Saturday, November 21, 2009

Strolling Through Sachsenhausen

Back to basics.

Just like Batman in No Man's Land, I was back on my own. The tactics I had used when flanked with allies and partners would no longer fly. I had to readjust and reconform to my situations, and the world around me.

And I had to get a ticket out of this crazy town. Dresden wasn't just going to see itself was it? Well, if we personified Dresden I guess it would always be seeing itself, but I meant that I wouldn't just see Dresden if I stayed in Berlin. I know it didn't really communicate that way, but trust me, that was my intention.

[authors note: there are two things of note. The first is that even though I had to listen to my music at half volume last night in my room, I need to have it on full to just barely hear it in the bar tonight. They like their music good and loud. And yet it's not really that loud, is it? All things are relative. I wonder what DJ Harcor wouldn't think – crazy inside the speaker falling asleep guy.

The other thing of note is that I smell like Kebab. This is a worse smell than Subway restaurant. Just eating one will leave you sweating of the smell for hours and hours to come. But they're so cheap, so filling, and so delicious. They're chocked full of veggies too!

Why are these things of note? Because they're the type of details you just need to know to really understand my thought process at the moment. Hey – where'd Mr. Blue Sky go? I'll have to put it back on repeat. It's the only song I have on my hard drive - the rest are on SD, and as I'm uploading to youtube right now my SD slot is otherwise occupied. But fear not, card 7 full of media is all rearing to go when the upload finishes. Which it just did.

I [heart] Ampelmann]

Step one was heading down into the U-Bahn station, and buying an ABC day pass. Had I known such a thing was possible I might have zipped out to the airport with Stew and Nick the other day – I was told only AB passes or BC passes were available. More lies.

With said day pass, I headed off to Berlin HBF – however this meant transfering from the U-bahn to the S-bahn, and lord help me if that wasn't more difficult than it needed to be. Look – if you know the city then it's easy, it makes sense, but there are no arrows, no signs, and no markers. Sure there's a big train station that could be nothing but – but I didn't know at the time. All I saw were transfers to other U lines, and to the H (bus). After far too long I figured it out, and then ziiiiiip off I went to the main station.

Where I proceeded to embarrass myself once more. I could not find the ticket sales desk. The logo I had come to know and love of two rectangles piled on top of each other, one with a 1 on it, the other with a 2, was nowhere to be seen.

I went up a floor, down a floor – I could see the logo on the station map, but when I went to that area it wasn't there. Now if you go to this station you'll say I'm lying, because you'll see the logo – but I swear it just appeared half way through my struggle. It wasn't always there. It couldn't have been. If it was why did I wander all the levels of the station? That just wouldn't have made sense!

Of course buying the ticket was a process too. Nope, you can't just pick it off the screen and have it print out, it was a two step process. Step one was picking your train, the time, all that fun stuff – then you get a print out with a bar code. you scan the bar code in another machine, and pay there. That's when you get the ticket. I guess it's to give you time to reconsider – in case you get post purchase jitters. But all it leads to is people looking at, and printing out, all number of options, and never committing, and just blocking up the machines.

But it must be the most efficient way. After all, it is German.

After the process that was obtaining my ticket, I finally felt secure in the knowledge that I would end up visiting Dresden – centre of art and all sorts of wonderful things. Odds are I won't visit any of the museums, but I'll see them, and that counts for something, yeah? Also – it's the place describe in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse V, and that will – in the future – spurn me to finally read the book I bought ages ago, most likely sparking a love of Vonnegut that I should have developed over a decade ago.

But where to now? Why did I need the mysterious ABC transit ticket instead of the Berlin encompassing AB ticket? Was I headed to the airport? No – I was not. But I was headed out of town, to Oranienburg. What was there? Well – for starters there was a used video game store with a picture of Earthworm Jim on the window. To be honest, that might have been enough to pull me out. I mean who, to this day, remembers Earthworm Jim? I once drew him on an envelope and sent it in to Gamepro – not that they published it. It was a good picture to! I worked hard on it! I put in effort! I – anyway... The reason for my trip was to visit Sachsenhausen.

Never heard of Sachsenhausen? Don't feel bad – there are so many camps it's hard to keep track of them all. Odds are you've heard of Auschwitz though. And like Auschwitz, this was a concentration camp. The model concentration camp on which all others, it is said, were based. However, unlike Auschwitz, it was a labor camp more than an extermination camp.

What did this mean? Well – it meant there was an industrial complex – factory after factory – within the camp where the prisons would work, feeding the German war machine.

Strange that the prisoners would create the weapons that would lead to the death and capture of even more prisoners. Were these prisoners collaborators? No – of course not – they were prisoners, and just following orders. We'll explore the issue I have with this in a few paragraphs – but until then, more about Sachsenhausen.

Once you get off the train at the Oranienburg station there is a bus that runs to the camp. However this bus only runs once an hour, so more often than not it's better to just walk the two kilometers. The camp is well signed as you make your way there.

Upon arrival you'll find yourself at the information building. Here you can buy an audio guide if you'd like – three euro. Or you can buy a map explaining the key points and history – fifty cents. I opted for the map. I rarely have the patience to listen to audio guides, though I find them quite delightful every now and then when one is thrust upon me.

You don't really need either – but I wanted the map as a keepsake. Another holocaust souvenir. We'll discuss that in a bit too.

Sachsenhausen is well laid out, with a number of maps throughout the camp, and there is more information to read than you can possibly process in a three hour stay. A full day, or perhaps two, is required to suck all the information from all the museums within the barracks, and buildings, and strewn around the ground. But you should be fine with three hours there. Especially if you already know a thing or two about the extermination of those found undesirable by the Germans.

From the information building you'll walk the same road the prisoners did, to the main gate. There the officers buildings stand, and beyond them the gate to the prisoners camp.

This camp / museum is like a cross between Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II. It stands as the remains of the old camp, but the addition of museums does nothing to diminish the power of the place. However, as most of the barracks have been destroyed, it lacks the presence of Auschwitz II. If you want to experience the true terror of a concentration camp, there is no other place to go than there. Still – there is much to be seen here.

Those buildings that have been destroyed are marked with a block on the ground, with their number upon it. Those still standing offer a glimpse into the daily life of those in the Jewish camp. Bathrooms, washrooms, and bedrooms are shown. Stories of terror and fear are told, and person recordings from survivors are yours to listen in on at the push of a button.

The role call ground, marching strip – where prisoners were forced to march, testing out different types of soles for German boots, and soviet camp are all easy to explore, and worth checking out. A video plays in the washing quarters now converted into a theatre with headsets that play the audio in four different languages.

The history of the camp is detailed, as well as explaining that far more than the Jewish people lost their lives here. Most of the Jewish inmates were shipped to Auschwitz for extermination – here it was the Soviets who met their fate, ten thousand of them marching into a hanger with loud music playing so they could not hear the gunshots that awaited them inside.

Station Z is also waiting to be explored – complete with murder trench, mass graves, and the remains of the gas chambers / crematoriums – and who destroyed them? The Soviets. Did they do this after they freed the people of the camp? Of course not.

No – because once the camp was liberated the Soviets took control of it, and used it as their own. Why waste a perfectly good concentration camp, they must have thought.

And for no less than a decade, they continued the tried and tested practice of rounding up their opposition and placing them here for safe keeping. It's hard to know what to make of the Soviets. They helped keep the world free – only to then try to make their own power play.

Now, there are two things that bother me about these concentration camps as tourist attractions. And I'll tell you what they are. The first is that it seems so awkward to me that people are profiting off the holocaust. Now, I know that the museums are free. But there are gift shops. Gift shops! Sure they'll pretend that they're bookshops just selling educational materials – but hey, while you're at it, why not pick up a beautiful picture postcard depicting the place where thousands died? I'm sure your friends back home would love it!

And think of this town just outside of Berlin – how many people would visit it, were the camp not located here? Their economy must have a major boom due to the tourists coming through to wander the grounds where prisoners were tortured, abused, and disposed of.

Think of the number of such camps in Germany. Think of the people who come here to re-live the war history. Doesn't it seem a bit strange to you that the country is making money off of the atrocities committed here?

And yet there's no real way to reconcile this because people need to be aware of history - they need to experience it, see the sights, and try and make sense of what happened. And there's no way to do that other than coming in country, spending money there, and then moving on once more. One can't just forget or ignore the vast numbers murdered here.

And that brings me to my second point. Murdered. The information always mentions that the Jews were murdered here, and the Soviets were murdered, and the Romanians were murdered. Even since I saw that term used, I've had problems with it. And this may be a point on which you may all wish to disagree. And please, by all means, do so – but the more rationally I look at it, the more the term really bothers me.

I understand we want to show just how terrible it was and that's why we use the term. But were the prisoners really murdered, or were they executed? Executed by the millions, tortured to death, and abused greatly – yes. But murdered? After all, they were killed by soldiers following orders.

Now, I know that the Nuremberg trails said that just following orders was no excuse – but lets be honest, that was just the Americans trying to create a loophole in order to punish those behind this atrocity and trying to make up for the hardships the Jewish people, and so many others across Europe, faced. But lots of mistakes were made to try and make up for the holocaust – November 29 1947 strike anyone else as perhaps not the best day, retrospectively speaking?

Clearly following orders is an excuse – otherwise all the prisoners in the camps should have been held responsible for creating the camps themselves, creating the weapons of war that killing many others, and for not rising up and fighting back. After all, it's the first duty of a prisoner of war to try and escape.

But they didn't. And of course they didn't. They couldn't hope to survive unless they went along with what they were ordered to do. Orders = excuse. Well the German soldiers had little choice as well. If they refused, odds are they and their families would have been in a precarious position. So why are they no exempt? In both cases refusal of orders equals death.

And what makes the people in these camps special victims worthy of the term murdered? Once again, I know it's terrible – I know it's awful – I'm not trying to lessen that. But – did Paul Tibbets murder 140 000 people? Did Charles W. Sweeney murder 80 000? No – they killed that many. These deaths were no soldiers on the battle field. These were people going about their daily lives in their hometowns, unable to do anything – unable to form a resistance – these were people wiped out in an instant, lives snuffed out without warning.

Children were vaporized mid play, mothers flashed out of existence while washing clothes, men turned to nothing at work. But we don't talk about the two hundred and twenty thousand people who were murdered within three days. No, we talk about how they were killed.

So why do we use the term murder here? It's just a question. And I honestly believe it's one worth thinking about.

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