I have considered myself a fortunate person to have been exposed to so much of the Holocaust at an early age.
My middle school history teacher opened my eyes to the books of Elie Wiesel, Anne Frank and Primo Levi. One of my friend’s grandfather was a survivor, incarcerated well before World War II and liberated in 1945. At the age well past 90, he came to speak at our high school auditorium, demonstrating his incredible fitness and an inspirational gratitude for living.
No matter how much I learned about the Holocaust, nothing prepared me for the hard-to-describe cocktail of emotions as I toured the Sachsenhausen Memorial Camp. Reading and imagining the greatest black mark in human history was one thing, but to enter the fortress of death located just one hour from the youthful metropolis of Berlin was quite another.
Sachsenhausen is no Auschwitz or Birkenau as its primary purpose was a labor camp, not an extermination camp (only about 30,000 died under the Nazis). Before the super-sized death camps in Poland were constructed, Sachsenhausen was the main Nazi camp in the late 1930’s. Home first to the political dissidents, communist union leaders and Berliner Jews, Sachsenhausen later hosted and buried French coal miners, teenage Soviet soldiers, Dutch resistance fighters and gay German entertainers.
From beginning to end, the journey to Sachsenhausen reeked of the twisted irony and dark humor the Nazis likely would have enjoyed. The nearby town of Oranienburg is quiet and melancholy, a poster model for any east German suburb. Strasse der Nationen, the road that leads directly to the camp, is lined with houses all the way to the entrance of the camp. As tourists walked towards Sachsenhausen, the residents went about their everyday business, minding their own lives.
The dark twisted irony was just getting started. The camp, a triangular castle barricaded by 10-foot walls, barbed wires and watchtowers with nothing growing in the middle, are surrounded by a lush forest of enormous trees. The entrance is marked by the falsely hopeful words “Arbeit macht frei” – work sets you free.
Much of the camp has been destroyed, with only a couple of barracks surviving. In the back of the camp stands a huge concrete memorial built by the East Germans, prototypical of most communist statues and memorials of the Cold War.
But most remembrances of the camp were minimalist and heavily subdued. There are several small plaques on the wall by various nations who lost its citizens here. In a place like this, the more minimalist the tributes, the more poignant – a small blue-and-yellow ribbon from Ukraine tied inside the execution trench, where thousands of young Ukrainian POWs were shot in the back of the head in cold blood, was one of the emotional highlights of my visit.
I chose not to take many pictures of Sachsenhausen. Part of it was out of respect – I felt my camera did not do justice in capturing my experience in Sachsenhausen and perhaps even defiled the camp. Part of it was out of fear – I earnestly believed that the ghosts of Sachsenhausen still resided there, restless and unforgiving.
As I walked down one of the living barracks, hoping to take a good photo of the living conditions, I felt increasingly uneasy looking inside the caged doors. Some had old, haggard beds inside, some only had remnants or those who died in that room. Most were poorly lighted with a faint light at the opposite end of the barracks. The wooden floors loudly creaked with every step.
By the halfway point, I couldn’t take the uneasiness anymore. I was on the verge of breaking out cold sweat. With my camera clenched tightly, I power-walked towards the light – the floors probably couldn’t handle a 180-pound man running on top of it.
Once I got out, I jogged towards the nearby bench about 100 yards away to calm myself down. I didn’t take any pictures of the barracks.
As the camp began to close at 6 p.m., the visitors – only about 20 people – headed for the exit. A Chinese mother and son were one of the last to come out. I ran into them several times in the barracks.
When I looked at them, I thought of my second grade self in South Korea. I learned in school that the reason Westerners vilified the Nazis so much was not because of the evils of the Holocaust but because they started WWII. Not many in the East – at least when I was little – knew about the systematic evils of the Holocaust that killed 11 million. I wanted to ask if things taught in schools have changed and if they were now conscientious of the Holocaust as much I was.
But it was never really a matter of who knew and understood the Holocaust more before arriving in Sachsenhausen. On that afternoon, in those hallowed grounds, we all experienced something so emotionally raw and logically incomprehensible that it will forever be seared into our psyches for eternity.
We will forever remember the ghosts of Sachsenhausen.