Sunday, April 22, 2012

A Necessary Visit

Twenty-five miles north of Berlin sits the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Initially built for political prisoners in the 1930s, the repugnant complex heralded for its innovative semi-circular fan-of-barracks design became the administration headquarters for all camps and training ground for SS officers who were then sent to supervise other compounds. Not originally intended as an extermination center, Sachsenhausen eventually began to regularly execute prisoners: Jews, Communists, homosexuals and Soviet prisoners of war. Most of the killing took place in an execution trench, either by shooting or hanging, but the addition of a gas chamber and crematory oven facilitated what was systematic murder.  Thousands were executed while supposedly being measured for a uniform with a shot in the back of the neck through a hole hidden in the wall.

When I hear that those who lived in proximity to concentration camps were unaware of what took place there, I become enraged. Impossible, simply impossible. Sachsenhausen is in the quintessentially suburban, albeit haunted and disgraced, town of Oranienburg. Residential tree-lined streets lead the way to the death museum entrance and tidy little homes with painted shutters and manicured flower gardens sit quietly beside the barbed wired barricades. Just as in Dachau (which I visited when I went to Munich in 1977), the camp is part of the town, not on its distant peripheries, and those who lived in Oranienburg had to have known -- they had to have known as they must have in Dachau, what was going on in their orderly little town behind the camp’s walls.  

Our trip to Sachsenhausen was both a necessary and anguishing part of our visit to Berlin. Walking the gruesome terrain of both death camps changed me. Each rearranged my internal wiring, weakened my belief in people’s essential goodness, sharpened the realization of the horrors human beings can inflect on others they hate and diminished my capacity for forgiveness. Economic fear may have initially fanned the flames of bigotry, but at a certain point shear sadism took over. The magnitude of Nazi cruelty was unimaginable and thus we often hear that there are simply no words to describe or discuss the Holocaust. While the limits of language may indeed lead to inadequate vocabularies, there are words that come close, must be applied and have to be expressed: words like revulsion and terror, butchery and slaughter, fanaticism and intolerance, criminality, immorality, evil, genocide and murder. 

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