Kristin of Medina, MN, is a sophomore CCPA and German major with a minor in human rights. She will spend Spring Break 2007 in Germany studying human rights with fellow students and Dr. Rick Halperin, director of SMU's new Human Rights Program.
Rick Halperin has taken groups of people all over the world to places of unbelievable horror and overwhelming human rights violations. Groups have traveled to Cambodia, Rwanda, Poland, and many other countries with tragic histories. These trips seem depressingly intimidating, but are actually meant to educate, enlighten and inspire. This spring break we toured the concentration camps of the Holocaust in Germany. We visited eight concentration camps as well as sites of murder, book burnings, torture, Nazi party rallies, SS headquarters, and other sites related to the Nazi regime. I was asked to record my experiences for this blog and it has taken some time to gather the courage to re-open my journal. I hope that whoever reads this feels some discomfort and sorrow for such emotions are needed to secure joy, tolerance and community for all humans.
Since my freshman year I have been deeply involved with Amnesty International on campus, and my passion for human rights has grown every semester.
Dr. Rick Halperin is our Amnesty International chapter adviser and also my professor and role model. He mentioned this trip to me and immediately I wanted to go.
Human rights is such a broad term and working with AI has opened me to a lot of different issues around the world, but I don't know much about the Holocaust (which was a catalyst for the global human rights movement). I don't know what to expect from this trip, emotionally and intellectually, but I know that I will come back to Dallas with a new perspective on human rights. I hope this trip will inspire me to keep pushing the movement on and off campus. The Holocaust occurred before my generation and each generation after will drift further away from this specific event, but the unfortunate reality is that these future generations will never be unfamiliar will genocide.
Day one: The Unknown Beginning
We are a group of 13 people; all ages, genders, backgrounds represented. Some have some are veterans of human rights trips and some (like me) are green. Each of us will see the same sites, smell the same air, and walk on the same gravel. We will all react differently but this common experience will bind us together as a human rights family.
We flew into Frankfurt, and then took a train to Hannover, then off the train onto a big white bus which would take us around Germany for the next nine days. Our bus driver, Hans-Peter, would become one of us after our journey together.
The first day was a lot of traveling. Half sleeps, unhealthy snacking, several pit stops and waiting-arounds to make sure our flock was all accounted for. From plane, to train, to bus, we got to know each other a little better: Julie, Susan, Sherry, Rick, Ali, Pat, Jeff, Katie, Hillary, Gail, Jackie, Ginger and me. We had not yet visited our first site and already we were bonding, but only on superficial levels as we would realize later. I did not know what to expect of my fellow travelers, nor of my own reactions to the journey.
Our first stop: Bergen Belsen
Rick prepared our tired minds with a description of the first site: on the outskirts of a town, no buildings, and no remnants of the suffering – just a memorial site. To me, this description did not fit my preconception of a Holocaust site.
Groggily we clambered off the bus. The outside welcomed us appropriately with an overcast sky and chilled air. One could have easily missed this site had the major construction machines not been crammed next to the wall which stated: Gedenkstatte Bergen Belsen.
Inside the introductory building we watched a short video about the camp and browsed around the large display partitions which outlined the events of the holocaust and the victims of Bergen Belsen. The camp was originally a prisoner of war camp for French and Belgian soldiers in 1940. The first Jewish prisoners arrived in April 1943. The camp was liberated by British troops April 15, 1945. A total of 50,000 concentration camp prisoners died here.
We gradually trickled back outside to the memorial site. A long wooded path directed us to a solemn stone-built sign: Bergen Belsen 1940 bis 1945. Small stones and roses rest on the top of the stone, in the carved letters, and on the surrounding ground. Looking past the sign, it is hard to distinguish what is really there. Rectangular mounds of grass and moss bulged in several places, far off in the distance there is a cemetery, an obelisk and a long wall with writing on it. Julie and I walked up to one of the mounds, which was about shoulder-height, to read another stone sign: Hier Ruhen 5000 Tote, April 1945. Beneath this brown moss lay 5,000 dead prisoners of Bergen Belsen. A few yards off another mound covered 2,000 humans, still further another covered 2,500. The site continued this way. On each sign rest more rocks placed there by reverent visitors.
Bright green tufts of moss sprouted up between the letters of the stone signs and in the cracks of the stone paths. The green burst out of every brown and gray.
I stood in front of a mound; such an anonymous grave. What do the bodies look like after 60 years? What will this mound look like, what will the inhabitants look like after 100 years? A swift wind blew through the site; between my body and the bodies of the mound.
After Bergen-Belsen we rode the white bus to Hamburg for the night. We had dinner together and we each reflected on our experience of the day. Pat had brought a tape recorder to document our reactions to the trip. It was not comfortable eating a good meal and recounting the sorrow we felt earlier in the day. But these times of reflection each night would become an outlet to bond and experience with each other.
No one is spared
Breakfast is too early in the morning. But every morning is the same: at the hotel, 8:00 a.m., be ready to leave by 9:00 a.m.
The day before had been intense, but only the beginning. Today we saw two sites: Bullenhuser Damm, and Neuengamme.
A beautiful brick building in a typically quaint German town outside of Hamburg is a not-so-typical school called Bullenhuser Damm.
April 20, 1945, Adolf Hitler’s birthday. The lives of 20 Jewish children between the ages of 5 and 12 years came to an end in the cellar of the school. After being transferred from camp to camp and ending up in Neuengamme, these children underwent painful medical experiments but history tells us that this was not the end of their suffering. From Neuengamme these innocents were brought to Bullenhuser Damm when the war was coming to an end. The children’s caretakers mercifully administered morphine to the 20 children before “putting them to bed.” After such horror and suffering these children walked into an empty room believing they would finally have peace and comfort. True peace would only come after their deaths. One by one the SS officers in charge of the operation hung the innocent children from hooks on the cellar wall, leaving them to die. The children’s caretakers were murdered by hanging not long after.
After reading the story of Bullenhuser Damm and several sighs of preparation, we walk through each room: the room where the children were undressed, where they were injected with morphine, where they were hung like live paintings on the wall, and finally the room where their tiny bodies had been tossed in a heap on the floor. Each is empty and white except for the memorial room. On the wall gold German words are grafted, naming each child. In the room where the children’s bodies were stored rocks, notes, and flowers in memorial of their innocent deaths create a little pile.
In the back courtyard of the school is a small fenced off playground. Beyond this ironically happy place grows a rose garden. The flowers have not yet bloomed and they give the place a strange dichotomy of life and death. Small memorial plaques honor the children and their caretakers who were murdered here. The last marble plaque reads in German: “Here you stand in silence, but when you leave, be silent no more.”
No one was spared. Even the innocent were kidnapped, exploited and murdered in horrible ways. There was no end to the sick creativity and indiscriminate torture and killing of the Nazi regime.
It expands vast and open, covered in mock rubble. Neat rectangular piles of stone represent the graves of the barracks. A few tall brick buildings boarder the edges of the main quad. Around the camp, lush green grass and yellow fields clash patronizingly with the desolation within. How would it have been, trapped in here and mocked by the surrounding oasis? The cruel dichotomy of natural beauty and human terror reoccurred at every site during the trip.
We walk as a group through this camp. We see no other people and our crunching, scraping steps make the only noise.
The camp continues almost endlessly past the main quad. The crematorium was taken down and now all that is left is cement square and a memorial plaque. Past the crematorium and past the execution field, we walk toward the munitions and brick factories. Long, empty brick buildings stand one after the other. Next to one factory building several abandoned push carts stagnantly rust away. During this walk the grass is always green.
At the far end of the camp we reach the memorial site. Inside a simple building hang dozens of white scrolls from bright red walls. The scrolls resemble something royal and proud, but the text displays only shame: names of all who died in Neuengamme. Each scroll has more and more names as the years increase until the final day, the day of liberation, which needs three scrolls to list all the dead.
Outside there is another memorial obelisk and a long marble wall. A large stone skeleton, mangled and contorted lies nearby.
We trickle back onto the bus and head onwards to Berlin.
Social, political and economic disparities still divide Berlin and the infrastructure makes this separation blatant. We stayed in East Berlin for the next three days. Every day we traveled from east to west and witnessed the transformation of the city.
Today we took a bus tour around Berlin. Although we saw the typical tourist sites, the focus was still on the Nazi regime. We drove past the Stazi headquarters built with “socialist architecture,’ now a documentation center. Frankfurter Alee runs through as the main artery of the city and has undergone several name changes along with the regime changes of the city (Frankfurter to Stalin to Karl Marx and now Frankfurter again). To massive dome towers stand as the Frankfurter gates along the street. Along this street we moved from East to West Berlin.
Grafitti splashed everywhere in East Berlin: on garbage cans, by the train tracks, on houses, store fronts, but most obviously on the Berlin Wall, of which its third and fourth generations still stand. As the Berliners passed casually by, the 13 of us gawked and photographed one part of the wall which ran for several blocks. The markings showed socially consciousness, political satire, poetic expression, and general city life. Across three of the large slabs a mural in pastels cried out of for the freedom of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a journalists and political activist on death row in Pennsylvania. After the astonishment at the reference of American news all the way in East Berlin subsided, I felt a surge of empowerment and connectivity with the social and political activists even thousands of miles away.
Another mural in both English and German spoke: “Many small people who in many small places do many small things that can alter the face of the world.”
Several other parts of the wall mocked Check Point Charlie and other stereotypical sites in Berlin. My friend Julie and I felt compelled to make our mark on the wall as well. Perhaps someone will read it.
Burning more than just paper
After the wall we drove to Agust-Bebel Platz, a site of the infamous Nazi book burnings. But more than just books were burned here in 1933. National Socialists students, in a course of sensationalism and raw, irrational passion, stormed the archives of the opera houses, music halls, libraries and universities to take and destroy any productions that did not advocate the pro-German ideology at the time. Scientific journals, plays, compositions, books and works of art were piled in the center of the square and lit on fire. Surrounding the extremists display stand buildings of intellect and expression: a university building, an opera house, a church. A plaque in the center of this now peaceful square quotes a prophetic man: “Where one burns books, one also in the end burns humans.” The quote came from Heinrich Heine in 1820, over 100 years before the Nazi’s began the campaign of burning humans.
Appropriately we stopped to visit the Reichstag building (at one time the German legislature) near the Brandenburg Gate. In a tower of the Reichstag several political dissenters set fire to one of the towers of the Reichstag. Hitler twisted this demonstration to scare the people into a state of national emergency against the Bolsheviks and indefinitely dissolved the parliament. Now a clear dome covers the Reichstag as a symbol of the need for a transparent government.
Nearby stands the Brandenburg Gate. This site is known best for the division between east and west Berlin but in reality the boarder runs several yards behind the gate. Originally, the Habsburg family built the gate simply as an entrance to the royal hunting grounds. Since that time, it has been an object of desire during war. When Napoleon entered the city he took the statue from the top of the gate for his own war trophy. The square around the gate buzzed with tourists and natives and in the center mimes dressed in uniforms reminiscent of Bismarck.
Terror and The Final Solution
The Topography of Terror was our last stop on tour of Nazi regime sites in Berlin. Once an art center, the Nazis took over the building and transformed it into the Gestapo headquarters. The building no longer exists, only an outdoor exhibit of the horrors that took place inside the building. Reinhart Heydrich is the man responsible for developing the Gestapo, the SS, during the regime. Later he is known for developing the final solution of exterminating the Jews. Over 60 years ago the Gestapo used this place for imprisonment and interrogation of dissidents of the regime. The exhibit displayed pictures of both men and women before and after interrogation, often with cuts and bruises on their faces. A book of names and personal information is available to flip through. The records include the reason for arrest and interrogation; nearly all indicate the same thing, simply political opposition.
Just outside of Berlin, overlooking a glass-smooth lake, sits the site of the Final Solution. Once a house of a wealthy couple, the Nazis took it over to hold the Wannsee Conference in 1942. Here, senior Nazi officials, most importantly Reinhart Heydrich, met for 90 minutes to discuss the mass killings of the leftover Jewish population. The house is now a museum but visitors can read the actual minutes of the meeting, which only consists of about 20 pages.
By the time we left the house of the Wannsee Conference, we were all tired, hungry and exhausted from the intense information absorbed for the previous 9 hours. It was our first night in Berlin and we were all set on going to have some fun. After walking only a few minutes we picked the first restaurant reasonably priced and to no surprise it was Italian. Just outside of our restaurant was a major shopping area, but in reality all of Berlin seemed to be a shopping area. In the center of the area towers the famous “lipstick church,” or rather the Kaiser Wilhelm memorial church. During WWII, bombings destroyed the church. The city decided not to rebuild the church as a reminder of the destruction of war. Next to the church they erected a modern memorial of blue stain glass and stone which at night reflects the city lights.