To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time - Elie Wiesel
This past year I had the opportunity to walk through the annals of history that covered one of the most troubled and testing times for humanity (1933 -1945).
As a part of our travels, my husband Prashant and I visited the Dachau and Sachsenhausen concentration camp memorial sites in Germany (near Munich and Berlin).
Nothing prepares you for the shock and the dull ache that follows you around as you pass through the grilled iron gate engraved with ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (Work sets you free). Not the dates and statistics dutifully catalogued in your high school history textbook. Not the carefully preserved bleakness of the faces that peer out of the black & white pictures in the internet archives. Not the ache that so eloquently unfolds in more than a few Hollywood movies. Nothing.
There is a silence that lies upon you, still and heavy as a winter blanket without any of the warmth that accompanies it. It is hard to assimilate the fact that you are standing on the grounds that changed, crushed and in most cases, brutally and systematically snuffed out the lives of millions of people who were no different from you and me. The barren ground stretches out as far as the eye can see. The barracks have long since been knocked down but the crushed gravel stones remain on the ground like vestiges of the broken spirits, packed closely together and bound by the makeshift borders that act as phantom walls to indicate where the barracks once stood. All that remains unchanged is the somber grey sky still shedding the odd tear and framing the weathered, leafless, lifeless trees whose branches now flutter in the cold wind like an eternal candle of remembrance.
Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site
There is a replica of a barrack; a stark reminder of the inhuman conditions that people like you and me were put through. Rows upon rows of beds crammed one on top of the other like matchboxes. A mere 12 toilets for 200 people that went up to as many as 2,000 people at one time and lead to unhygienic living conditions and outbreaks of Typhus epidemics. Meager rations of bread adulterated with sawdust and watered down soup that was barely enough. Essentially everything to, break the body and crush the soul. The routine itself was ruthless. Day after day, season upon season, people like you and me were made to brave the elements and do forced labour. At Sachsenhausen, we saw a shoe testing track where the inmates were made to test shoes made for soldiers by wearing them and walking around the track for the entire day while carrying backpacks weighed down with sand, sometimes even after the soles wore off during the testing. They are said to have covered distances of up to 30 to 40 kms in the process; some of them, unable to live through the ordeal.
Sachsenhausen concentration camp memorial site
What really punches you in the gut and hits home hard is not walking through what used to be the gas chamber (as unsettling as that was) but walking through the memorial museums. It is here that you are able to put faces to the statistics in the textbooks. From the museums’ walls happy faces smile at you- some lawyers, some musicians & doctors, some in tuxedos, most sharing happy moments with their families; normal families like yours and mine. A normal life like yours and mine. A life, which changed overnight. For in the same breath, you can see how they were changed to a shadow of their original selves when their possessions were stripped away, heads shaved, clothes confined to stripes & a coloured triangle and names replaced with numbers in a cruel attempt to dehumanize them from the people they were. People like you and me.
The museums also carefully preserve a collection of their possessions, memoirs and creations. I was especially moved by a craft made by a 16 year old Russian boy who was an inmate at Sachsenhausen. He had put aside some of his already meager ration of bread to create a replica of a boot with flowers that he gifted to his fellow inmate. The creator soon died of Tuberculosis but the artwork survived to tell the story of this beautiful soul who even in the darkest hour of despair and destruction found a place in his heart to lovingly create an object of beauty and joy for a fellow sufferer. It is one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen – both the creation and the gesture and I shall cherish the memory forever and remember it as a beacon of hope and kindness in a dark time.
The boot with flowers at the Sachsenhausen Museum
(Picture courtesy: http://theseandthose.pardes.org/2014/03/20/flowers-of-bread/)
The visit brought home the scary truth of how one’s life can change overnight. I pray that no man, woman or child ever has to face such brutality, suffering and indignity ever again. I especially pray for the Rohingya people and the Syrian refugees, as theirs is a story of lives changing overnight in our current world. But Prashant and I are glad we went to the concentration camp memorial as that gave us an opportunity to honour the dead. There is an especially evocative statue in Dachau of an unknown prisoner with his right foot forward and hands in his pocket to denote moving on with life after the liberation. The heartening thing is that the new generations of Germans have worked hard to atone for their fathers' and grandfathers' cruelty. They have tried to put a positive spin to the buildings that were occupied by party Officials in Nazi Germany. For instance what used to be Hitler's office in Munich is now a police station and the clock tower where ‘The Crystal Night’ was instigated has now been converted into a toy museum that contains many beautiful pieces that I’m sure would’ve brought a smile to the face of the 16-year-old creator of the flowers in the boot. Here’s an ode to him from me:
For the unknown boy
Who found a place in his heart
To create with love and kindness-
A beautiful piece of art;
That would serve as a beacon
A ray of light,
Hope in a dark world
To get through an endless night.
To get through an endless night.