January 7: As we approach the one-week mark in our journey, the material and site visits are becoming more and more serious. This has helped us prepare for our first camp visit to Sachsenhausen.
Sachsenhausen was a labor camp that held about 35,000 prisoners. It was a “model camp,” meaning that it was one of the first camps to be constructed and used during the period of the Holocaust. In fact, the construction of this camp was started during the same time of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
It’s hard to put into words what I felt when walking around the camp. I think the best way to describe it is to think of putting grief, guilt, shock, exhaustion, and heartbreak into a large pot and creating a sort of emotional potpourri. Its essence was stronger in some locations of the camp than others. Seeing the “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign at the entrance, imagining sleeping in the crammed barracks, walking down to the execution trench, observing the remnants of the crematorium, realizing the open plot of grass at the front of the camp was a mass grave…all of these moments sent chills down my spine.
However, the most powerful moment for me was towards the beginning of the tour. The camp is set up to go at your own pace, so much of the time I was alone with my own thoughts and reactions. I walked through the roll call lawn and faced towards the entrance of the camp, just as the prisoners were forced to do every day, twice a day. They stood there for hours at a time while they were counted and/or awaited their labor orders for the day. I stood facing the electric, barbed-wire fence and tried to comprehend how it might have felt to literally face the barriers that kept me from my freedom. It was unimaginable. I never thought that an eight foot wall and wire could make me feel so small.
Another interesting thing about Sachsenhausen was not the camp itself, but the town around it. In order to get to the camp, we took the subway from Berlin to the end of the line, walked about 15 minutes, and stumbled upon this adorable little street. There were kids walking up and down the side walk, white picket fences, and really nice small German houses. It was at the end of that neighborhood where the entrance to the camp hits you. It was so eerie. How can people live here, so close to historical terror? And more importantly, how could people live here in the past when those events were happening? That put the thought of discrediting the events of the Holocaust in a whole new light.
We rode the subway back to Berlin and grabbed some lunch at Vapiano’s. I had never eaten there before, but it was delicious. I am going to miss European food when I go back to the states, mostly because I don’t have to worry about all the extra fructose-y additives that might be in the meals. I joined a large group to go visit the Pergamon Museum, the site of many tapestries, art pieces, and relics from the Roman, Greek, and Istanbul regions. It was pretty cool, but not as awesome as the Impressionist art pieces in Amsterdam. After that, a group of us went to the Irish Pub and celebrated the start of my “German” birthday, since it was still 6pm back home. The band performing that night sang Happy Birthday to me and three German guys with Miley Cyrus haircuts gave me bear hugs. It was the perfect way to start what I like to refer to as the “30-hour birthday.”