It’s been over three weeks now since I arrived and began to fall in love with Berlin and enjoy the street life and style of the Berliners. As I struggle with their language in my classes, I live a little like one of them: catching the S-Bahn, arriving at my station Hackescher Markt, buying a coffee at the Steinecke Backen shop on the corner and making my way down the street to the Goethe-Institut for another day of my studies, staggering out after five intensive hours of Deutsch lernen, grabbing a donor kebab and maybe joining the shopping crowds at Alexanderplatz under that phallic rocket-age former Communist spire, the Fernstehturm, a television tower built between 1965 and 1969, still the tallest building in Germany at 368 metres, complete with a beacon to warn low-flying aircraft and of course a revolving restaurant.
It hardly seems an act of appreciation then to begin my reflections on being here with an account of a trip to Sachenshausen concentration camp, the first of a deadly series of prisons, interrogation centres, work camps and finally, extermination factories designed to eliminate anyone the Nazis chose as undesirables and un-German. From the moment Hitler gained power in 1933 and quickly dissolved the Reichstag, declared himself sole leader of the German people and began to persecute and murder the Jews, his political opponents and a range of other victims from church leaders, intellectuals, gypsies and the gay community, a total revaluation of values was set in motion and the rich inheritance of German culture was all but dissolved.
I had previously been to Theresienstadt/Terezin in what was still Czechoslovakia back in 1993, so it was not as if I needed proof – as if proof were needed – that the Holocaust deniers and the neo-fascists of today required me to gainsay them. I went because like anywhere, history is always present and a people and a culture cannot be understood if that present past is ignored. It was really all about our shared humanity, of what we all might do, given the right set of circumstances. I am going to let the pictures, mostly, speak for themselves.
By the end of my time there, I felt like a tourist in a past hell I would never comprehend, yet must approach and come as near as I could to what was, in case it once more became what is, right next door to me.
In the Visitor Centre, amongst the books for sale I was drawn to a very remarkable memoir by Otto Dov Kulka, an 80-year old survivor of Auschwitz who as a ten year old Czech Jew was taken to Auschwitz from Theresienstadt and survived seven months in that hell and the death march when the camp was liquidated.
I have not yet finished it but it is a remarkable and chilling first person account by a man who as a child lived in what he now calls ‘The Metropolis of Death’. His testimony also brings the reader face to face with the obvious: no one who knows what he knows and has been haunted by since 1944 could be other than alienated by the writings of others – like me – who really know nothing.
When he reads the conference papers of fellow academics (he moved to Israel postwar and became a respected historian), he writes, “The only response I feel able to express is alienation; all that is authentic is the authenticity of the alienation”. He cries out to us, “Therefore I ask: in what am I different? Something is wrong with me!” (80).
The opening epigraph is a paraphrase of a parable by Kafka: “there remained the inexplicable landscape of ruins. – History tries to explain the inexplicable. As it comes out of a truth-ground it must in turn end in the inexplicable”.
From Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death, Otto Dov Kulka, Penguin (London: 2014).
He is right: history is ultimately inexplicable but in the present, I seem to need to make the attempt. For me it was never about ‘bad Germans’, more about damaged and damaging humans, human cruelty given full permission and absolute free rein. We could all – given the right training and opportunity – become SS guards. That we do not is more of grace than will.
Perhaps my journey to Sachsenhausen today was to find this man in his book, to hear a voice from that silence otherwise broken only by the calls of the black-and-grey suited nebelkrȁhe crows that strut over the waste spaces like the ominous guards of an ancient tomb.