We’re on our way to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp and I’m not sure what to expect. I know what I’m supposed to think and feel, but that that translates into reality remains to be seen.
As we walked up to the entrance it was strange, and a bit disturbing, to see that houses have been built right across the road from the camp. Not across a highway, not across a four lane major street, no, right across the two lane, busted pavement road. Who would want such a house? It simply seemed wrong. As we continued the walk I froze as I looked into the camp and saw smoke billowing from a chimney that appeared just inside the walls. A moment of actual, palpable panic set in even as I realized it was simply a heating vent. Is it maybe we see what we want to see, or perhaps what we were expecting to see? I don’t know, but my heart did race and I did feel a moment of heightened alertness not expected while “on vacation.”
Hours after the camp and the group’s reactions seemed to range from completely indifferent to clearly moved and upset. I also notice a few people having, what appears to me, a delayed sense of distress. My reactions… well, I don’t know. I know, since when am I one to struggle for words? I simply didn’t feel the connection I thought I would. I think there’s two reasons for this. One, I have no personal family connection to this place as my family’s history lies in Lithuania. Secondly, no mass crematoriums. This was a true concentration camp and not a death camp. People were murdered and tortured and humiliated here, but not on the mass scale as a full death camp. The difference has never been as apparent to me as it is now.
I guess I also feel hopeful. Here we were, a group of Jews with varied backgrounds and different family stories, after a near total annihilation of European Jewry, standing at what was, for Judaism, death’s doorstep; living, praying, thriving. What’s more, we’re not here in secret, some clandestine action designed to smuggle Jews into forbidden territory so they are able to feel a sense of history up close. No, we were here, in part, at the request of the German government. We were here not to mourn the past nor as a token gesture of reconciliation, instead, we were here to engage modern Germans in cultural, theological and simply personal dialog. To learn together, to educate one another and to make the “other” take form of someone real, someone tangible, someone with a name and a face. Germans are no longer simply “them” or “they” to me, rather Germans are people with names like Nadine, Sascha, Esther and Johanna. I hope we have made a similar impact. After all, it was humanity that was lost in the Shoah, not just humans.