Saturday, July 07, 2007

Extreme Experiences

[The gate to the Appelplatz at Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp]

So last night we had some thai food at a cafe down the street from the hotel. It was raining buckets so we didn't want to go far. The food was just OK.

This morning, I wanted to leave early for Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp early, but the breakfast didn't start until 9. I remember the weekend brunch was quite nice last year, but today it was no different from the weekday meal, only starting an hour later.

It took over an hour and a quarter to reach the camp. It's just to the north of Berlin, and it's a 2.4 kilometer walk from the S-Bahn station to the camp. Eerily, the same S-Bahn line that starts in Oranienburg, where the camp is, ends in Wannsee, where the Final Solution conference was held.

In 1933, the SA (the Brown Shirts) opened a concentration camp in the center of Oranienburg. It was dissolved after the Night of Long Knives in the summer of 1934, when most of the SA leadership was killed. In 1936, the SS opened a new camp in the more private area of Sachsenhausen. It was designed to become the model SS concentration camp, and SS personnel were trained there. Between 1936 and 1945, some 200,000 people passed through the camp.

In the first years, the camp held mostly political prisoners and those deemed enemies of the regime, such as Jehovah's Witnesses and gay men. After Kristallnacht in November 1938, some 6000 Jewish prisoners from the Berlin area were sent to the camp, and placed in separate Jewish barracks. Those Jews whose families managed to obtain exit visas from Germany were later released. In 1942, those Jewish prisoners still in the camp were deported to Auschwitz.

I definitely need to bring students here as it will give them a good base experience with which to compare the camps we will visit later, such as Mauthausen (opened in 1938 as a punishment camp), Theresienstadt (a concentration camp disguised as a ghetto), Auschwitz I (originally opened for Polish political prisoners and later Soviet POWs, converted into a slave labor camp), Auschwitz II - Birkenau (designed as both an enormous slave labor camp for Jews and gypsies, as well as an extermination camp for Jews), Majdanek (another combination slave labor and death camp), and Belzec and Treblinka (which were solely extermination camps).

I didn't have a lot of time, but I took the audio tour of most of the significant sections of the camp. I spent about an hour, but I think two hours would be necessary with students.

The Jewish barracks, by the way, have very moving depictions of the experiences of various groups of victims brought to the camp. After the visit of Yitzchak Rabin in 1992, right-wing arsonist broke into the camp in order to burn down the barracks. In response 30,000 protesters marched to Sachsenhausen camp. However, since then, the public has become somewhat blase about such right-wing attacks on Holocaust memorial sites.

One of the things that really comes out on the audio tour is the use of the camp by the Soviets as a prison for those deemed undesireable, between 1945 and 1950. Some of those imprisoned were minor Nazi fuctionaries, others were people who simply fell out of favor with the Soviet authorities. The memory of their experience in the camp is also being included.

Another change, and one that will help me with my article on post-communist Holocaust memorialization, are the efforts to change the focus of the memorial from the one created by the DDR in 1961.

[The East German Memorial at Sachsenhausen]

For the East German government, the primary purpose of the memorial was to commemorate the heroic resistance to fascism. The main monument -- a soaring obelisk topped with triangles and listing nations from whence prisoners were sent to the camp -- has a trio of figures in front depicting a Soviet soldier liberating resisting prisoners. The original proposal for the statues was rejected because it depicted the prisoners too realistically -- as gaunt and emaciated figures -- thereby making their role in armed resistance seem highly unlikely.

Also, one cannot help but note that by listing victims by country, the words "Jew," "Jehovah's Witness," and "homosexual" appear no where in the monument. As these groups did not fit into the East German conception of the function of the memorial, they were excluded. I picked up a German-language book in the gift shop on the history of the creation of the East German memorial, which should be helpful in my research.

Speaking of language, I'm ashamed to admit I've been having much more trouble with my German than in the past. I have no trouble reading maps, or books, or following directions, but when I try to say very simple things like "thank you," things even the most dull-witted tourist can easily say, I get all tongue tied, and find myself answering in Polish. Moving so quickly from country to country seems to have screwed up my language circuits.

Any way, I missed the train back to Berlin by just three minutes and had to wait twenty for the next one, and thus was quite late meeting Bruce for lunch. I had insisted we go to KaDeWe (short for Kaufhaus des Westens -- the largest department store in continental Europe).


We didn't get there until nearly 3 pm, so this was going to be a very late lunch. We headed up to the food halls on the 6th and then up to the restaurant on the 7th. Bruce sat at the table while I picked up the food. He had a very nice grilled salmon, while I chose a sample of various pastas and small salads (his salmon was better, by the way). Their dessert spreads are amazing. In the end, Bruce had a large parfait of fresh strawberries and whipped cream, while I had the Himbeer-Sahn Schnitte -- a three inch long by two inch wide by two inch tall slice of heaven. Start out with a layer of biscuit torte (plain white cake in everyday American), then add a layer of raspberry cream filling, then top it with another slice of biscuit torte, and then add a thick layer of raspberries in raspberry gelatin, topped with some glazed star fruit and red currants.

[It didn't look exactly like this -- it was rectangular and had a more elaborate topping -- but it might give you a sense of what it was like]

After that we couldn't eat another bite, but I insisted on walking down to the Food Halls to buy some Neuhaus chocolates as gifts.

[The Neuhaus Chocolate Display -- they invented the praline]

After that we explored the food halls, which are just a delight to walk around. Finally we headed down to the ground floor.

[KaDeWe Food Halls]

From there, we decided to go for a walk down to Nollendorfplatz, to see where Christopher Isherwood lived while he was gathering material for his Berlin Stories (later adapted into the musical "Cabaret"). I sudden heavy rainstorm hit, so we took refuge in Mann-O-Meter, which is a cafe/community center, and had a nice cup of tea while the storm passed.

After that we headed down to the more Turkish neighborhoods, crossed over the Spree to see the Mies van der Rohe Neue Nationalgalarie, and then barely made it to Potsdamer Platz before another rain storm him. According to the forecast (which keeps changing), it should be partly sunny tomorrow and we're going to try to visit Potsdam.

No comments: