(The following is a chapter excerpted from my visual memoir ‘The In Between’. You can view more of my work with the war on www.erinfaithallen.com).
Sachsenhausen was the first camp I ever visited.
The palpable clenched fist of suffering hit like a punch to my chest when I walked through the gates. I had been told that you can never prepare yourself enough for an experience inside a camp. It’s true. That fist of suffering will stay with me forever, like the infamous wrought iron “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“Work sets you free”) signs on so many of the camp gates that are forever seared into the collective mind. I’ve made the journey back to Sachsenhausen six times. Today will be the seventh.
My friend Robert, a historian and expert on the Holocaust, generously shares his time and abundance of knowledge with me. I’m in the back of a taxi on my way to meet him at Alexanderplatz, and from there we’ll drive up to Sachsenhausen concentration camp.
Last night I had dinner with Jonathan Bay, who I met in Latvia last summer on an archaeological expedition to recover the remains of missing soldiers. Jonathan is a historian and researcher of WWII, in particular the Battle of Berlin. He brought with him a small collection of Soldbuchs, which are the detailed records — like passports of battles, wounds, and fronts — that each German soldier took with him wherever he went.
One of them was saturated with the blood of the seventeen year old German soldier who was carrying it, presumably in his pocket, when he died during the Battle of Berlin.
Another belonged to an SS man who served as a guard at Sachsenhausen. SS stood for Schutzstaffel, the paramilitary organization within the Third Reich. The SS was often responsible for the grimmest horrors in the war, especially the Holocaust.
Holding this history in my hands stuns me completely.
The thing is, I’ve barely shed a tear in years, even through recent events, like the divorce and the bust-up of my company, and the subsequent disappearance of nearly all the familiar faces and structures in my world.
It’s the new me: exploding with emotions all over the world and not a tissue in sight.
Here I come, Robert. Mascara’s running down my teary face. Outside, the rain is smearing everything everywhere. The remnants of East Berlin are flat, grey blurs through steamy windows.
I’m hopeful that our time in the camps today will help me step outside of my own emotions, maybe even stabilize them. I’ve spent so much time in Ravensbrück and Sachsenhausen that in some strange way they comfort me because they bring forth my passion for humans and knowledge. Still, I can’t help shuddering a little.
The truth is, I’m worried that, crushed by the landslide of my own losses this year, I won’t be able to hold steady while bearing witness to the extreme losses that still reverberate through the camp walls. The weather is so cold and wet, with a tinge of darkness that never breaks.
I’m relieved Robert will be with me. I don’t want to be alone.
Robert and I walk through the area around the SS barracks of Sachsenhausen. My mind grapples with the question of conscience: where it begins and ends. Here, in these now-crumbling buildings, the guards would slumber, heads on pillows, bellies full, at the end of a long day of beating, even murdering, starving prisoners.
We move on to the interior of the camp, where Robert was once a guide. He tells me stories of the people he has interviewed during his research. Walking past the long camp wall, I absorb his words. They make everything around me — the walls with their clinging moss, the ominous guard towers, the quick left turn into the main gates, the kommandant’s house just there to the left — come alive, like oxygen in the breath of sorrowful history.
Around thirty thousand humans stopped living here.
I use the words “stopped living” because aren’t we a little immune to words like “died” and “murdered” these days?
What is death, anyway?
At the mercy of the brutal gang of guards at KZ Sachsenhausen, death could look like this:
A shot to the back of the neck.
Gasping for air in a gas chamber.
Torture in the prison.
Beating or bludgeoning.
Drowning in the latrine, head forced under.
Exhaustion from forced marches of around twenty miles per day, testing shoes.
Or, maybe you’d just run into the electrical fence surrounding the perimeter as a way to end your suffering. But before you could reach it, the guards would probably shoot you dead first. I’ve read they received special rewards for that.
That’s how life stopped happening for thousands of homosexuals, gypsies, artists, political prisoners, POWs, Jews, fathers, brothers, sons — humans with heartbeats, memories of freedom, and lungs that gave and received the breath of life.
Until they didn’t.
I’ve also read that as the prisoners were led in a forced march from the train station in nearby Oranienburg to Sachsenhausen, the townspeople would throw rocks at them, believing them to be guilty of crimes against Germany. The locals had been fed a deliberate array of reasons why these “criminals” were subhuman and deserved to starve, struggle, and not survive.
The propaganda was large and in charge. It was a well-oiled machine, and we all know it did its job well.
What about the people who believed the propaganda? Drank it up, lock, stock, and barrel? Digested it? Acted on it?
When you spend all your time peeling back the layers of human behavior in war, you begin to contemplate whether the seeds are the same. You wonder how the person throwing the rock as a result of the propaganda was any different from the Nazi who spread it.
And you begin to wonder if it is any different today.
Is that fist throwing the rock at prisoners marching by in 1941 any different from the metaphorical stones we casually toss around today?
Some of the townspeople risked death to smuggle bits of bread into the hands of the prisoners. At that time, those crumbs could easily grant a few more minutes of life. In that moment, when the tradeoff occurred, hand to hand, the free person pressing a chunk of bread into the passing palm was essentially willing to trade their own life for the prisoner’s. This tells me they didn’t buy into the propaganda, swallow it whole, drink it up.
They saw a bigger picture.
They staked their lives on it.
History is a mirror.
There, in the extreme reflection that war provides, I can see all possible versions of myself. Gazing into a haze of grenade explosions, neighbors turning neighbors into the Gestapo (fabricated reasons often underscored arrests by the Gestapo: someone just wanted an apartment upgrade, or revenge born from a love triangle gone wrong, or jealousy of a colleague’s advancements), Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth) marches, and executions, I seek the answers to questions about my own motivations and choices.
When was the last time I stepped out of the whispering clutches of the latest gossip in my circle or the media and reached for the truth that lives beyond the words I was hearing? Do I look beneath any drama or accusations that may come my way and search for the agenda that may underscore the malignancy?
What I really want to know is this:
How many layers of culpability live in between me, the microcosm of choices I make, and the macrocosm that plays out on the nightly news?
I ask myself these things, constantly comparing the horrific behaviors of other people during those surreal, all-too-real times with the choices I make today. I can’t help it. I see the same deeply rooted seeds. The similarities have carved out a new existence for me, as if my moral compass was destined to be based on world war.
I can examine my own small-mindedness through that of others who came before me. By exploring the choices they made, I observe how our connections with others can shape-shift us into victim or perpetrator, especially when we perceive that our backs are against the wall.
I have felt the twinge of regret when my actions, or lack thereof, have been hurtful to another. I have felt the implosion that follows self-perpetration and self-sabotage. I have felt the strange creeping reality of losing my standing, my work, and my reputation because of words that spread like wildfire - words that weren’t even true.
People often ask me how I can stand to immerse myself in these tragedies. Inevitably, they say they do not understand how those terrible things happened.
“I do,” I say. “I understand.”
“It starts with the individual. And it could happen again. People haven’t really changed.”
That’s when their eyes glaze over and the subject gets changed quickly.
War is an extreme situation with extreme consequences, but in some ways, we face the same choices every day that those people faced decades ago.
Every day, people choose to harm one another because of their own agendas and the political — or personal — propaganda they believe.
Other people choose to follow and throw stones, both literal and proverbial.
Sometimes when people try to harm one another, other people rise up and take a stand against it, and refuse to participatert. In doing so, they pass the bread, stake their lives on truth, and breathe a little life into a situation otherwise headed for some kind of fall.
But usually, people follow.
We tend to not ask for truth or consider that two, even three, perspectives can be right at the same time — that somewhere, at the intersection of all those perspectives, exists truth.
We’re addicted to our conviction that we are “right,” and we’ll hold on to that to the death.
What if, the moment we cling to being ‘right’, we automatically become wrong. Because honestly, life is not black and white. No person, carrying around their perspectives, baggage, motivations, and subconscious suck-unders is black and white either.
We are always, always, wrong when we adhere to black and white thinking.
We swallow the wormy globs of one perspective without questioning the ingredients or the dosage we are being fed. Most importantly, we don’t ask why. We believe what we’re told, and often that is enough to turn us against one another.
And then, there is combustible silence, and things break.