Starting to write down about one intense experience I had on December 2011…this will be a sensitive friday night, in memory of all those who lost the battle over this outrageous chapter of history. This knowledge must be taught and passed on, in order to remember those things that should never happen again in human history. This article goes to every single life and soul, now and then.
WAR? WHAT’S THAT
You might have experienced some time in your life anything related to war, any war. I come from a country were no army exists since my parents were just babies or not even born. I’ve never had in front of my eyes a real threat over a war-related theme, not even a strong police force really. Naturally, all these stuff makes me feel very small, totally powerless. I’m definitely not used to see army men walking around town just because, carrying menacing guns, tapping their steps on the sidewalk, having outstanding marchs on the streets for national events. I have never felt the sadness or worries of having my brothers gone to training camps…and the least of all, gone to war. We don’t have this “chip” in our heads. And I’m thankful for that, despite any other lacks we may have as a country or community. None is perfect, so I rather live with the non-army concept around me.
SENSING THE EPICENTER OF HISTORY
Last December I had the opportunity to visit Prague & Berlin for christmas, a particular season I really love and enjoy since ever. What better way to spend it all than in these two magical spots! The hot wine, the christmas lights, the mysterious romanticism, the traditional musicians on the streets and main squares, the centenarian bells playing christmas tunes at midnight…happily full of magic indeed.
Interesting thing how history has touched this two cities, in different periods and ways, but also hand to hand when it came up to WWII. I was walking around Prague one day, gazing around the awesomeness of this place, the architecture, the magic. Suddenly catching up with the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra theatre for example, outstanding and beautiful building today, which suddenly made a 180° turn in my head, as the guide’s words whispered me how this building used to be the Gestapo’s main office quartier during war…I was frozen inside for few seconds.
I could only thought “not possible”. But it was. The only idea of imagining what could go on inside back then was both impressive and terrifying. I tried to put myself for seconds in the place of a nazi police man back there…but the idea melted like water immediately. I tried to think and analyze how they probably were convinced in their minds they were doing things right…but no, I could not accomplish that feeling. Not that I was trying to justify something…just trying to get into the ambience, to understand a bit of history. But it was all useless. So I thought “better keep it this way and just learn”.
We arrived in Berlin a few days later…I will talk about only Berlin on another post. But for now I need to focus my energy on this one place from WWII. A place that got me entirely into every single sense we humans have. It got me into intense feelings, sights, smells (which goes connected to taste, not necessarily by actually having something into your mouth), into sounds and even thoughts. Let me get you to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. A deep sensitive experience which was possible thanks to Berlin City Tours.
WELCOME TO SACHSENHAUSEN MEMORIAL CAMP
It was a cold and early winter morning when we met to catch the train to Oranienburg from Hauptbahnhof Station. Just 2 train stops away from Berlin and a small 20-minute walk from downtown Oranienburg, up to the memorial camp.
A 20 minute walk that we could do so easily and freely, learning on the way how this small journey well known as the “Death March” was a completely different route back then. When war was almost over, there were still too many prisoners in the camp and little time to exterminate them all through gas baths, so nazis came up with a brilliant idea: take all prisoners on a walking journey up north until reaching the sea, in order to put them on a big ship, send it sailing and then sink them all. This was never accomplished…but the “death march” definitely was. On such harsh climate, prisoners were simply falling down on the way. Nowadays, a small piece of this journey is made by every visitor of Sachsenahusen Camp in order to reach the main entrance. How no to get sensitive, right?
So we arrived and entered the place. Into an enormous extended triangular flat land with almost nothing, except for a few barracks from war time (one original & a few other replicas), large grass spaces and plenty of gray rocky areas all over the place. A couple of towers right in the middle of the triangule and a few more buildings form back then, such as the morgue, dinning room, kitchen, and crematorium, most of them holding today the entire memorial museum and expositions.
Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp was built to be a model camp for World War II, not for common prisoners or large volume exterminations. This was a VIP camp, where the WWII head officers would manage and lead every other camps, not only in the area but beyond, throughout all Germany and later on in all Europe. It was also going to be the most modern infrastructure for war, for testing and for having important meetings in which big decisions were going to be made. Probably not the usual camp names we’ve heard such as Auschwitz but definitely a place from where orders were commanded. Here, they intended to create and try new methods for several things, including extermination methods…outrageous but true. The prisoners held here were unusual ones: politic prisoners, jews, homosexuals, atheists, gypsies, criminals and politicians from opposite parties. Blacks were not a common kind of prisoner, only if they mixed with german citizens. The Aryan race was to be done.
In the triangled center area there was a tower on the top corner, perfectly planned for observing and controlling every single prisoner. Not a corner was missed by the officer on guard at the tower. Pretty smart shape actually, sadly used for mean reasons (a particular characteristic of the nazis was to be extremely organized and rigorous about everything, even death counts). In this triangle, all prisoners were gathered every morning, standing up for several hours all lined up, no matter what kind of weather it was, wearing the only robe they were given. Officers would pass list out loud, saying every name to make sure all prisoners were there. After this, they were given different tasks for the day. Some would have to try new shoes on trial, wearing them all day while running over rocks, in order to see how many hours the sole could handle in good shape. You can imagine, doing this on a winter day…it was very likely for the prisoner to die frozen out there. Others instead, should go to the kitchen, washing and pealing potatoes all day long. During that time, some prisoners were able to do paintings on the kitchen’s walls, preserved still today.
While walking around these structures, my heart felt squeezed, surprised, amazed, terrified. At the barracks, mainly at the original one (#38) which suffered a burn attempt a few years ago, you could still smell the burned wood, the fire. The original bunk beds and tables would only scream to us…if walls could only talk. Outside the barracks and along the camp’s walls, there was a well known “death strip”: a strip between grass and the wall, were no one could step on. Guards on the towers would immediately shoot anything or anyone who stepped on the strip…which made it a frequent and efective suicide method for prisoners.
Not to mention the crematorium and the actual body incinerators, right there, in front of us, filled with ashes of time. Listening and walking through the very same rooms where prisoners were taken for “medical check-ups”, having a bullet into their neck when measuring their height. This method became obsolete due to amount of time required and growing quantity of prisoners as war advanced.
And the morgue, where bodies were quickly examined, taking their organs and in some twisted medical mind, taken their tattoed – skin to those who had one or more, keeping those as a price or treasure of war. Dr. Lieber was the MD in charge and it is known he collected around 300 pieces of skin, put them to dry and collected prisoner’s tattoes during his entire period. As a medicine doctor myself, I felt almost like throwing up when learning this fact, right there, in front of the same cold white tables were bodies were taken after death to be “raped” from life and dignity. Once again, how not to react and get our senses waken up to this?
I thought why? Why to learn about this? Why to suffer during a trip? Well, this is certainly not suffering my fellow travelers. It is history itself yelling and asking to be told and passed on, telling us to be aware of this, to feel not the pain but the respect for all those lives lost there, for every single mom, dad and son who fought for life against the cold, the hunger and the beating. For every family who lost hope of being together again. For every person who had a life, believes, friends, parents and a normal life, who suddenly had to be slaves and live a horrifying life to the end. Very few lucky ones made it, but history must speak for everyone of them, the ones who made it and those who did not. This can’t happen again. Life is priceless and with unmeasurable value.
We humans need to see this, to feel this. To touch history beyond a few pages on a history book. We need to go to it, touch it and be touched by it. Sachsenhausen is probably just one place among many others, but it will definitely bring out on you one of the most important parts of history, in a city that marked an entire century for the whole world and forever.
Berlin and WWII were probably the epicenter of the XXth century, giving birth to a revolution of technology, economics, medical and pharmaceutical discoveries, telecommunications and much more. It was probably here, among many other places but mainly here, were the biggest events and development for the world in this century started. Unfortunately happening over such sad circumstances…which have made us and the world what we are today. So yes, I believe it is our responsibility to go and visit these kind of memorials, to learn about the past, to immerse into it and pay tribute to every single life lost and every single dream killed. Is a matter of human ethics but most of all, a matter of human compassion and sense.
I am deeply thankful to Berlin City Tours for giving me this and for letting me open my eyes into this reasoning and feelings. Make yourselves a favor and let go into the Sachsenhausen experience anytime if you are around Berlin. We are the world today. We should learn from the past and wish to be better in better ways, as persons first, as community next.
Special mention and sincere thanks to my always travel partner Federico Rojas for the photographic work.