United States has not borne witness to fighting on its own soil for almost 150 years. However, in the mid-19th century it was the site of the country’s most horrific battles, Gettysburg being one of them. The battle is often said to have been the turning point in the American Civil War, but it was also the battle with the largest number of casualties in the entire four year conflict. Everywhere you walk in the battlefield is in some way  sacred ground, for even if a solider is not buried there, someone may have died right where you were stepping. The row after row of mass graves in the National Cemetery is especially poignant, for it contains the graves of thousands of men, young and old, who died in a span of only a couple of days. It is a cemetery completely filled from the one of the costliest battles in American history. And saddest of all, contains the graves of hundreds of unknown soldiers.

Note: I have personally visited all of the five experiences I wrote about.

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