Updates from the original piece written, September 2012
I’ve wanted to write this. Yet I’ve been reluctant. At the end of the summer, I spent a few weeks in Russia and Germany.
I knew when I was in Berlin, I was going to go to the Jewish Museum. I did some Googling and found out that “model concentration” camp, Sachsenhausen was about an hour from Berlin. When the Nazis built it they claimed it was the architectural model of future camps. In other words, the other ones would be built based on the way this one was constructed.
Tears are literally coming out of my eyes, as I type. For weeks, I debated whether I was going to go. I researched every tour on Google. I emailed all of the tour guides. Finally, I settled on the one I’d take. But for weeks, I was not willing to enter my credit card information to reserve a spot. Eventually, I did.
I arrived in Berlin from St. Petersburg. I spent the first day at the Jewish Museum. I spent hours there. Parts of it were magical. It illustrated all the great things we did and how we really are the chosen people. Then it turned dark. I knew that would happen.
Eventually, I made it over to Checkpoint Charlie and felt the greatest sense of American pride that I’ve felt in many years. That’s for another blog post.
The next morning I woke up and walked to the meeting place near the Brandenburg gate. I was there very early and spent some time at the Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas (Memorial for Murdered Jews of Europe). I walked through it and left some rocks on the stones. They weren’t graves. But there is no solid explanation of why the artist built the memorial the way he did. There are many stories. But one’s imagination runs wild when they walk these grounds. At least mine did. Some say that was the artist’s intent.
I walked over to my tour’s meeting place at Starbucks. The tour guide told me where to purchase my train ticket. I did. It so irked me that I was taking a train to visit a concentration camp. Actually, that’s one of the reasons, it took me so long to reserve a spot on the tour. It would be my first ride on a German train.
As we made our way down the steps to the platform, I was really nervous. Yes, I ride the NYC subway every day. But this was different. Much cleaner. However, it was very different.
We boarded the train. I sat down next to the guide and her dad, who was visiting from Down Under. The group were all English-speaking Americans. People started chatting. Not me. My mind drifted.
Yes, I was an on a very clean, fairly empty, fast moving subway. But in my mind, I was on a jammed packed train loaded with Jews being taken to the camp. That’s all I thought of. I did look up at times and enjoyed the scenery. It was beautiful.
But my mind kept drifting back to the concentration camp train car on display at Yad Vashem. My mind was filled with images of the millions of people taken from their lives, as they knew them.
The train stopped. At first, we were going to walk to the camp. That is the way the Jews and other prisoners were brought to Sachsenhausen. They were marched in from the train.
But we took a bus. I have never been on a bus more crowded than the one we boarded in Orangeburg. The camp was two or three stops away. I couldn’t move while standing on the bus. I could barely breathe. My mind was spinning. We pushed our way off the bus and walked a few blocks.
All of a sudden the giant wall, which was the entrance, hit me in the face. We walked in. The guide pointed toward the bathrooms. We all took a bathroom break and walked around the “welcome center”. That was built when the camp became a tourist attraction. Concentration camps had no welcome centers. No one was welcome there. No one was welcome to be there.
We learned on our tour that the prisoners were only allowed to use the bathroom upon wake up time, right before bed and sometimes during the work breaks. But work breaks rarely occurred. I never thought how lucky I was to be able to walk into a restroom.
We started walking along the main road. We saw the training ground for the SS. Then we saw the Commandants Mess Hall. Prisoners cooked and served their food. We continued our walk.
We arrived at the Registration Field. It was at this site where whatever belongings the people were able to bring were confiscated. It was here where their identities were confiscated. They were given prison camp uniforms. Tall people got small uniforms. Short people got giant-sized ones. Heavy and skinny people received the opposite of their size. This was done to embarrass them.
Their heads were shaved. They received their ID numbers. Each prisoner’s uniform had symbolic color codes according to why they were there. Jews were yellow, communists were red and gays were pink. There were other prisoners, too. But the Jews were the lowest of the low
We then went to the work fields. It was here where the prisoners slaved all day from the wee hours of the morning in the latest hours of the night. We heard stories about the “neutral zones”. Nothing was neutral. They often took a prisoner’s hat and tossed it into this zone. Of course, they weren’t allowed in. But the prisoner was ordered to go. H/she was shot on site if they went in to get their hat or if they refused orders to go in.
We were walking along and just gazing at these giant fields and imagining the terror that occurred.
I felt so embarrassed to be munching on my cheese and tomato sandwich and sipping my bottled water. I ate more food and drunk more water in the span of an hour or two than what the prisoners got in weeks. I took small bites and walked along. We saw the guard towers.
We walked to the Jewish barracks. Most of the barracks were destroyed after the Soviets liberated the camp. When it was decided to memorialize the camp, some were rebuilt out of the scraps of what was left.
I went into two of the barracks. Horrifying. They had two tiny washbasins for dozens of inmates who slept on the most uncomfortable bunk beds. There was no privacy. They had rows of toilets lined up next to the washbasins. People drowned in the basins. Multiple people were forced to bathe at once. These basins could barely fit one person. Yet they made 8 or more squeeze in.
We exited the barracks and entered the prison. Then we went to the kitchen. They had a giant potato basin. Often they put kitchen workers in the basin with ice-cold water to freeze them to death. There was some graffiti painted in the basement. Allegedly, “sympathetic” Nazis let it stay.
A kitchen worker, who was a Jewish prisoner tried to sneak out with the equivalent of a half a stick of margarine. A guard caught him. The poor man was forced to sit in the tub of margarine and eat as much as he could. He was then taken outside. Other prisoners were forced to jump up and down on his stomach. He was then hung to a gallows. They let him off and went through this procedure again. They then hung him up again. The next morning the guards found his corpse hanging from the gallows.
We then saw the memorial the Soviets erected for liberating the camp. We got to think about the liberation for only a moment. We were led to Station Z, the execution site.
I walked along the entrance to the firing squad. Then we entered the “Examination Rooms”. No one performing the examinations were MDs or RNs. Jews and others were examined for gold fillings and other things. Experiments were performed. Then the people were brought to the ovens. At first, the Nazis sold the ashes of those they killed to their families. Eventually, they murdered so many people at once they had no clue whose ashes were whose.
As we walked out of the crematorium I saw a memorial. It was filled with Yahrzeit candles and on the base was the Israeli flag. Our guide informed us that about two weeks before a group of Israelis toured the camp and led a Yizkor service in the crematorium.
We walked out of this awful place and wound up in front of one of the many ash pits. Here is where thousands of Jews, gays, communists and other Nazi prisoners were buried. More ash pits are being discovered.
We went into the pathology lab and saw the examination tables where the so-called “doctors” performed tests on thousands of Jews. Funny considering we were considered the inferior race they did many tests to “learn” how to save people. They saved no one.
We exited the camp and walked back to the train station. Most of us purchased ice cream or a soda. We boarded the train and went back to Berlin. We were lucky we got to go on the train and were free to get off at whatever stop we wanted.
Nothing is sicker than what I saw. I never felt more relieved when I freely walked out. Thousands of people never walked out.
In 2014, I learned that many members of my family living in Kastoria were rounded up and sent to Auschwitz. None came home.
July 2014, I did a tour of Terezin. The horrors were similar to Sachsenhausen’s. We saw artwork produced by children. It was another gloomy, teary day. The sky was grey that whole day.
May Hashem watch over all of their souls.
Photos were taken in both horror chambers. They include exam tables, crematoriums, ash pits, Yizkor memorials and barracks