Sunday, October 14, 2012

Sachenshausen IV: the Aftermath

In some ways, Sachsenhausen, if you saw only the barracks, long wooden camp houses arranged in a semi-circle, could almost be your child's summer camp--except for the high walls, the barbed wire, and the machine guns in watchtowers. Even without those physical reminders of imprisonment and violence, more subtle absences--again it's the absences--on the ground clue you in that something is not right. What kind of summer camp is this without a tree or a bush, without a picnic table? The sense of evil quickly oppresses you, even without the prior knowledge we all bring with us to the camps.

Sachsenhausen is a geography of evil (I'm sure I'm borrowing that term), meant to subdue and destroy human life rather than enhance it. As I left with my group, the rain started to retreat to a drizzle, I felt a dissatisfaction, again a sense of something lacking. I had seen much but was missing the crucial piece of the puzzle that would explain all of this. What is it? Why would anybody want to create such an excessively cruel culture?

I walked out of the camp with my new friend from Edinburgh. We went past a street named for Bonhoeffer's brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi. As we made our way back past the roads surrounding the camp, with their rows of quaint houses, I wondered, could I live in a home next to a concentration camp, a house built expressly for an SS officer and his family? Not easily. But somebody does. After all, these are shelters and people must live somewhere. But here? Ingrid, our tour guide, told us that the owners of theses houses sometimes get annoyed at all the tourists who stop and take pictures of their homes. I wish I had taken a picture of one of them. When I got back to my host family in Berlin, they told me that neo-Nazis live--or are suspected to live-- in some of those houses.

We all chatted on the tram ride back to Berlin. Ingrid and I share an interest in literature; she had even thought she might specialize in 18th-century British literature until she tried to read Clarissa. We discussed Bonhoeffer's literary tastes. We exchanged e-mails.

Back in downtown Berlin, my Edinburgh friend and I clung together. We toured a wall that had been part of the Prinz Albrechtstrasse gestapo prison, and now has been turned into an exhibit about the excesses of Nazi and Communist rule. Larson, in his book In The Garden of the Beasts, characterizes this wall as a place where he could feel evil. All things being comparative, having just come from a concentration camp, the wall felt bright and benign to me.

A day or so later, when I arrived in the Harz mountains, a place on the edge of the former East Germany, the delayed reaction to Sachsenhausen set in. While Berlin is a highly international city, Thale, where I stayed, and Friedsrichbrunn, site of the Bonhoeffer summer home, are strictly German backwaters. Few people speak English. The resorts are too faded to attract an international clientele. A place that sold gelato was popular, despite the cold weather. Otherwise, I saw many German beer gardens, the kind of places with round tables in the courtyard covered in dusty metal yellow and white striped umbrellas that serve a meat-based diet not amenable to a vegetarian. The 19th century Gothic church made of stone in the large town green was forbidding. On the green, I looked at the many chain-sawed wooden sculptures of folkluric creatures, as the Harz mountains are the home of legends of witches and Wotan. As I strolled about,  I started to see blond haired, blue eyed people everywhere. (There literally were quite a few blond-haired, blue eyed people in Germany.)  I started to see the grandchildren of Nazis everywhere!  I started to see the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of SS officers everywhere! You have to get a grip, I thought. (Though not German, I too have blue eyes and was once a natural blond.) These are just people.

This world of Aryans, which seems so archaic and even creepy to us now, would have been what Bonhoeffer knew. These were his people; this, especially the Harz mountains, his beloved homeland. He was cosmopolitan, well traveled and had lived in other cultures, but this culture of his youth drew him back, over and over, even to Nazi Germany, because his heart was tied to this place. He was an Aryan, much as that distinction distressed him. I keep thinking of how confusing it would have been to have been someone like Bonhoeffer, alive at the period and watching your culture, your tradition, even, to an extent, your values, twisted and  hijacked in support  of unprecedented evil and barbarism. Fortunately for Bonhoeffer, he was grounded not in nationalism, but in an international and ecumenical Christianity that allowed him to see clearly what was going on. Yet he continued to live and reap the benefits of his culture. He looked backwards at the end of his life, finding a sense of identity and continuity in 19th century bourgeois (ie, wealthy) German culture. Why did he (at least in some ways)--and we too today-- look back and cling to periods that have come and gone, when it would make sense to let the past go and look towards the future?

Friday, October 12, 2012

Sachsenhausen III: theological musings

The hardest part of the Sachsenhausen tour was visiting the warehouse where approximately 10,000 Soviet POWs were systematically exterminated. They were brought into a room for a purported physical exam and then shot from behind by a rifle hidden behind a concrete wall, the sound muffled by music playing in the background. The executions were consistent with  Nazi ideology, always predicated on the assumption that in the (to them) ceaseless struggle for existence there were not enough resources for everyone, so some had to die. The method chosen was consistent with Nazi practice of cruelly deceiving people.

I left the camp feeling sobered.  What I felt inside at that point was not so much the horror of the camp as a blank emptiness, a coldness.  I felt the absence of humanity. This led me to think of Augustine, who defined evil not as a presence but as an absence, the absence of good, the absence of God. While a sense of evil and foreboding permeated Sachenshausen, along, paradoxically, with the sense of holy space in the suffering of those imprisoned, the evil was most pronounced in the emptiness. The camp tried to take away from people what made them human, what made and makes life good: friendship, family, freedom, individual identity, safety, food, warmth, community, the ethic at the heart of all religions of "do unto others" and the spiritual ethic that all humans, if not entirely equal, share a baseline selfhood that is sacred. Sachsenhausen was a place officially devoid of religion as we would understand it, barren. The worst, of course, was the above-mentioned "Station Z,"  where people came to die alone, yet,  ironically, en masse, as thousands could be killed in a day.

That made me think that perhaps we cling to the stories of abuse in the camps not only because they are horrible and we don't want to forget them, but because they are also "something." Twisted as the abuse might be, it reflects some semblance of human relationship amid the void. We cling even more to the evidences that some people stuck together and helped each other within the camps, that humanity was not entirely snuffed out.

Sachsenhausen II: Inside

As our group entered the inner compound of Sachsenhausen, the wind began blowing harshly and black clouds rolled over the sky. We stood together in a central yard. Unlike Auschwitz, which was preserved as a national memorial the day after it was liberated, there was no sentiment in defeated Germany for memorializing a concentration camp. Desperate Germans, Ingrid told us, entered the camp and dismantled many of the barracks for firewood.

What is left, therefore, are a few barracks, which were used by the Soviets from 1945-1950 as prison quarters.  The pebble-filled foundations of the other barracks have been kept, as have the walls and the main watch tower. One could get a good sense of the camp's semi-circular layout from the pebbled outline of the barracks.

 Ingrid told us that Sachsenhausen never achieved the notoriety of an Auschwitz because it was primarily for political prisoners, not extermination, and because it spent so many years neglected in East German territory. She pointed out how the camp was built in a triangle, so that the main watchtower, with its guards and machine gun, could keep much of the 1,000 acre site under surveillance. As she talked, torrents of rain began to fall and huge gusts of wind threatened to pull our umbrellas from our hands. It was so cold and soaking wet that Ingrid took us into a barracks to finish her talk, even though it was not our "turn" to be there. We were collectively unwilling to complain, as we knew whatever we suffered in our warm clothes and well-fed bodies could be nothing compared to what the prisoners endured.

The barracks were plain and primitive, with peeling paint on the ceilings. A central washroom/bathroom area separated the two wings of the barracks we saw. Ingrid explained to us that the camp was designed as a completely insular society, with a hierarchy of prisoners--criminals on top, followed by communists, homosexuals and Jews. (This explains how Niemoller could survive there for seven years: as an Aryan and Hitler's "special" prisoner, he was top of the heap; the guards were careful that he didn't die, fearing Hitler's wrath.) Roma, artists and Jehovah's Witnesses also found themselves interned in the camp for refusing to "fit in" the Nazi social order. While the camp was not specifically a Jewish extermination center,  a number of Jews were sent there to be exterminated  and those interned in the camp suffered the worst abuse of all the prisoners.

People worked in the brickworks, brutally hard and dangerous work,  as well as making armaments, counterfeiting foreign currencies (a "good" use of artists' talents) or breaking in shoes, a cruel labor that involved endless jogging in stiff, ill-fitting foot ware that left prisoners exhausted and often with blisters or foot injuries that became lethal. Prisoners were subjected to random killings and tortures, especially when the SS guards got drunk and decided to have "fun." Most of the stories are sickening and probably well known.  Hunger and later, as the war progressed, starvation, became common. But prisoners also formed friendships and organized networks that could be lifesaving.

I have seen many, many photographs throughout my life of concentration camps and have also seen some filmed footage, but nothing can compare to actually being in a camp. For me, the camps have always had a foggy, phantasmorgic, nightmarish quality--and of course, were always black and white. Their literal physicality had eluded me. It was difficult to picture what they were really like; I had no context. Being at Sachenshausen, however,  I saw concrete geographies: Sachenshausen is a real dimensional space. It was the exact opposite of the sensation of visiting a film set, where you find out with disappointment that what seemed real was an illusion--three dimensions, for example, might be a painted backdrop. In contrast, at the camp the stuff of nightmares and seeming illusion was concretized in the space/time continuum.

At times, I considered taking pictures but the strong wind and the almost relentless rain made me reluctant to do so. But perhaps I really didn't want to reduce this place that felt, paradoxically, like a deeply holy ground because of all the suffering it held, to another consumable.

The rain died down near the end but a cold wind still blew, causing me to shiver even in July in my violet jacket. I found myself making friends with another tourist, a friendly woman from Edinburgh. Would we have made friends anyway or was there something that drew us together seeking comfort and safety in community?

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Sachenshausen I: The perimeter


Visiting Sachsenhausen concentration camp focused me on the power of place and the ways a place can break your heart. I decided to visit this camp after my plans collapsed to tour Tegel prison, where Bonhoeffer composed what later became his Letters and Papers from Prison. I regretted not touring Tegel, but Sachsenhausen was almost as relevant to my Bonhoeffer studies, for fellow pastors Martin Neimoller and Werner Koch, and his brother-in-law,  Hans van Dohnanyi, ended up imprisoned in the camp. Bonhoeffer understood quite clearly that he too could find himself in Sachenshausen, which was so convenient to Berlin, and during a long car ride quizzed the newly released Koch at length about it. The car ride would have been necessary: discussing the camps was strictly forbidden, so the conversation would have had to have taken place in a private locale. (Part of the experience of researching Bonhoeffer is gradually sensitizing to the world of Nazi Germany, in which every action, including a car ride, is laden with multiple meaning. )

My host family found a free tour of  Sachenshausen for me. As long at least four people arrived at at certain spot in the Potsdammerplatz, a hub of downtown Berlin, the tour would go forward. I was there early, but already four people had congregated and many more came. It was still the monsoon period of my trip, so we all had our umbrellas open to protect ourselves from a steady downpour.

Our tour guide was Ingrid, a young graduate student, stocky and short with jet black hair and heavy, black-rimmed glasses. She was utterly a delight, informed, compassionate, intellectual, liberal, everything a Nazi was not, though, ironically, she spoke English with the shrill, harshly German-accented speech I connect, in stereotype, to Nazi concentration camp matrons.

She ushered us onto the tram for Orianienburg, the town just north of Berlin which is the site of the camp. We walked from the train station under drizzly skies past quaint homes built by the Nazis in the 1930s for the married SS officers who worked in the camps. The houses were designed, Ingrid said, according to the Nazi aesthetic, a folk architecture with steeply pitched roofs. They surrounded the camp on quiet residential streets, sweet little houses, on the surface.

As the rain came down harder, we were ushered into the visitors' center at the camp's perimeter, an area surrounded by high walls where the superindentent would have lived in his pleasant two-story house surrounded by meticulously kept lawns and gardens, with his goldfish pond and peacocks. SS troops in training were housed in pleasant two story barracks nearby. While I am working from memory, it seems to me this was the only area of the camp where visitors were allowed, and was used to highlight how fine conditions where in the camp. This leads me to believe there may have been some prisoner housing in this section, but of that I am not sure.

Ingrid said that this high-walled perimeter surrounding the camp proper helped isolate the grim central area from the townspeople, who had  initially been horrified at the beatings and torture they could see from their second story house windows in the original "wild" camp that sprang up in the town after the Nazis first seized power. 

While standing in the high walled outer perimetter area, we looked at the SS barracks and heard the following from Ingrid: Sachenshausen was built as the "model" camp where SS officers were trained and then sent to other camps, such as Auschwitz. The officers were primarily young men, and individuals could opt out of participating in atrocities without penalty if they chose, such as by claiming a headache. Most did not. They were supposed to be an elite force, but apparently recruitment standards were not very high. 

Most did not walk away from the camps, saying "no, this is not for me." Perhaps this is because they had been brainwashed into a belief in Aryan superiority and then given absolute power over the lives of inmates. According to Ingrid, as part of a new guard's initiation, an experienced guard would bring the new recruit inside the camp, randomly choose a prisoner and then beat him to death to demonstrate the lack of consequences. Guards had godlike power, as well as warm, sturdy well-made clothes, boots, whips, guns, comfortable lodgings, warmth and plenty of food. The contrast between their lives and that of the inmates was almost absolute.  They were told they were superior to other human beings,  part of a vanguard creating a new and better world. They learned they were the lords of the universe and that this situation would never change. What young man would not be tempted by this giddy offering of power and privilege? 

Sadism was an everyday part of the social order. Ingrid told us that prisoners were brought into the perimeter to cut the potatoes for SS dinners  into the perfect circles that were the preferred Nazi aesthetic. Any imperfectly cut potato was thrown away and could not be eaten by the starving prisoners. 

By this time the rain was pouring down furiously and the wind blowing, and we huddled together as a group, too sobered to complain of the cold as we crossed under the sign that said "Work will make you free" in German and into the camp itself.