Day Nine -- a catchy subtitle doesn't feel right today
Slept fairly well even though I was back to a standard hotel room with no orthopedic pillows, waterfall shower and sudoku and Toblerone turndown service. Sigh. Breakfast was pretty extensive, cererals, yogurt, pastries and a gorgeous looking fruit salad. I know I’ve been away from my normal diet too long when veggies and salad are looking that good to me. I had a delicious pain au chocolate with my cereal and a small yogurt smoothie on my way out.
With a full free day left, I had a few choices. One was Potsdam self-guided (no tours ran today). Another was to go back to the German History Museum and try to get to the Stasi Prison. The last option was a guide tour with Insider Tours again, this time to Sachsenhausen concentration camp. In the end, I decide to take the guided tour of the concentration camp today.
I got to the meeting point and met Mike, the guide for the day. He warned me that once we left at 10:15, we would not have a chance to stop for food again until 4:30. That was a strong suggestion to buy something for the road. I went to an organic food market and got a tomato baguette and a focaccia and a bottle of orange/apple juice. We took the S-bahn about 45 minutes north to the town of Oranienburg, where the camp is. From the S-bahn station it was a 2.2 mile walk, the same train ride and walk that prisoners would have made on their way there.
Let me just stop here and state the obvious. For me this was not sightseeing. There were some in my group who were acting like this was a sideshow at a carnival. For me, it was exploring history for myself, gathering details that I can in order to become a less ignorant, more thoughtful traveler and citizen of the world. I am debating with myself whether to share the photos I took, because I don’t want it to seem like it was in the same category as some of the less serious adventures I had this past week. But I also feel that if I can share them with those who’ll never get to go, perhaps I can educate them in the same way…. Public service announcement over.
Mike explained to us that Sachenhausen was meant to be a “model” camp. It was one of the earlier ones and the initial design was such that the sightlines from the main guard post Station A allowed for simultaneous surveillance of all barracks, which were arranged in a semi-circle in front of the guard post.
Station A was also the first gate prisoners would go through. Like other camps, there is a sign on the main gate “work will set you free”, which in itself is a chilling thought, knowing that for many, no matter how hard or how much they worked, they never got out.
It should be mentioned that Sachenhausen was meant to be a prison for political foes first and foremost. It wasn’t until much later that other objectionable classes of prisoners (remember, it wasn’t just Jews, but also Sinti-Roma gypsies, homosexuals, unemployed, diseased and handicapped, and Poles) were put there by necessity. When the Jewish barracks were constructed outside that initial semi circle of barracks, they were outside that simultaneous sightline of the guards, and thus Sachenhausen was no longer considered a “model” camp. When it became a Memorial after the war, the East German authorities chose only to commemorate the political prisoners, conveniently forgetting everyone else who passed through or died here (50,000 deaths, countless others may have been moved on to other camps where they died there).
Mike pointed out the roll call area in between Station A and the barracks. Roll was called twice a day, and if anyone had managed to escape, all were punished. Although if someone managed to make it through the neutral zone (where snipers were meant to shoot to kill), then the trip wire, barbed wire, over the wall and more barbed wire, they would not have many options in the way of destination as it was so far from Berlin for someone on foot. Townspeople who harbored escapees would be punished severely, so that was not an option either.
One sick trick the guards would play would be to toss a prisoner’s hat into the neutral zone and command them to fetch it. It was a no-win game: refuse and they’d be tortured and probably killed, fetch it and the snipers would get them. Often prisoners would run into the neutral zone to get shot on purpose. Many times suicide was the best way out.
We got to look into a barracks, where they had only one sink to wash faces and small troughs to wash their feet. Three to a bed, three beds high made for tight quarters. The best bunks were on top, where heat rose and where prisoners couldn’t get hit by vomit or other fluids from prisoners above.
Hard labor was either in brick yards, at “satellite” camps which were corporations like Krupps, Daimler, Henkels, where they would serve as slave labor, or in something called the boot testing track. This track was made of uneven and torn up pavement, meant to simulate conditions soldiers would walk or run on. Prisoners would wear various types of boots or shoes made for soldiers, purposely in sizes either too big or too small for them and always a new pair so as to be most uncomfortable and they would walk the track for 9-12 hours a day. If the labor was also meant to be punishment, they’d have to run it the whole time. In effect, doing a marathon in new shoes everyday. When the camp physicians were testing drugs to be used on soldiers (methamphetamines, to keep submarine crews awake for days, for example) the testing would be done on these boot testing prisoners to see how the meth would affect them and their ability to perform first.
There was, believe it or not, a brothel for prisoners. If you or your work team performed particularly well, you would be rewarded with time in the brothel, which was staffed with prisoners from a camp for women nearby. These women were told they could reduce their sentence by working in the camp, but if they became pregnant (and contraception was not handy, so that was likely) they would be killed. Quite a risk to take.
We saw the location of the gas chambers and crematorium. The gas chambers weren’t used as often as in other camps because it took a lot of body heat or extra heat to get the gas to work, and they were never killing that many people at once. It seemed the method of choice here was a gun to the back of the head, usually with a solider shooting through a hole in the wall so that there were no post traumatic effects to him by shooting eye to eye. Hanging were popular too, either traditionally on a gallows or by tying hands together behind the back and hanging by the wrists from a peg over head, or death by intense shoulder torture. Bodies were piled up under the mortuary and when there were enough, they’d be carried to the crematorium and burned. Relatives told of the death of their loved ones at the camp could buy an urn of ashes. No guarantee they were their relatives ashes, but ashes nonetheless.
Sachenhausen, with its large population of political prisoners, has the odd quandary of burning bodies with lots of fat on them (as soliders and politicians tended to be) and that created a more noticeable, black smoke whereas emaciated prisoners created hardly any smoke at all.
Sick prisoners in the infirmary were often used for medical research. For example, they’d be cut on the arms and legs and glass or dirty straw was inserted into the cut and sealed over to try to foster gangrene. Then the doctors would try to treat and cure the gangrene without amputation in order to better treat soldiers on the front lines.
I think what got to me the most though was the mortuary. Here, prisoners who were lay people, not physicians or scientists, would perform autopsies on those killed. They had to do so in order for there to be a death certificate issued. And usually what was written there was false (old age, tuberculosis, consumption) because it couldn’t be written what really happened (gassed, shot, beaten to death, hung). Surely some folks did just perish because it was too much with little food and too much work. But it takes a certain kind of sick and twisted to lie on a death certificate like that. What was pathetic though is that sometimes the bodies were coming into the mortuary that the ones performing the autopsies just did one incision and then closed it up. That was procedure enough to enter a cause of death, apparently.
One notable prisoner as Sachenhausen was Martin Niemoller, probably best known to most of us for writing the following:
When the Nazis came for the communists,
I remained silent;
I was not a communist.
When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent;
I was not a social democrat.
When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
I was not a trade unionist.
When they came for the Jews,
I remained silent;
I wasn't a Jew.
When they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out.
I had absolutely no idea how I would respond to this visit. Mike did an incredible job with a very difficult subject matter. That he is so schooled on the subject and European history helped a great deal. The numbers of atrocities and deaths is mind numbing. The logic behind them all is inconceivable. He left us to ourselves to reflect the whole way home and it was disconcerting and more than a little uncomfortable.
I left Mike at Friedrichstrasse and he gave me his email to get his recommended reading list as I’d told him what I’d read to prepare for the trip. I think now that I have seen all this and the many different places I’ve seen and things I have learned are all really coming together for me.
As much as I was pretty mentally tired from the day, I did have over an hour and was close by the Germany History Museum, so I zipped back there with the sole purpose of seeing the Fokus DDR temporary exhibition. What that ended up being is an exposition on all the many dozens of GDR acronyms, what they really meant, what they produced or what their role was in the GDR (east german republic) and what their ultimate outcome was. It was interesting and mind numbing. They do like their acronyms, that’s for sure. Some were familiar to me, but many many more were new to me.
Dinner tonight was up in the air. I had several ideas but wanted to be near my hotel for an early night. Tarek, the guide from last week, had drawn on my map four restaurants in my neighborhood. One I visited last night. I headed toward a Russian café and found it, connected to a much larger restaurant called Pasternak. I assumed the café and restaurant were related, and Pasternak seemed familiar to me from my research, so I asked for a table. I should say that both last night and tonight, I think going early (6 p.m.-ish) has been the only reason I have gotten tables. It seems that these restaurants all book up for later times. I lucked out and got the last non-reserved inside table.
I should say that 1) I know that Russian cuisine is going seriously off plan here, but I NEVER get any Russian food at home and 2) this waiter who greeted me was a cutie, very sweet. All boded well from the beginning, and then I looked at the menu. They had set menus as well as a la carte. Usually I go a la carte, but I saw a four course set menu of salmon caviar on eggs, a cured meat soup, beef stroganoff and blini with sour cherries. I was in heaven. I haven’t eaten this since Russia in 2010! The caviar was delightful, even if it was only barely 2 teaspoons. The sweet salty bubbles were incredible. The soup was good, a beef broth with various slices of meat, sausage and potato. The beef stroganoff with two potato pancakes was excellent indeed and the Dornfelder red wine I picked worked perfectly with it. And the blinis topped the meal off perfectly. My waiter laughed at me when he asked if I wanted coffee too, I said “no but a shot of vodka would be nice.” I think that surprised him and he laughed and asked “100 grams, no?” That would have put me in the ground, so I said just the 50 grams. He presented it with a smile and a “na zdorovie.” Indeed a nice way to cap off an evening and a brilliant week.
I’m back here now, a glass of sparkling wine, all packed and boarding passes printed. It has been an excellent, busy, exciting week of learning and reflecting, relaxing and breathing easy. Now it’s time to bring that all back home.
Talk to you from the other side of the Atlantic!