My main reason for being in Berlin this past week has been to work on some new research relating to genocide, memory, and place. The roots of the project are in my own questions about the power of places like concentration camp sites–the scenes of so much suffering, death, and evil–and in my search for richer language with which to describe and assess genocide in the classroom, for students who are responding intellectually, but also morally and emotionally, to what they’re learning.
So off I went to the site of the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, along with my dear wife Colleen, who periodically pays a price for being married to a historian of Nazism and genocide. In terms of my project on “Evil Places as Sacred Spaces,” what I’m trying to understand is the layers of meaning at a place like Sachsenhausen, through an understanding of the events, landscape, ruins, memories, memorials, rituals, emotions, and the ways people make and/or consider the space to be sacred in some way or other.
During our visit on Friday, I took all kinds of field notes about the impressions the camp made on me, as I tried to pay special attention to the meaning of the camp. Here are a few of the things that struck me:
Even before we had entered the camp itself, we encountered a multi-panel exhibition on the outer wall of the compound depicting the liberation of the camp. You would think that to be an uplifting subject, but in fact so many prisoners died at the very end: in the death marches out of the camp, led by guards who were removing prisoners from their potential liberators, in the frenzy of murder within the camp itself, and even after liberation, because so many prisoners’ bodies were so broken that they could not overcome disease or survive their reintroduction to food. And even those who did were in dreadful psychic condition. As survivor Zvi Steinitz put it, “And so I was free, so spontaneously, I was suddenly free. […] I still thought like a prisoner, though. It’s impossible to grasp that you are suddenly free. After six years as a prisoner. You just don’t know what to do with your freedom.”
Within the compound but outside the former camp space, a memorial garden sits peacefully in a grove of trees. Because Sachsenhausen held political prisoners, enemies of the people, and prisoners of war, it is not a site dominated by the memory of Jewish death (though of course this is always the dominant story in the Holocaust as a whole). Many of the memorials we saw employ Christian symbolism and reflect redemptive notions of suffering–for faith, for human rights and human dignity, for social justice, and so forth. In their diversity and randomness (there is no plan to this space), they pulse with meaning. Many who suffered and died at Sachsenhausen did so because they stood against the evil ideology of National Socialism and the violence it generated–first against Germans and then against so many others across Europe.
Another thing I noticed was that the sense of space at the camp–it feels very large and open–is misleading in at least two ways. First, the camp was once full of large buildings (mostly barracks) set only a few feet apart, which in turn were full of thousands of prisoners. Now it is essentially bare, save for a few buildings and the outlines of the others. Second, the memorial site is really only about one-tenth (if that) of the size of the camp at its height. Without even taking into account the changes of noise, vegetation, smell, and atmosphere at Sachsenhausen, it has to be said that the memorial site gives only a small sense of what the camp really must have felt like.
For me, one of the most profound parts of the museum space at Sachsenhausen is the prisoner art mixed into the various displays. Often only simple line drawings, these depictions–like this one from Dutch survivor Ab Nicolaas–vividly portray the violent essence of camp life. They are a powerful testimony to the barbarism of Nazism.
There are other moving visual elements too: vivid propaganda posters from the rise of Nazism, video footage of post-war commemoration ceremonies, and in between, everything from architectural drawings of both the camp and later memorials, and perhaps most hauntingly, the pieces of leather shoes, bags, and other items preserved in the section of the camp dedicated to the memory of the Jews who were detained and then killed at the camp.
The epicentre of memory at Sachsenhausen is Station Z, the section of the camp specially designed for mass murder. Though not one of the Eastern European death camps, like Auschwitz or Treblinka, Sachsenhausen was still a site of mass murder. Of the 200,000 or more prisoners who passed through the camp between 1936 and 1945, tens of thousands died from hunger, disease, overwork, violent abuse, and related measures. Station Z (grimly named because it would be the last station for prisoners who entered it) was a part of the camp where more than ten thousand Russian prisoners of war were shot to death. During the war, a gas chamber was built here too, and a crematorium. This area of the camp is where most visitors end up. It is a deeply sobering place, at which the moral importance of memorialization is reinforced in a stirring quotation from a former inmate, Andrzej Szczypiorski: “And I know one thing more — that the Europe of the future cannot exist without commemorating all those, regardless of their nationality, who were killed at that time with complete contempt and hate, who were tortured to death, starved, gassed, incinerated and hanged ….”
There were many other intellectually challenging and emotionally disturbing parts of the camp (the Soviet Memorial, the prison within the camp (?!), the “running track” where prisoners tested army boots for endless hours, the “hospital ward” where prisoners were cared for and killed, and so on), but a most unexpected impression hit me just as we were leaving the camp. I was about to go through the “Work Makes Free” gate when I looked up and saw a lovely balcony on the entrance building–or at least it would have been a lovely balcony anywhere else. Here it provided a comfortable observation point overlooking the Appellplatz (“Roll Call Square”), where prisoners were forced to stand for hours on end, or made to witness executions by hanging on gallows. What thoughts did camp commanders think from this balcony, I wonder? And what thoughts did the prisoners think, as they watched them gaze down? It’s thinking thoughts like these that makes me realize how little about the Holocaust I really understand.