I have been in Berlin now since Thursday, and have already learned and experienced an incredible amount. This post will focus mainly upon the past two days, which have had the greatest impact upon me, and likely the whole group, thus far.
Waking up yesterday at 7 AM wrenched the nerves for sure. I am a Jew who has never set foot on a concentration camp's grounds, but I knew the time had to come. I was afraid of the emotions I might experience, I was afraid of how the whole process would go. I have heard stories of members of the chosen people breaking down and crying, I have heard stories of the trauma that can follow after.
Despite these lingering fears, I knew my peers along with Janet would be strong and respectful. I could not imagine a better group to tour my first camp with. We are all extremely close to one another, I would say even on a deep emotional level...so I was very comfortable entering such a touchy situation with them. I believe they made the experience more full and yet easier on me in the end.
We took a train (a legit, high-speed train, which was comfortable and nice) to the area - Oranienburg. The very edge of Berlin, hardly considered as a part of Berlin by many. I felt chills the minute we entered the town, especially the closer we came to camp. The weather did not exactly help - it dipped into the thirty's and was eerily gray and windy. A morbid weather matched the morbid setting all too well.
Even outside the camp, seeing the tall gray walls and uninviting barbed wire, I felt it all. It is almost surreal - being at Sachsenhausen - one of many labor camps that I grew up learning about in my orthodox jewish elementary school. The site of so much suffering, so much injustice, and many cruel and unusual deaths. The site of crematoriums - something I always read about since a child but never really wanted to form a realistic picture of in my head. The human ovens, the efficient "gassings", the roll calls and careless shootings. I knew all about it, but I read them...I read them in Night, I read them in Number the Stars, I read them in Anne Frank. I practically read them in story books. I heard first-hand accounts from survivors I had met, whose tattoos of their number still serve as consistent reminders of the horrors they endured.
But I never experienced it first-hand myself. The closest I could come was being a Jew, and feeling that Jewish suffering and intuition of those before us. I am even a Persian Jew though, and did not have any relatives in the holocaust. Well, I suppose what I am getting at is that I do not believe ANYONE can truly comprehend the terrors until braving it up and visiting a camp. And when you get there, it is surreal yet grounding.
I learned many things from our excellent tour guide, who is currently a history student. I learned about the way the camp expanded from one small triangle, meant for about 10,000 prisoners, especially political dissidents, and expanded to hundreds of thousands, and to a greater area, as more Jews, homosexuals, political dissenters, and other unwanted people in Nazi Germany, like Jehovah's Witnesses and criminals, were sent in. The place was packed. It was primarily people who could contribute to labor that were sent to Sachsenhausen, instead of straight to a death camp like Auschwitz. The prisoners themselves actually built the camp earlier on...some prisoners had to build the very devices that would kill many of their people, like the crematorium. Many created the bricks that built up the place, others built the casino - the "green monster" - which the nazi officers could enjoy themselves in and forget about the atrocities they committed in the day.
Some prisoners were able to survive through working at this casino and sneaking food. Others attempted this and were killed on the spot after being caught. Everyone who attempted to escape here were shot. In fact, Sachsenhausen is one of the only camps (or the only?) where not a single prisoner successfully escaped. Sachsenhausen, it should be mentioned, was also very much destroyed later on, whether through bad weather after the war or bombs during it. We could see the remnants of the crematorium, which was still very chilling.
This is how it worked. Prisoners were taken to the crematorium/gas chamber building, knowing perfectly well what this building serves as because of the giant chimneys emitting smoke and a stench to the whole town. But they would be surprised and likely relieved as they entered the building and came into what seemed to be a doctor's appointment. A doctor would be sitting in the first room, a cold place with white walls and loud german music playing. The doctor would take a look at them, have them remove their clothing, and mark an x on the their chest and shoulder. The prisoner is led to have no clue what is about to happen. They were then told to go through either the right or left door.
Through the right door, they enter a small room with shower heads which immediately gas them. The gassings at this camp, being that it was not meant to be a death camp initially but a labor camp, were used as experiments to create more efficient and potent gassings for the death camps. Sometimes they did not work quickly or did not kill the suffering prisoner, in which case they were simply shot. Other times people went though the left door, which brought them a very small room. They were told to stand at a very particular spot against the wall, with a crack in it. Then the doctor left and an office in a room on the other side of the crack aimed at their heads and shot them.
The Nazis had a technical, mechanic and certainly more fancy sounding term for this - Headshot Machine (or system.) Of course it was really no machine, but rather proof of Nazis preference to not have to outright shoot people. Less because of shame, and more because of complaints about blood getting on their clothes.
The biggest monument at Sachsenhausen is very notable. It showcases three burly looking, handsome men, two supposedely prisoners and one a Soviet officer at their rescue. Behind them stands a tall, tall, monument with red triangles at the top. This monument was, of course, built during Soviet rule of East Germany, and showcased a rather unrealistic view of the prisoners. The red triangles are significant too - red trianges are what the political prisoners during the Third Reich were forced to wear. Therefore, many take issue with the memorial as it does not memorialize all prisoners, and does so in an idealistic light.
So, what did I feel? I did not cry. I felt sad, but not as overwhelmed as I had pictured. The sadness you feel in a place like Sachsenhausen, which is so COLD, DESOLATE, AND OPEN, is just that. You feel like a prisoner must have more than remorse. You feel helpless, nervous, oppressed, and as though there is no escape. I identified with the prisoners instead of crying for them, if that makes sense. It was extremely, extremely dark. The tour last a little over two hours, and by the time it was over I felt so overwhelmed that my body, and everyone else's, were reacting in one way: leave.
I will try to be more brief on my account of the former Stasi prison, Hohenschonhausen, which rests on the other end of the Berlin.
What can I say. Sachsenhausen was dark and isolated and cold - but this prison was even more intense; perhaps because it was far less destroyed and far more recent. But it was hardcore one of those place a "haunted" ghost-hunting television show would be all over. I felt ENTRENCHED with negative energy the entire time I was there. Hopefully someone else will blog with more details about the absolutely disgusting, inhumane, terrifying acts that went down there, because I went to focus on some other things. First, and briefly, those creepy feelings. I was so overwhelmed I asked our tour guide about the possibility of ghost stories from the place. She said she had heard of none, but would definitely not be surprised if spirits were roaming about. And the spirits there - trust me, they would only be there because they had not died in peace and are still traumatized.
Towards the end of the tour, I could not stop shaking out my hands and body, as if to shake off the negative and seriously WRONG feeling energies that had attached themselves to me. The place wasn't only cold, it was evil, it still lived somehow....whereas the camp was very much a memorial. this place still has its ghosts, as it only officially closed in 1990. the year i was born. plus all of it was kept SO in tact...phones and chairs in the exact same place they once were. i am sure this is part of its creepy factor.
anyway most of what ran through my mind here was anger.
ANGER, at whom?
Skpeticism and anger. During the time, inhabitants of the area had no clue about this prison and especially the reality of what went on there. The horors. The same horrors I am certain America CONTINUES to treat its political prisoners with, which most of the country is oblivious to. The horrors that occurred in Guantanamo Bay. We must wonder, will Guantanamo ever be opened for public viewing like Germany's concentration camps and stasi prisons? Germany is able to admit to most of their faults. And fully. I give them credit.
I wonder about America's former Japanese Interim Camps...can the public tour this? I think about the way we treated the native americans and CONTINUE TO. Most Americans are apathetic and oblivious just like many Germans were. It is time America admits that we are not always the just, all fair, ope-minded land we claim to be. I thought it was especially interesting when the tourguide noted East Germany with still having a death penalty as horrific and a big deal.
America still has it. America, I am sure, still employs many of the same awful torture techniques the Stasi did. Up until very recently, we had our own version of the prison that was also kept isolated so no one could really no what was going on - Guantanamo.
It was an angering and hurtful realization to have.
I would write more but my fingers are numb from typing! I know my peers have more to add upon this !!!