I remember in school we always studied these far away events of history that we were told were important and had shaped the world in a deeply profound way forever changing the sociological and political landscape forever, but it never really sank in. We were told grandiose numbers of over 6 million people dying in a mass genocide and some 60-70 million total dead in World War II and none of them honestly meant much in particular to me. It wasn’t a lack of caring or respect for those involved; it was a lack of understanding of what those numbers really mean and, more importantly, what that suffering actually looks like.
I knew the symbol of the swastika and the connotation behind that. I knew that I grew up with the swastika around my house as it predates any European traditions going back to the eastern philosophies since around 2500 BCE. I knew that I was right when I got yelled at for using it as a religious symbol that Hitler’s use of the symbol didn’t take away from its importance in my life and it didn’t make me hateful. It only proved that I was more worldly than my fifth grade teacher. But what I didn’t know, what I couldn’t understand no matter how much it was explained to me was the gravity of the events and the extent of the atrocities committed during the period.
As I grew older, things were put into more realistic context and I was able to empathize, but it wasn’t until I saw proof of its existence that I really understood what it meant. In 2007, I went to Europe for the first time. During the trip, I took a weekend to go to Berlin which was the heart of the German empire in its hay day. The town of Sachsenhausen was home to one of the first concentration camps of World War II. Walking through the town on a Saturday afternoon is both beautiful and eery. Like so many small European towns, they seem so calm in the afternoon. The weather was perfect for a stroll and the streets had almost no traffic. During the walk, there is a strange sense in the air, an almost unsettling presence. And after 20 or 30 minutes, you arrive at some fences and gates leading to a sparse courtyard and a visitor center. I saw the maps of my text books outlining where different activities took place and crimes were committed, and it started dawning on me that I was standing in a place where evil was celebrated and encouraged in a way it had never been accepted in my lifetime. As we left the visitor’s center to the actual camp, so near closing time that very few people were around, we walked along a wall, covered in dirt, moss, and vines, that once was a border between life and the lack there of; not death, but something far worst.
The gates to your entrance stand, half closed, ominous, and a reminder that those who entered did so not of their own accord. They spoke telling of the people that had passed through there, the families they had ripped apart, and the warning they gave to all who passed through them that this was a one way street. Wandering the grounds, slightly empty with a few buildings left standing and a large memorial in the center, is almost a bit disorienting. All the reading, the lectures, the papers, the educational films, none of it prepared me for the reality of it. None of it got me ready to be standing amongst the rubble of what was once a building of rooms; one for gas testing; one for interrogation; one that was not a room at all but an oven. None had prepared me for a statue of suffering with the quote from Andrzej Szczypiorski, a prisoner at Sachsanhausen, “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 the time with complete contempt and hat, who were tortured to death, starved, gassed, incinerated and hanged”.
And maybe it is not possible to be prepared to witness it. Maybe its not even something we want to be prepared for. But it is something to be experienced that humbles, awes, and inspires us; inspires me. To be better, to do more, to act on behalf those who cannot. It is an experience that plays like a movie in my mind when I see the images. A silent movie as I walk quietly through these grounds, no words to be spoken to my friend who walks alongside me, for we have no words. Only an awe for those who survived and a sadness for those who did not overshadowed by a contempt for those who would put people through such a thing.