I want to preface this blog entry by saying that it is absolutely not my intent to offend any persons or groups. I am simply sharing my personal experience and thoughts. I have nothing but the utmost respect and consideration for all those who suffered as a result of the tragedies of WWII.
My first day in Berlin I went on a (free) tour around the city. I saw many iconic landmarks: Brandenburg Gate, Checkpoint Charlie, The Berlin Wall, the site of the Nazi book burning, and so much more. Berlin is quite an attractive, diverse city with so much interesting history. It has the excitement and opportunity of New York, coupled with the easy-going spirit of San Francisco. I can understand why so many young people from all over the world move there. My favorite part of the tour was seeing the memorials and art pieces that have been created in tribute to WWII. One of my favorites: The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The name, as you can imagine, is quite controversial, but was insisted upon by the artist. The Memorial consists of concrete blocks. Each block is a different height and shape, if only in the slightest. Visitors can walk through and among the blocks, and are encouraged to do so.
There are many interpretations of the symbolism of the Memorial. Many analogize the blocks to tombstones, while others have theories related to the number and/or shape of the blocks. For me, it was entirely about how the Memorial made me feel. When you enter the Memorial the blocks are quite short, you can see over them in all directions and have a good sense of where you are. Looking around you see that the blocks are entirely structured in a grid-like outline, much like a city-plan. As you walk further into the Memorial the blocks begin to rise and it gets cold. They are still structured and you can see down each aisle, in every direction. But you no longer have any sense of where you are. It’s suffocating. Confusing. Overwhelming. Scary. Yet still so damn structured and intentional. I image those feelings largely defined the experience of so many during the Holocaust.
In Berlin, many of the memorials and artistic tributes to the Holocaust and those who lost their lives during WWII are simple and abstract. Artists often do not share their personal interpretations or intent behind their piece(s), forcing visitors to think about the meaning of the Memorial for themselves. How amazing is that? The tributes to the peoples who suffered through a regime that absolutely ravaged independent thought require and honor such thinking. It’s really quite beautiful.
The other site we visited on the tour that truly touched me was this:
Yes, that’s right; it is a parking lot. A simple, normal-looking parking lot just on the eastern side of The Berlin Wall. Which I found to be absolutely incredible, considering that this is where Hitler died. People park in, walk through, and look over this site every day. In a city full of historic significance, art, museums, and memorials Hitler gets nothing. Nothing.
The next day I went on a guided tour around Sachsenhousen Memorial and Museum. Sachsenhausen was a concentration camp during WWII. It was not considered a termination camp, like Auschwitz, but it did have a termination sector. This sector was largely experimental and many processes were later widely used at other concentration camps.
The entrance to the camp, Tower A, had an inscription on the gates that was common at concentration camps: “Arbeit Macht Frei” which translates to “Work Sets you Free”. Which is quite impudent, as the only way that many prisoners gained their freedom was through death, many via arduous work. Tower A, armed with machine guns, was strategically built so that the lookout posts overaw the entire camp. If you could see Tower A, you could be seen from it.
The camp was much larger than I had expected and the tour was mostly outside, but we did enter some buildings. During the beginning of the tour I was completely miserable. It was damn cold and my clothes and toes were wet from the morning rain. Almost immediately after arriving I wanted to leave. All I could think about was how I supposed to walk around the camp for 2.5 hours cold and wet…
The first building we entered was an original Jewish barrack. I practically fought my way in, thinking it would be warm and I could dry off a little.
Once inside, I immediately received a big, deep, heavy punch in the chest.
I looked around to saw where prisoners slept, bathed, pissed. I saw where they lived, and didn’t know how they did.
I’m an asshole.
I chose to be here. I literally paid money to be here. And all I could do was count down the minutes until I could leave.
I could leave!!
Once I was inside the barrack I realized aka remembered where I was. I was in a place that others were forced into, where people were tortured, had their identities and dignity taken away from them, where innocent people were murdered through various means.
I was there to remember them, to learn about them, to learn from them.
I started paying attention.
During the tour we learned about many of the prisoners who were kept at Sauchsenhausen and of the often courageous acts that led to their demise. There were many political and ideologically powerful prisoners who were kept in a separate prison within the camp. Somehow, inconceivably, their conditions were often worse. We walked the perimeter of the camp, visited the kitchen – which has been converted into an incredible and encompassing museum, visited the extermination sector and the medical facilities and barracks.
I didn’t take too many pictures once inside the camp. I couldn’t bring myself to photograph the gas chambers, extermination ovens, the mortuary where many, still-breathing prisoners were left to die. I didn’t even want to photograph the camp grounds. I did take a picture of a memorial that was built by the Soviets after the camp was liberated, the Soviet Liberation Memorial. The Memorial intentionally stands directly across from and taller than Tower A, symbolizing the “victory of anti-fascism over fascism”
The entire experience was incredibly humbling, and emotional. I’m grateful for all of it, especially the figurative blow to the chest that woke me up to the reality of where I was.
When the tour was over I left the camp through Tower A, in honor of all who could not.