People from our school would go and visit the site, now a museum and site of remembrance, but I never did, or could. I once visited S-17, the infamous prison and torture center in Phnom Phenh, Cambodia, where the Khmer Rouge tortured in killed "political" prisoners. Being a political enemy of the state, in Cambodia, just as in the USSR or present-day China, could simply be the fact of your ethnicity, or that you wore glasses, or the size of your nose. The thing I remember the most about S-17 was not that there were still blood stains on the walls - and scratch marks from the prisoners' fingernails - or that the same wire-frame beds that the prisoners were shackled to for torture were still there. No, those were mere physical testaments: what struck me was the palpable sense of evil, perhaps the only time in my life I have felt that.
I didn't want to go to Karaganda to feel that: I didn't need to be reminded of that, because I will never forget. The testimonies in Alexeyevitch's work have the same power: the smell of the earth in spring, a pebble, a blade of grass can signify either rebirth, or serve as proof of existence, of survival, of communion with something that it not dead, proof that there is life, proof that not all is suffering.
I suppose that, given the chance, I would go to see one of WWII's many death camps, but it is not something that fills me with anticipation. When I was done with S-17, my guide, a motorcycle driver who waited outside, offered to take me to see the Killing Fields, where the bodies were deposited. I declined, partially out of fear of diluting what I had just seen, and becoming numbed and inured to the idea of death camps as a tourist attraction. After some conversation, I asked him where he was from? He told me, "I'm an orphan. I do knot know who my father, my mother, were. I have no family. I do not know where I am from."