As an American growing up, I was always most fascinated by history or literature lessons involving WW2, especially anything having to do with Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. How could such a horrific thing happen to an entire population of people while the rest of the world turned a blind eye? I read everything I could get my hands on, trying to find out more information and horrifying facts trying to understand why such a thing happened. One of my favorite movies growing up was Shining Through, and I imagined myself to be Melanie Griffith, a half-Jewish New York immigrant working as a secretary during WW2, who becomes a spy in Nazi Germany to try to rescue her Jewish cousins hiding in Berlin. I was Melanie Griffith, single-handedly winning the war against the Nazis. I was the US soldier liberating survivors from the concentration camps after the Nazi regime fell.
Well, that sounds perfectly 'romantic' to a 12-year-old, but reality hits when you move to Germany in your thirties and finally see a concentration camp first-hand. Two weeks ago I visited the Sachsenhausen camp, located just outside Berlin. It's hard to imagine a camp actually being built so close to the German capital. This camp held mostly political prisoners, Communists, and homosexuals (most Jews were sent to concentration camps further east), and became the training and administrative center for SS officers. Conditions were abominable, and thousands of prisoners died of exhaustion, exposure and malnutrition. Until gas chambers and ovens were built in 1943 (and crematoriums in 1941), most executions happened by shooting or hanging in large trenches still visible at the camp memorial today.
Of the 200,000+ people who passed through these walls between 1939 and 1950, over 50,000 people were murdered at this camp, including at least 12,000 prisoners after the Nazis fell and the Soviets took over the camp until its close in 1950. You can feel the death, the sadness, the heaviness of this place in the air. Visitors prefer to walk the grounds alone, separate from their parties, listening to audio guides for context as they process their emotions individually. I'll never forget walking down into the trench, or standing in the morgue under the naked bulb. I'll never forget any of this. There was no saving these people. I was not Melanie Griffith, and I could not liberate the concentration camps.
Photo: The morgue cellar, Sachsenhausen, 2013