The chance to explore the historical aspects of World War Two was something I couldn't pass up. Particularly, I have always wanted to visit a concentration camp.
Why? I used to feel strange or ghoulish when I would tell people such a visit was on the top of my "bucket list." Having visited once, I will no longer feel as though I have to apologize. I am proud that I want to remember, that I want to empathize, that I consider the horror and the agony to be too profound to ever forget.
I now feel the same way about my visits to the Mohawk Residential School in my own hometown of Brantford or the museum in Dresden, ON. I won't let myself forget.
I'm not Jewish or black or native or homosexual or poor. I'm the mother of half-black children, I love people of every race, creed, size, colour, sexual orientation and so on. I am the granddaughter of a man who was harassed and fired for his Catholic religious background. I see poverty in my streets.
If you judge the book by the cover, though, you see a well-fed, well-dressed, middle-aged white woman. (If you see me at all, that is—since I am pretty much the majority in my circles and in an age bracket that's becoming invisible.)
Yet I feel a compulsion to explore others' experiences, to empathize with others, and to share my perspective. Sometimes to try and "walk in their shoes" in order to deepen the understanding of the characters who live on my page.
Chris is our guide on the way to Oranienburg, where Sachsenhausen awaits. One of the very first concentration camps, Sachsenhausen was also relatively small in comparison to others that were built in Poland and Germany. Deemed a work camp, its primary purpose was to provide free workers and to silence political dissenters. It devolved into a killing machine in several ways as the war progressed.
|Our guide, Chris, in the cap.|
Chris is charming and speaks English well. He's interested in why the people in our car have chosen to visit a camp. Through learning last names and their origins, he can often discern their motivations: ah, you might have been related to a prisoner; you may have a guard in your ancestry and so the stain of guilt rests upon you. The rest of us have motives like mine.
It's an eerie feeling as we speed through the tunnel of trees. So many movies have shown those cattle cars racing to death surrounded by this very greenery.
In Oranienburg, we meet Eva, our local guide. We walk from the station to the camp under hot sun and blue skies, through the lovely little city with its cafés and people on bicycles. Eva tells us that this march would have been similar to the one the prisoners took. And every day, they would have gone back and forth to the factory, ignored or avoided by the townspeople, who were convinced they were the worst of mankind. Pedophiles, psychopaths, murderers. From most reports, it should have been the guards they feared.
An example of a prominent prisoner was Reverend Martin Niemoller, who survived his imprisonment, and is best known for this poem:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—
and there was no one left to speak for me.
Once the Nazis began to reveal their true purposes, the Reverend was outspoken and a member of the resistance, which led to his imprisonment.
We enter the gates of Sachsenhausen with a keen awareness that others who walked through here would know they might not walk back out again.
The infamous sign, Work Sets You Free, and the design of the camp became the blueprint for all the others to follow.
The building under which we enter and go through the gate housed the armed guards. Because the camp was laid out in rows within a certain distance from the entry, the guards could shoot anyone from their perch.
Many of the prisoner barracks have been removed, but there are several that have been reconstructed to show how they were forced to live.
Eva explains the Nazis' methodic breaking of the human spirit as she leads us through the barracks. Without proper access to toileting or keeping yourself clean, or making your own decisions, or having any sort of privacy, people were systematically stripped of all dignity. In most cases, the prisoners became too dispirited, weak, and numb to be able to resist any longer.
If you were kept inside
with barbed wire...
If you only saw the
sun through the
bars of your cell...
were deprived of
food and worked
until you fell on
If you slept in filthy
If you shared a
and a thin blanket
with three or more other
If you had to toilet
and clean yourself in these rooms
with a hundred or more others...
Would this bed - all by yourself and a blanket of your own -
start to look good? Would the opportunity to toilet and wash
before anyone else entered the room begin to sound enticing? The chance for more and better food?
Would you then become a Nazi pawn? Would you herd your
neighbours and friends and become a gopher for your captors?
If you were a guard, would you swallow the drugs they gave you? The belief that made the prisoners rats to be exterminated?
I can't say for certain what I would do. I hope I'd be strong. All I know for sure is that my admiration for the courage of those who continued to resist despite everything is now boundless.
We look back at the menace of the barracks and the cruel heat of the yard. Here, prisoners were marched back and forth along various ground covers to test military footwear. Experiments with drugs were forced upon them.
Here, prisoners suffered so much abuse that thousands of them died.
Several of the local companies who exploited slave labour or profited from working for the Nazis (in other camps, not just Sachsenhausen) still exist, such as Siemens, Bayer, IBM, BMW, Audi, Daimler-Benz and Hugo Boss. Most of these companies worked to compensate laborers after the war. For many, that initiative was far too late.
We walk around the long, intimidating wall and are punched, emotionally, in the chest.
Here is the death trench. Here - particularly later in the war - prisoners were lined up and shot and shovelled into the ground. In the beginning were the political dissenters, the resistors, the homosexuals, the disabled, the mentally ill - and later, Romas and Jews.
Inside the building, the ramps lead to ovens where the overworked, starved, or murdered bodies were disposed of.
Here is the place many in our group dissolve into tears.