February 22, 2014
Ten years ago in Vietnam, I made a stop at the Cu Chi Tunnels near Ho Chi Minh City. During the Vietnam War, the tunnels formed a network of military strongholds that housed up to 16,000 Viet Minh for months at a time. Only 6,000 survived the relentless bombing. Some put the figure at much less. Thousands of civilians also died in the vicinity.
At the Cu Chi Tunnels, tourists are encouraged to crawl around underground and then visit the adjacent museum. I politely declined. I declined the tunnels. I declined the museum. I sat alone at a nearby café. I cannot explain my reasoning. I cannot explain my emotions. Sometimes, I just decline. *
I decline to visit the Killing Fields in Cambodia. I decline to visit Auschwitz. In Israel, I sat alone for a long while at the memorial lamp at Yad Vashem. I declined to enter the museum. I decline to visit the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC.
In Prague in the Pinkas Synagogue, I discovered all that I needed to see, and all that I needed to know about the Holocaust. The synagogue is now a museum. On the walls, the Czech government engraved the names of the thousands of “disappeared” Czech Jews. I found the name Lisabeth Tausigova, my father’s grandmother, her name engraved on the wall. One day, I will return to look for the names of the thirty other members of my father’s immediate family.
On my recent trip to Japan, on the long ride from Kyoto to the southern city of Kagoshima, the train stopped at Hiroshima. A group of Westerners got off and told me they planned to visit the memorial and museum there. I stayed on the train.
But then, after a few days in Kagoshima, I changed my mind. I felt that I must overcome my abhorrence of the sites of genocide. I decided that as an American here in Japan, it is my obligation to visit and to remember. I went to Nagasaki.
The Peace Park in Nagasaki is, well, peaceful. A number of statues and memorials grace the grounds. I met a family group from South Asia who were taking photos and enjoying an outing. I met young travelers from Korea and Japan. They seemed content to wander around the park. Perhaps their parents or grandparents remember what happened here in 1945.
In an underground museum, I briefly watched a series of short documentary films. The films record the recollections of people who lived near the atomic bomb test sites in the Soviet Union, the United States and the South Pacific.
Nearby is the Nagasaki National Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bombs Victims. Once again, I declined. What shall I see there?
On the ride back to Kagoshima, I was thinking,
“Will we ever stop building memorials?”
“Will we ever stop building museums?”
Books to Read:
*I first wrote these lines as part of a travel essay when I visited Vietnam in 2003. Posted on my website. “Love and the American War.”
The essay was published in To Vietnam with Love. ThingsAsian Press. 2008. pg 93.
For a discussion of the merits, the ethics and the morality of the American and British bombing of cities in Germany and Japan during the Second World War, I highly recommend this book:
Among the Dead Cities. Is the Targeting of Civilians in War Ever Justified? A.C. Grayling. Bloomsbury. 2006