Reliving Trauma: Finding Shared History in Shoah Pilgrimage


It has often been said that tragedy has a way of bringing people together. Such may be the case with Holocaust pilgrimage. Holocaust pilgrimage, or Shoah pilgrimage, is a newly emerging ritualized journey that involves traveling to sites of Holocaust relevance, most often concentration camps. While most other types of pilgrimage denote traveling to sites of religious or spiritual significance, Shoah is unique in that it builds its foundation upon a period of immense historical and cultural trauma. Reasons for making these “trauma pilgrimages” are varied, and Shoah pilgrimage and its legitimacy as a pilgrimage has been a somewhat controversial topic in the academic world. Is it sacred or profane, religious or historical? This paper seeks to demystify the Shoah Pilgrimage by exploring the ways in which Shoah pilgrims strengthen religious, cultural, and even national identity by “bearing witness” to the past.

In order to do so, I will first give a bit of background information about the relatively brief history of Shoah pilgrimage, after which I will address the classification of the Shoah as a pilgrimage, as well as some of the controversy surrounding this classification. I will then discuss different subsets of Shoah pilgrim and possible motives for each to make the pilgrimage, varying from resolving psychological tension to promoting inter-generational understanding to preventing future mass genocides. Throughout the course of this paper, I will also touch upon some of the things that make Shoah pilgrimage unique, occasionally by comparing it to other pilgrimages. Finally, I will weave these various topics together in in my conclusion to further solidify my thesis.

History of Shoah Pilgrimage

The word Shoah comes from the commonly used Hebrew term for the Holocaust, translated literally as “catastrophe”. The term first came into use to describe the Holocaust and pilgrimages to Holocaust sites some time in the late 60s. After the end of World War II, many concentration camps were either destroyed or repurposed, but some were kept to serve as a reminder of the horrors of the Holocaust and to commemorate those who died there. Although Shoah pilgrimages to concentration camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau and Buchenwald are common, pilgrimage can also extend to museums and other commemorative sites such as the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. Although many of these sites have been established as memorials since shortly after the end of the war, organized tours and Shoah pilgrimages have only recently begun to gain popularity in the mainstream. These pilgrimages are now particularly prevalent in Israel, where there are a few programs that send schoolchildren to Shoah sites in Poland. Many Shoah pilgrims are, as one might expect, Jewish, and some are even Holocaust survivors, although the number of individuals without any personal ties to the Holocaust is steadily rising.


Classification and Controversy

            Shoah pilgrimage and the sacrality of Holocaust artifacts and locations have only recently come to the attention of religious studies scholars. As Stier notes, “While some visitors and academics would assume that certain artifacts from the Holocaust bear a sacred aura, scholars have rarely examined the mechanics of such sacrality” (Stier 82). Perhaps one of the most controversial aspects of Shoah within the existing academic discourse is its authenticity as a pilgrimage. Polzer uses a Durkheimian model of sacred symbols to analyze Holocaust relics, asserting that “… demand for the ‘authenticity’ of Holocaust relics requires a more adequate theoretical construct, developed here as the ‘authentic symbol,’ to designate a configuration of the sacred symbol” (Polzer 698). Jilovsky, however, questions the legitimacy of Shoah pilgrimage, asserting that it relies to heavily on the (often faulty) memory of holocaust survivor, noting, “[accounts of survivor memory] therefore emphasise the fallibility of place as a witness, showing that it is the survivor rather than the site that bears witness to what happened” (Jilovsky 163).

The reason that Holocaust pilgrimage is such a controversial topic may very well be that its parameters are so ambiguous. Some may call a journey to a concentration camp a pilgrimage, while others call it commemoration. Do the religious components of the horrors that took place in a concentration camp make it more apt as a pilgrimage site, or does it stand on the same level as other apparently secular memorial sites? Many individuals visit Holocaust museums, relics, and sites for strictly educational reasons, and the issue of how to classify these individuals is no easy one. Are they pilgrims? Tourists? Students of history? Does intent matter? Then there is the issue of whether Holocaust memorial sites are profane or sacred. Because their foundation is something wholly other from the Jewish religion, a shared historical tragedy and not a spiritually based happening, it is difficult to make this distinction. Are Holocaust pilgrimage sites profane because of what happened in them, or sacred because of what was survived in them?

A unique feature of Shoah pilgrimage’s origin as compared to those of other, more traditional pilgrimages is its relative recentness in history. Whereas pilgrimages such as the Shikoku and the Kumbh Mela are founded upon histories that span upwards of a thousand years, the events of the Holocaust happened within the past century. The newness of the Holocaust therefore generates a more immediate feeling of veridity for pilgrims, as it is more grounded in our recent historical memory. While the origins of, say, the Shikoku, may feel the stuff of lore to some pilgrims (although this too has historical backings), the Holocaust seems by comparison much more corporeal. This perception is no doubt helped by the fact that there is a much larger body of proof for Holocaust events. There is no shortage of artifacts, photographs, documents, and most notably, first-hand witnesses to add validity to holocaust site and to therefore make it easier for pilgrims to imagine and conceptualize the events that they have journeyed to commemorate. Polzer discusses the powerful effects these artifacts can have, saying, “… historical testimony is, paradoxically, simultaneously reified and sacralized; the ‘correct’ version of history is not simply a plausible interpretation of the past, but is empirically immanent in the artifacts themselves, which become transcendent, ideologically charged witnesses” (Polzer 701).

Pilgrim Motives

The entire Shoah experience, of course, holds different gravity and different meaning for different individuals. There are survivors, survivors’ descendants, and those who have little to no direct connection with the Holocaust experience, and they all go on Shoah pilgrimages for a myriad of personal reasons. Kidron writes about the desire for pathos or catharsis, among other emotional states. She also states that bearing witness through exploration of tragedy sites, even if one has no personal ties to the Holocaust, strengthens empathic feelings to those who do (Kidron 178). Keil adds, “In addition, it has been said that, as the usual purpose of commemorating disaster is to emphasize new beginnings, so for some Jewish groups, visiting Auschwitz represents a secular ritual of renewal, a means of experiencing ‘the mythic birthplace of the postmodern’” (Keil 483). In this context, Shoah serves as a way of resolving the past and reaffirming identity, as well as beginning a new era of history.

Shoah pilgrimage holds a particular weight for those who have survived the atrocities of the Holocaust. Because they are living the emotional aftermath of an immensely traumatic experience, it is often difficult to relate to others the depth of this experience. This difficulty can be especially apparent in regards to the descendants of survivors, by virtue of the sheer distance between the generational experiences of survivors and their children and grandchildren. Kidron asserts that Shoah pilgrimage bridges this distance by evoking empathy and identification. After the pilgrimage, descendants are able to contextualize information they were given (or not given) by their forebearers, whereas before, as Kidron states, “Survivors and their children avoided painful verbal references to the Holocaust past, leading to a ‘conspiracy of silence’” (Kidron 180).

Moreover, these pilgrimages may serve a more personal, psychologically fulfilling function for survivors by providing them with a way to disarm and distance themselves from Holocaust memory (Keil 479). For instance, a survivor visiting a Holocaust museum might see a Nazi uniform just like the one his tormentors wore and reapproach his traumatic memories in a new context. He is separated from this item, which once represented a very real and present threat, by a thick wall of glass, and he can see that it no longer poses a danger to him. Its power is (at least somewhat) taken away and it becomes what it is- a simple cloth garment. In this way the survivor begins to resolve past traumas by disarming memories.

Perhaps an even more fascinating group of pilgrims than the survivors themselves is the descendants of survivors. These individuals are in a unique position, because they are able to witness the effects of Holocaust trauma firsthand, but the can never experience or witness the trauma itself. This trauma remains a spectral force that can be felt but not seen. For the kin of the Holocaust survivor, Shoah pilgrimage may provide a powerful tool to solidify this unseen memory and bridge the gap between the generation that experienced and the generation that did not. As Jilovsky maintains, “For the second generation, visiting sites of Holocaust memory offers a window to the past which they did not experience but nevertheless has often had a significant effect on their lives” (Jilovsky 157). Kidron also examines the emotional and psychological benefits of co-presence between Holocaust survivors and following generations, positing that, through Shoah pilgrimage, children of survivors are able to “…[re-connect] the self to victimized forebearers” (Kidron 177).

Shoah experience for those who did not live through the Holocaust, or at the very least share a relation with someone who did, is undoubtedly very different. For those who did not “bear witness” to the Holocaust or its consequences, Shoah pilgrimage may create a more externalizing or distancing effect. It is something that happened to “them” and not “us”. However, this may be becoming less the case as people start identifying more and more with Holocaust experience. Polzer points to the increasingly transnationalistic nature of Holocaust memory. More and more, peoples of all different national identities are becoming involved in the preservation of these memories. Museums and memorial sites can be found in abundance in many European and American regions, and patrons are not, as one might expect, overwhelmingly or predominantly German, Polish, or Jewish. This may be partially due to the fact that so many nations were influenced, in some large or small way, by the events of World War II, and survivors have fanned out all across the world. The scope of Holocaust influence is so large that the Holocaust itself is no longer considered a national event, but a global one.

Feldman also claims that, in addition to strengthening religious identity, it also builds national identity. Specifically, he alludes to Israeli youth voyages to Poland, stating, “As in traditional religious pilgrimages… the voyager experiences communitas at the significant center, returns home by a path spiritually different than the one he took upon his departure, and enjoys a new status upon his return: the students who left for Poland as children will return home to Israel as empowered, responsible members of society- witnesses– and become future soldiers of the State of Israel” (Feldman 255). This idea of bearing witness to historical tragedy may also serve a larger, more important purpose- to remind us of the ever-present danger of corrupt and total authority. By directly observing the consequences of a nation led astray, modern pilgrims are led to reflect on the future of their own nations.                                                                         


Regardless of its somewhat controversial classification, I am willing to assert that Shoah pilgrimage serves a multitude of possible purposes, whether they be psychological, historical, or interpersonal, and is therefore beneficial. For survivors, the pilgrimage can help to resolve traumatic memories. For the descendants of survivors, the pilgrimage can promote empathy and intergenerational understanding. For those who do not have any personal connection to the Holocaust, Shoah pilgrimage can serve as a historical reminder of the dangers of corruption. Mosty notably, however, Shoah pilgrimage can create communitas. There is a strange sense of strength in Shoah pilgrimage, particularly for those who are more directly associated with the history. To have survived, or to be part of a surviving people, may bring about a more solidified sense of heritage and an appreciation for the resilience of one’s own people.

In conclusion, communities are strengthened through the memory of a shared tragedy, a powerful marker of the division between “us” and “them”. Says Keil of Shoah pilgrimage centers, “They are items of collective memory, and visits to them form part of the social construction of rituals of remembering, and the grounding of both personal and collective memory in physical place” (Keil 481), an idea that blends with Turner’s concept of communitas. Shoah pilgrims are gathering together in order to solidity a shared identity through ritual exploration of a common past. In this way, Shoah pilgrimage is effective as a means to cement a shared group identity, whether it be religious or national, through collective memory of a historically traumatic experience.

Work Cited

Polzer, Natalie C. “DURKHEIM’S SIGN MADE FLESH: THE “AUTHENTIC SYMBOL” IN CONTEMPORARY HOLOCAUST PILGRIMAGE.” Canadian Journal Of Sociology 39, no. 4 (October 2014): 697-718. SocINDEX with Full Text, EBSCOhost

Kidron, Carol A. “BEING THERE TOGETHER: DARK FAMILY TOURISM AND THE EMOTIVE EXPERIENCE OF CO-PRESENCE IN THE HOLOCAUST PAST.” Annals Of Tourism Research 41, (April 1, 2013): 175-194. ScienceDirect, EBSCOhost

Feldman, Jackie. Above the Death Pits, beneath the Flag: Youth Voyages to Poland and the Performance of Israeli National Identity. New York: Berghahn, 2008. Print.

Stier, Oren Baruch. “Different trains : Holocaust artifacts and the ideologies of remembrance.” Holocaust And Genocide Studies no. 1 (2005): 81. RAMBI, EBSCOhost

Jllovsky, Esther. “All a Myth? Come and See for Yourself.” Australian Journal Of Jewish Studies 25, (January 2011): 153-174. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost

Keil, Chris. “Sightseeing in the mansions of the dead.” Social & Cultural Geography 6, no. 4 (August 2005): 479-494. SocINDEX with Full Text, EBSCOhost


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