Tuesday was to be our last day in Berlin and we decided to visit Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. The language to use around this stuff is super tricky. This is an important blog to me and it’s been hard for me to write. I feel awful saying I was looking forward to visiting. It seems kind of macabre to admit that I’ve always wanted to see a concentration camp. I’m not sure how one can couch this in terms that don’t seem, well, totally insensitive.
On the other hand, there is no denying that these camps are a huge draw for tourists. We did the tour with Berlin walks and joined a group of about 20 other thrill (?) seekers heading to the suburbs of Berlin. I know our hosts were a bit mystified as to why we would bring our young children to such a place. We also have read them children’s-level books about the Holocaust and took them to see The Anne Frank House when we were in Amsterdam. I guess I don’t worry too much about scarring their psyches by exposing them to the past. They do understand at some level what is happening but seem pretty good at taking things they can handle in, and tuning the rest out. Much of it goes over their heads and if some stuff doesn’t, and it makes them upset, I think, honestly, that is good. It was terrible, it should make them upset and it should make them realize that such things were not the right way to solve problems.
I was thinking about this a bit more and I thought: Hey, are my opinions on showing the kids concentration camps at all inconsistent with other opinions I hold dear? I am thinking, in particular, of the fact that I have not let the kids watch anything more than G rated movies unless I am in the room (for the first time, at least). In fact, they haven’t ever seen even a PG-13 or R rated movie. The only PG ones they’ve seen are Goonies, The Princess Bride, Mamma Mia, RV, Space Camp, Cannonball Run, War Games and (admittedly borderline) Robin Hood Prince of Thieves and The Pirates of the Caribbean. No Spiderman, Batman, X-Men stuff, Harry Potter just yet (although I’ve really been wanting to share the old Star Wars with them as of late – hard to find in France). Also, I don’t have them playing violent video games (or any video games really, except those found at PBS kids) In general, I think it is not good to expose them to this type of violence. I think it desensitizes them and makes them think blowing things up, etc… is usually a good solution. They did that stuff so the good guys can beat the bad guys or, alternately, to entertain us. Plus, Hollywood promotes the fantasy that the good guys all survive and the bad guys get defeated.
What do you think? Am I a big hypocrite? But, back to Sachsenhausen….
The first thing we passed, walking from the train station, was a monument to Todesmarsch. As the Allies pinched in on the Germans and they knew they were losing, they began herding all the able bodied (and I use that term loosely) remaining camp inmates on a forced march. From this camp, over 3000 of them were forced to march, non stop, for over 100km. Keep in mind they were already weak and starving. Of course about 600 of them simply dropped from exhaustion and were then shot in the back of the head. Eventually, the remaining guards fled to save their own hides and the prisoners had to wander onward, eventually stumbling into the Russian army, who helped them.
The next thing we saw was the entrance gate, where all the prisoners were processed. We learned more than I had ever known before about concentration camps. The history of them, the way they began and how they grew. In general, Sachsenhausen was used for political prisoners. In the early days of Hitler’s power he imprisoned all his political enemies in order to shut them all up. Sachsenhausen was not a death camp, but rather a work camp (about 100,000 people died at Sachsenhausen as opposed to 1.25 million at Auschwitz). Each morning the prisoners had to line up for a head count and were then sent to work. They walked through the gate with the slogan “Arbeit Macht Frei” or “Work Makes You Free”. In the later years of the war, the camp was so over crowded (including not only political prisoners, but Jews, and POW’s) they were running out of work. Some people’s ‘work’ became simply standing, unmoving, for 10 hours straight. Other people were involved in going through all the valuables of other Jews that had been killed… can you imagine?
It is well known, of course, that 6 million Jews died (as well as hundreds of thousands of others) in concentration camps. I had heard of The Final Solution but what we realized at this place was that the goal of the Third Reich wasn’t just killing the Jews. It was erasing them. I mean, if you kill someone, and you kill their parents, and all their brothers and sisters and even their extended family, would anyone remember them? Well (you are thinking), yes, right? Their neighbors? Not the way people come and go, I would say. How about friends and classmates? Maybe yes today – but back then the Jews did not, in general, intermingle with non-Jews. The Germans isolated them, herded them into ghettos and then loaded them like cattle into trains. They ransacked their homes, stole their possessions, tortured and killed them. They also burned all their documents and records as if they were never, ever born. Of course, it didn’t work – but I do see some sort of difference between ‘normal’ genocide and this attempt to make it seem as if an entire group of people simply never were. And the fact is, there are people today that say the Holocaust never happened – and all the evidence was fabricated. Chilling…..
When the guards would count the prisoners each day, they would write the number down. At the end of the day the numbers would have to match. If there were more prisoners, they’d shoot the extras. If there were less, a manhunt would be called and the prisoners would have to wait, standing up, until the escapees were captured and returned, even if it was winter and it took all night and the next day as well.(no coats, hats or even shoes) Of course, this would all be in an attempt to discourage escapes. Almost no one ever did escape this prison. The entire complex, in the early years, could be controlled by the guard house, pictured left, since there was a giant rotating machine gun that could wipe out the entire camp in the hands of only 2 gunners. Also there was what they benevolently referred to as the “Neutral Zone”. This was a section of gravel before the barbed wire and then outer fences. If a prisoner was unfortunate enough to set foot in the Neutral Zone he would be neutralized (i.e. shot instantly without warning).
We had a wonderful guide who told us many stories. At one point they had the prisoners testing new combat footwear for the German troops – that entailed issuing prisoners shoes a size too small and having them run on them, over rocky ground, nonstop, for 6 hours a day. (Guess then they would check for holes in the shoes). We visited the barracks of the prisoners, saw their bathrooms and the medical experimentation area. We got to see the monument put up in honor of the Homosexual prisoners, which, for many years was not allowed to be included since homophobia is still very strong in Germany.
Later in the war, more people were dying in this camp due to many reasons, primarily the lack of food, proper health care and increased overcrowding. Any soldier working in the camp had carte blanche with prisoners. They were permitted to torture, maim or kill any prisoner when the mood struck.
This camp only ever housed adult men, no women or children (although they did experiment with infecting some small boys with typhus in the medical wing) but, since so many were dying they were sending trucks filled with bodies to crematoriums downtown daily. One truck overturned, and the bodies of the emaciated and sore-ridden concentration camp victims tumbled out into the street.
For a generation or more, the German people had been brainwashed into believing that the Jews were dangerous criminals that needed to be in prison. The average German was not interested in helping the prisoners and was, indeed, afraid of them. At the same time, however, the government was feeding everyone propaganda implying that the people in the camps were receiving the best of care and rehabilitation. A bunch of emaciated corpses were not good for PR so they did the only logical thing. Hush the incident up as quickly as possible and build their own crematorium at the camp. They started running loud classical music to cover the screams of those who died in the gas chambers and the others who were shot in the ditch near the ovens. Then they burned their bodies, so many that, near the end, the oven almost never stopped running. When a person was murdered in a camp, as I mentioned earlier, they not only killed them, they burned them and they burned all their papers and records. They mixed their ashes and buried them as well, and there are surely tons that have never been uncovered. It is all so very very tragic and sad. These enemies weren’t just used as scapegoats. They weren’t just abused and killed. They tried to change the history of the world so these ‘types of people’ were never a part of the story… it’s truly horrifying.
Of course, I have studied WWII, have read about the Holocaust. I even know people who had family who died in the Holocaust. Now, I’ve even been to a concentration camp, seen the ovens and gained a context for what I have learned. I wonder why it is, even with all that, it just doesn’t feel real. I’m not saying I don’t believe it. I do. But I guess there is a part of me, still, that doesn’t want to believe that such a thing could have happened. Even though I know it did and still, I know, is happening in another way, in places like Darfur. When I read about how cities were bombed and civilians killed during war, I feel more than just sad or frustrated – there is a true empathy going on – a type of emotional connection. I can imagine a world where I might be the victim of such atrocities so it cuts close to home. I feel afraid. For whatever reason, though, when I think about what the victims of the Holocaust went through, I don’t feel the same fear. Of course (obviously) I feel sad, frustrated, angry. I shed tears…. But, for some reason, on a deeper level, I feel safe from that kind of persecution. I can’t truly imagine that ever happening to me and mine. Is it because I have Christian roots? Is it because I am white? Is it because I’m from the ever so insulated America? I don’t really get it…. and I feel, well, kind of guilty about it!
I mean, obviously, my kids are learning about it, they are being educated not to hate, not to judge others by appearances or beliefs. I don’t think this visit had too much of an impact on them, though, since Callie and Griff played in the snow the whole time and Zander couldn’t even remember what this place was when he saw the photos in the blog. (“Um…. I know – that’s that bad place!") Scarred for life, they are not. In German schools they teach the war heavily and all the kids have to visit one of these camps in high school to be faced with it. But yet, there are neo-nazis in the US, Austria and Germany – probably all around the world. I know I was brought up thinking these things were wrong as well - and what good is that doing the world these days? It seems like there are just so many other children now who are learning to hate and fear. Either because they are being attacked and bombed by outsiders (Iraq, Afghanistan, Darfur etc…) or because they are simply being taught that you should never take care of others if it might, in any way, threaten your ability to take care of yourself or your own family (the health care debate). I know many people who, when they hear something they don’t agree with, just say they ‘don’t believe in that’. Evidence or facts have nothing to do with changing their opinion on it – they just don’t believe, and that’s that. Jews are evil. Homosexuality is a choice. Evolution is not real…. Is this related? Is it not? I’m definitely babbling…
We headed back home for one last supper with our friends. They took such great care of us! Of course there was the food and beds, but more importantly, there were the conversations! I hope, one day, they will visit Philadelphia and we can return the favor. We will miss you guys!