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The Journal of Peter Humphreys

For evil to flourish ... Sachsenhausen impressions
03/16/2006 09:17 a.m.
Last summer, while in Berlin, I made a solitary pilgrimage to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. Here are some of my reflections on that day. I have written them as a letter to a fictional friend. I hope that the words speak to you.

Berlin August 2005

Dear Friend,

Do you recall that before I picked up the courage, to head off to Sachsenhausen or Ravensbrück, I said to you that I might make that journey? You wondered why, after all it was meant to be a holiday for me! But I explained it was purely a personal matter: privately to witness, show respect and pay tribute. So even though you did not come with me, I felt I was not journeying entirely alone. I had someone else with whom I could also share that journey afterwards, albeit in an imperfect, secondary way through mere words on pages, like these.

I would be no particular fan of theirs but I can remember a number of years ago one line from a song by the Welsh rock band, the Manic Street Preachers, that has stuck in my head ever since: "If you tolerate this, then your children will be next". Without in any way feeling at all clichéd, such freedoms as we enjoy now are due in no small part to the sacrifice of others, including those whose beliefs led them to suffering and death in not just in Nazi Germany. We are so indebted I feel to the courage and bravery of those that have gone before us. I really feel that very intensely not least because I know that I would have survived for such a short time myself in such an unspeakably evil regime.

What then is there to say of that pilgrimage of mine on 15 August?

So much, yet too little really.

Well as you might expect, it was not straightforward. Firstly, our friend (fate) played an unexpected card. I set off for Ravensbrück but was a little later than I originally intended in so doing. As I arrived in Oranienburg by the S-Bahn, there was only a very short break before the regional train for Fürstenburg Havel (the nearest station for Ravensbrück) was due to leave. In normal circumstances, plenty of time. Except, I could only find one ticket machine and a man was already really struggling with that one. He kept making mistakes and was getting into a real lather. So, I had to decide very quickly, whether to risk it and get on without a ticket, as I could hear the connecting train getting ready to move out. I decided that I must be meant not to go to Ravensbrück on that day at least. I would miss the train I needed by a few minutes but it was an hourly service, would take about 40 minutes' travel time and then a further 30 minutes' walk. I would have hardly enough time at all when I got there before closing if I waited for the next one. So, I concluded (very quickly) I was meant to go to Sachsenhausen and I think the day proved to me that was the right outcome.

I wanted to go to Ravensbrück in remembrance of Milena. My main concern about Sachsenhausen had always been the fact that it appeared in many guide books and I really did not want to have to cope with coach loads of inquisitive tourists noisily making their way through a death camp as they would say the Olympic Stadium or a Berlin flea market. However, it really was not like that.

Coming out of the train station, it was discreetly signed as for a museum (which is what it is). In front of me, at some distance (because of my failed efforts to get to Ravensbrück) walked an English-speaking Gay couple that had been behind me on the S-Bahn. They walked in silence together and I did not try to catch them up. All grief is private on these occasions I think. Getting nearer to the site, there was a young Indian couple walking quietly back towards the station: an unusual (and vulnerable) site in a white suburban Brandenburg village. When I got there, a group of Italian students were talking animatedly (building up the courage to go in) but, immediately outside the reception area, a small group of middle-aged men were comforting each other, one was in tears. They looked like Polish manual workers, not people that would cry easily.

Forewarned, I entered the reception area, picked up my map and audio guide and headed off down the path that all those who had previously come to the camp, either voluntarily or otherwise, had travelled. Past the wired strewn perimeter wall, past the guard house, past the SS barracks building and into the wide area before the gate upon which is emblazoned that greatest of lies: Arbeit Macht Frei.

Sachsenhausen had started off life as an internment camp, further into town, for opponents of the National Socialist regime at the time of the Berlin Olympics. However, business became so brisk that a much larger camp was opened up on the present site. It was the first of Himmler's creations and also acted as the bureaucratic HQ and training centre for all subsequent concentration camps and läger established under the Reich. Still largely designed for political opponents (Communists, Socialists, Liberals, Christians of different hues), the camp also acted as an entrepôt for Jewish internees on their way East plus homosexuals, the disabled, Jehovah's Witnesses (and other Conscientious Objectors), Rom/gypsies, bank robbers/criminals. Over 200,000 people were imprisoned there between 1936 and 1945, who were subjected to every conceivable form of organised and articulate abomination. I really do not want to repeat these things here but they included extensive experimentation on young children. Every where there was turned into a place of humiliation, depravity and death. Innocent places like broom cupboards and toilet blocks were used as opportunities for the most brutal and humiliating, suffocations and deaths.

Having read Primo Levi's accounts of his imprisonments, I can honestly say that it was all here. Certain images stick in my mind still. The rigours of roll call in winter when even the dead had to be counted. The shower block and gas chamber. The room specially designed to execute people by firing one shot through a hole in the wall (how is that for efficiency). The mobile gas chamber that drove around the neighbourhood. Standing in a trench in which thousands had been shot. The lists of known victims, including resistance fighters from so many countries: Norway, Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Poland, Germany, Czechoslovakia ... The SS putting a Christmas tree by the gallows. The dark, dark stains on the floor of the mortuary that still appeared to steadfastly resist being scrubbed out of history. The quietness and peacefulness of it all now. The smell of burned wood, the soot and scorched furnishings in the "Jewish" block that neo-nazis tried to burn down just a few years ago. The three posts in the prison block from which people were crucified. The silent screaming carried by the wind through the trees.

None of this and much worse is new, of course. It just becomes more personal after visiting that heart of darkness. When they had been, my kids said to me what struck them most was that it was clear that such a camp could not have been kept a secret because it was overlooked by houses and gardens where children played. Levi makes that point too I think. Of course people knew but as the old saying goes, all that is needed for evil to flourish is for good people to do nothing. No. What struck me most was that Sachsenhausen, and that whole damnable system for which it served as GHQ, represented in its most advanced form yet the application of economic and industrial theory to human destruction. That is the most terrifying, the most unforgiveable, the most unspeakable thing: the relentless application of an economic and industrial logic to the destruction of life and spirit.

I am used to hatreds in Northern Ireland. I have colleagues from the Balkans that have hate in their blood. It seemed more like industry here, nothing personal. That idea chills me to the bone.

Before I finish I must not forget to mention that between 1945 and 1950, the Soviet Forces detained a further 60,000 here with about 12,000 dying from starvation and disease.

"And I know one thing more – that the Europe of the future cannot exist without commemorating all those regardless of their nationality, who were killed at that time with complete contempt and hate, who were tortured to death, starved, gassed, incinerated and hanged …" Andrejz Szczypiorski Prisoner of Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp 1995.

Enough I think.


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