s I walked through the heavy iron gates, naked trees above me stood railing in bony defiance against the chill grey sky. Stone prison walls stood by in silent indifference, hiding beneath scowling guard towers and barbed wire. The towers were empty now, but once upon a time they had housed guns. And soldiers following orders. The history of the place settled in like a malignant fog, obscuring everything around me...
...at least thatís how it seemed I should have felt.
With its history of death and destruction Sachsenhausen, the one time Nazi concentration camp, should have overwhelmed me with the horror of thousands of wasted and shattered lives. It should have sent a shudder through my soul.
But it didnít.
On the contrary, it was peaceful. Pleasant even. There was no malice in the tranquil quiet of the grey October morning. Birds chortled, reassuring passersby with the familiar sounds of nature. The pleasant crunch of leaves on cobblestone lanes mingled in the air with softly muted autumn colors. The campís place in history was an abomination, but the dayís calm serenity did little to enhance that perception.
I strained to imagine life here on both sides of the guns. The effort stretched my mind, wrapping it in impossible knots before finally giving up and snapping it back into place. It was no use. No amount of mental contortion could make what happened here seem real.
The visual cues were there, to be sure. The twisted metal and brick remains of the the ovens, the whipping posts, the cold-white tiled "medical examination" table with its raised edges and a drain for the blood. But even goaded by these sobering remnants, I could manage little more than a vague glimmer of comprehension. It was too fantastic, too far removed from my reality.
The Jewish Museum came close to conveying what I was seeking. I moved slowly, staring the grainy black and white faces in the eye, trying my best to be moved to horror. I stood in the sterile, white-tiled doctorís office, remembering beastly tales of medical experimentation. I tried to imagine cold, swollen feet stuffed into the tattered shoes sitting on display in the museum, or the battered dignity of the exhausted rag of a man staring vacantly at the camera.
I tried to make it personal, but somehow the depth of my reaction remained academic, almost clinical. The current reality of this open air museum, its fresh flower wreaths and its hints of a dark past life, simply refused to transport me to the monstrosity of 45 years earlier.
For nine years, Sachsenhausen had been a cog in a tremendous machine spewing hatred and death. Strolling around the grounds on that cool October morning, I expected to feel its residual anguish as the memory of innocent victims pursued me, whispering unheard tales of inhumanity in my ear. Instead, I felt the calm tranquility of a pleasant autumn day, similar to any day like it back home.
In some ways that was as frightening as the horror I had been straining unsuccessfully to grasp. Because the tranquility of Sachsenhausen the memorial was a window on the reality of Sachsenhausen the concentration camp.
It had probably been peaceful and pleasant on that summer day when the first prisoners marched through the gates. The birds were probably chirping on the day the gas chamber was installed, or the day the incinerators started smoking. The leaves probably crackled under the prisoners feet as they shuffled back to their barracks, slowly dying from starvation and forced labor. Nothing here was intrinsically different.
Reading the history books or watching the 6:00 news, itís easy to feel a
distanced sense of "otherness" in what we see. But Sachsenhausen's
tranquility was a testament to the fact that world events donít
happen in some other reality; they happen in the everyday lives of
everyday people in an everyday world we probably know quite well.
I didnít gain a deep emotional perspective that day in Sachsenhausen. I wasnít moved to tears and I still canít comprehend that it actually happened, much less imagine what it must have been like. But I did discover that the "different world" in which it happened was much the same as my own.