I trudged away from the German capital's Holocaust Memorial with damp eyes and an aching heart. For the first time, I had doubts about my solo trek through Europe to visit various World War II sites and monuments.
Why was I intentionally causing myself this level of sorrow? Was it emotionally healthy to see any more?
And I hadn't even visited Auschwitz yet.
My rough itinerary had been years in the making, before I knew it had a name: dark tourism.
The Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. Remnants of the Nazis in Berlin. Krakow's former Jewish ghetto. Visiting each is considered dark tourism, as is traveling to any site connected to suffering, death or natural disaster. The concept is fraught with ethical questions, and there is ample research dedicated to the subject.
While I have no personal connection to the Holocaust, I wanted to see and feel the history of the places about which I had devoured so many books, documentaries and Hollywood films.
"It sounds kind of depressing," said my wife, who gently opted out of the trip but encouraged me to go.
So I set out alone to see about a dozen dark tourism sites in three cities over eight days.
First stop: Amsterdam. The Anne Frank House is one of the city's most popular attractions, and for years it has been known for long lines and waits. That changed in 2016 with a switch to online ticketing and reservations. I arrived at my designated time and entered in a matter of seconds.
I was mesmerized by the bookcase that served as the brilliant secret door to the area where Anne and seven others hid from the Nazis. As I moved through the claustrophobic rooms where Anne wrote her famous diary, I felt the history, just as I had hoped. It was somber, informative and thrilling all at once.
A lump formed in my throat when I spotted the etchings on the wallpaper where Anne's father tracked his daughter's height during their two years in hiding. Just like the marks I make at home for my kids, I thought.
The whole tour lasts little more than an hour. That hour will stick with me for a lifetime, I suspect.
I found only brief mentions of the fascinating Dutch Resistance Museum in guidebooks, but it was worth the 20-minute walk outside the touristy center of Amsterdam. Interactive exhibits ask you to consider the risks and assess whether you would collaborate, resist or do nothing under Nazi rule.
About two blocks away is the Hollandsche Schouwburg, a former theater where Dutch Jews were held during WWII before being transported to Nazi concentration camps. The building now serves as a memorial and small museum to Holocaust victims. Exhibits are in Dutch only.
A helpful employee explained the train line outside the building, now used for public transit, was the same one by which the Nazis sent Jews to the camps. A train rolled by at that moment. Chills.
I also spent some time in a quiet room with a wall that lists every Dutch family with someone killed in the Holocaust. I looked for the only name I knew: Frank. Directly below Frangulea and above van Frank.
Amsterdam offers plenty of distractions from WWII history. If you can't find them, you're not trying. In Berlin — the epicenter of Nazi Germany and later the Cold War — dark tourism can be harder to escape.
Walk just about any direction from Berlin's famed Brandenburg Gate, and you will find echoes of the Third Reich. While the subject matter is grim, I felt an adrenaline rush as I approached each site.
To the north sits the Reichstag building, where politicians run Germany today. Messages scrawled by Russian soldiers who captured the Reichstag at the end of WWII remain preserved on the interior walls. Around the corner is Chancellor Angela Merkel's office. A few steps away, a spray of WWII bullet holes endures on a hallway stone.
A few blocks east, a window on the ground of a large public square called Bebelplatz offers a view of empty, white bookshelves below. It's a unique memorial to the Nazi book burning that took place there, but a distracting construction project nearby overshadowed the space and made it difficult to grasp the history.
South of the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin's dark history converges at one intersection along the Wilhelmstrasse, the street where much of the German government operated during WWII. On the corner sits an imposing, block-long building that housed the Aviation Ministry of the Third Reich, headed by Hermann Goering. Across the street, dug-out fragments of the Gestapo headquarters are on display. A lengthy stretch of the Berlin Wall divides the two Nazi-era structures.
I was almost fearful as I stared at the scraps of the Gestapo basement, then gazed up at the Berlin Wall and Goering's former office building.
A short detour off the Wilhelmstrasse takes you to the site of the underground bunker where Adolf Hitler killed himself at the end of the war. A small sign explains the bunker, which is not accessible. There's nothing else to see except an apartment building parking lot.
The modest signage at Hitler's bunker is in appropriate contrast to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe less than 200 steps away. The memorial encompasses a square city block and includes hundreds of gray, concrete slabs varying in height, giving the site a cemetery vibe.
The information center beneath the memorial educates visitors about the Holocaust. It concludes in a dark room where names of victims are projected onto the wall, one at a time. A narrator briefly recites biographical information about each person. It's said it would take years to hear them all.
Leaving the memorial, I was drained. It was then that I doubted my itinerary. Over eight days, I needed several breaks from my trip's gloomy focus. This was one of those times, and a walk into the nearby Tiergarten, Berlin's version of Central Park, allowed me to recharge.
I left Berlin for Krakow, where the former factory of Oskar Schindler — made famous in Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List" — is now an impressive museum.
Two sections of the wall that surrounded Krakow's Jewish ghetto still stand. One part eerily forms a barrier along a modern children's playground.
Throughout my trip, I sensed the strongest connections to history in the little things, like peeking out the same window where Anne Frank once stole glimpses of the outside world. Touching the ghetto wall in Krakow had the same effect.
Lastly, I visited Auschwitz. The former Nazi death camp is about a 90-minute bus ride from Krakow.
My guided six-hour tour was as solemn as one would expect. It was also riveting, and I felt a trace of guilt. Is it wrong to be awed by the enormity of such a place?
As the tour ended and I walked toward the ominous Birkenau gatehouse, I reflected on my week of dark tourism. I expected that I might reach some grand conclusion, but there was none.
I reaffirmed that visiting physical sites offers a connection to history that can't be duplicated in a book or video. I learned about extraordinary evil and saw it was perpetrated in otherwise ordinary places. And I recognized the message of so many Holocaust books and movies: The crimes of the Nazis cannot be allowed to happen again.
Really, what other revelation could there be?