When A Concentration Camp Turns Into A Luxury Resort

What would you say to the idea of turning a former concentration camp into a luxury beach-front hotel?  No, this is not some theoretical ethics quiz, nor is it the latest project from the European television producers who created a supposed “reality” TV show that invited participants to “re-enact” living through the holocaust.  This is a large-scale project by the Swiss-Egyptian developer Orascom, with the permission and support of the government of Montenegro, where the former camp is located.

With a diameter of just 200 meters, the uninhabited rocky Adriatic island of Mamula is barely visible on the map.  Situated on the bay of Kotor, on the border between Montenegro and Croatia, it’s dominated by a 19th-century fortress.

During World War II it was used as a concentration camp by occupying Italian troops serving under fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. It’s some 2,300 people were imprisoned there, of whom 130 were murdered or starved to death.  And now it could become a high-end resort.

Grotesque?  Crass?  Of no great significance?  A bold reclamation that opens a new and more positive chapter in the long history of one little island?  Frankly, I am inclined to all but the third interpretation.  Mindlessness or avoidance are simply unacceptable approaches to anything Holocaust-related, and I think that is what bothers me the most about this story.  Really.

I appreciate  the macabre elements of making this transformation, and the ways it can be offensive or hurtful, and perhaps this should never be done.  But I also appreciate that returning life to a place of death has a certain redemptive power to it — or at least it can when done correctly.  I am not saying the plan for a hotel on Mamula meets that measure, but I don’t entirely exclude the possibility that it could, either.

I am reminded of the Seinfeld episode in which they debated the appropriateness of making out in the theater while Schindler’s List was playing.  Was it gross and insensitive, or a profound affirmation of life and joy against all odds?  It’s not that this is exactly the same, but it’s not entirely different either.

What’s not acceptable, regardless of how one answers the question of, to build or not to build, is avoiding the significance of the decision and how it gets implemented.  There is something profoundly off — whether born or stupidity or insensitivity, I don’t know — when Olivera Brajovic, head of Montenegro’s national directorate for tourism development, explains that they were “facing two options: to leave the site to fall into ruin or find investors who would be willing to restore it and make it accessible to visitors” as if they were creating a museum and not a resort.

If you people want to do this, do it, but don’t pretend or obfuscate.  Whatever decision you make, the issue is too important for that.  Like so many other Holocaust-related issues, we battle over conclusions while losing important opportunities to consider how best to respond to the eternal questions created by genocide.

How do we remember the past without being imprisoned by it?  How do we balance the obligation to memorialize death without creating a death cult?  How do build new and brighter futures where horror once dominated, without forgetting that such horrors occurred, and can still occur today?  I don’t pretend to have all those answers, but I am pretty sure that if we asked them in the context of this project, whatever got built, or didn’t get built, something positive would have occurred.

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