Tuesday, June 04, 2019

It's Always "a Hard Day"

I feel like I could begin every one of these entries: “today was a hard day.”  Unfortunately, that’s generally the case in a Holocaust study tour; it’s only the reason that changes day to day.

Yesterday, the reason was the heat and humidity, and the noise at night experienced by the students.  The weather started off much better today.  It rained during the night leading to the people smoking and talking under the students’ windows to come inside.  The rain also meant today was cooler and dryer. 

So things started off well.  We headed off to Alexanderplatz to catch the bus to the Staatsoper.  This is where our walking tour began, first with the Neue Wache and the statue based on one by Käthe Kollwitz, followed by the memorial to the book burnings on Bebel Platz.  On our stroll down Unter den Linden we posed for pictures in front of the Ampelmann store and compared embassy styles with the contrast among the Russian, British, and American embassies.  Finally, we reached the Brandenburg Gate. 

The square in front of the Gate was more low key than usual: no actors posing as soldiers, no American celebrities.  It was starting to warm up, so we stuck to the shade on our way to the first of the four Holocaust memorials we were here to look at:  the memorial for the Roma and Sinti.  The students were moved with the simplicity of memorial. I also brought a text for us to read:  the account of one German Sinto (an ethnic subdivision among Roma) and his sufferings in various concentration camps to which he was sent (included the first one, Sachsenhausen, that we visited this afternoon). 

After a short visit to see the Reichstag, we headed up to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.  I asked the students to spend 10-15 minutes wandering through it.  Several of them asked which came first:  Libeskind’s Jewish Museum with its Garden of Exile or Eisenman’s Memorial (Libeskind came first).  We talked about the similarities and differences, whether the stelae should be read as graves or wheat or anything.  We also talked about their experiences being inside the memorial (I don’t go inside as it makes me motion sick).

Our third memorial was across the street: the Memorial to the Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals.  They’ve modified the film clip showing inside the memorial to include more than same-sex couples kissing, in particular, historic newspaper headlines.  We talked about the way the memorial references the Jewish memorial, yet also diverges.

Our last memorial involved walking a few blocks, which was becoming increasingly uncomfortable as the heat rose.  This is the Memorial to Victims of the T-4 program.  I brought a pair of letters for us to read, one written by a deaf man to his former principal in 1960, recounting how violated and betrayed he felt that this principal had stood by and failed to defend him when he was forcibly sterilized at the age of 13, the other written by the principal in his reply a year later.  What’s astonishing about the latter is when this former principal of a school for the deaf tells his former pupil that it was better that he be sterilized than have a deaf child.

I found a bakery near Potsdamer Platz that had sandwiches and tables and made a good lunch stop.  Then around 1 pm, we headed up to Sachsenhausen.  It wasn’t too hot on the train, and the bus we got in Oranienburg was air conditioned, but the camp itself is not.  The sun was intense and for all but one of the students, this was their first visit to a concentration camp. 

I decided to keep the visit relatively streamlined and focused.  We only had just under two hours before the bus back to Oranienburg (otherwise we would have to walk 30 minutes in the heat).  I focused on the main elements:  the gate to the camp where prisoners were inducted, the electric fence, the test track for shoes (the prisoners were used as slaves to test the soles of shoes manufactured by German shoe companies), the so-called “Jewish barracks” built after the November pogrom of 1938 (and partially burned by an anti-Semitic arsonist in 1992), the camp’s prison, the prisoner kitchen, the DDR-era memorial, and the place of execution.  All these are deeply emotional and intense places to visit and see.

As uncomfortable as it was to be in the barracks on this hot day, I told them, imagine when it was filled with men in bunks in the summer, when the days were even hotter. It was actually cooler in the blazing sun outside than in the empty barracks.  In the basement of the prisoners’ kitchen, were original wall art painted by the prisoners, showing animated vegetables preparing themselves to be eaten.  It’s more than a little creepy.

Finally, we saw the trench used by firing squads, the remnants of the small gas chamber, the foundations of the “neck-shooting” facility, and the ruins of the crematorium.  Not much conversation in that room. Finally, we left and headed back to Oranienburg.

It was warm on the train and everyone was more than a little sleepy and wiped.  As I said, it was a hard day.  Most of the students are struggling to cope with the heat and the walking.  Unfortunately, we won’t have any relief until Thursday when we’re in Dresden.  First, a cold front is expected to come through, dropping temperatures by nearly 20 degrees.  Second, all we need to do that day is tour the Green Vault and take a cruise on the Elbe.  My only fear about the latter is that thunderstorms are forecast for the afternoon, and I fear we may be blocked by the weather (I’m hoping for the best).

Tomorrow, though, we are underground (at least in the morning) or in the Pergamon (in the early afternoon).  We still have a two-hour Syrian refugee-led walking tour in the afternoon, when it will be even hotter than today, but as I said, every day is a hard day in some way.

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