Just a warning, this is not going to be a cheery post. If you want happy tales of my glorious adventures in Denmark and beyond, please skip this post and stay tuned for the next one.
This past weekend, I went to Hamburg with my Holocaust and Genocide class. We left early Saturday morning and came back late Sunday night, and I think I’m finally in a place where I can talk about what I experienced. There’s not really words for the feelings that you have when you are faced with such places, but I’ll do my best.
Saturday morning, we gathered in Copenhagen and headed to Hamburg. We spent about six hours either on the bus or on a ferry, and arrived at the Bullenhuser Damm School in the early afternoon. The school was used as a place for the Nazis to perform medical experiments on children. There were 20 children kept there, along with a few caretakers. When the experiments were a failure, the children and their caretakers had to be silenced – and now the basement where the 30 people had been killed serves as a memorial. The little museum showed details of the experiments, as well as the stories of the victims – at least as much information as could be gathered. I don’t think any of the children were over the age of twelve.
Outside of the building, there is a rose garden with plaques along the wall dedicated to each victim, as well as a central plaque where many people place stones. (It is a Jewish tradition to place stones on grave markers.)
As one person in my class pointed out, it’s really hard to imagine the deaths of millions of people. It’s such an abstract concept that it’s nearly impossible to wrap one’s head around. But seeing the pictures of these children and walking into the room where they were hung – I don’t have words. What do you say in response to that? Today, the school is still used as a kindergarden.
The next day, we had two (main) items on our agenda. (I’m excluding the eating and such because, as delicious as it was, it rather pales in importance compared to everything else.) Our first stop was the Nicolai Kirche, a church that was a prime target for Allied bombings in “Operation Gommorah.” While almost the entire town was leveled, the church spire managed to remain standing. Because only the spire is still standing, there’s a weird feeling of being indoors and outdoors simultaneously. We rode an elevator to the top, and had a beautiful view of Hamburg. It was a gray day, which fit the mood of the trip, but as I didn’t get a chance to explore much of the city, I really enjoyed it. On the other hand, it was a poignant reminder that the Germans weren’t the only ones doing bad things to innocent people – the Allied forces were bombing this mostly innocent harbor town for four years, leading to the deaths of over 46,000 Germans.
Our second stop this day was to Neuegamme Concentration Camp. We were drove out of Hamburg, through some farmlands, past a little village filled with cottages that had clearly been there for ages, and suddenly we were there. I guess I expected more build up – or at least for it to be in the middle of nowhere. But the families who lived in the little cottages were the same families that were there before the Holocaust, and are still there today.
It wasn’t at all like I expected. I expected to see the bunkers, to see barbed wire fence keeping us in while we were there. But most of the buildings had been destroyed, so there were just giant piles of rocks – symbols of where the bunkers had been – and stainless steel poles designating where the barbed wire fences used to be. I’m not going to tell you about everything I learned there. In short, the conditions were awful, and the mortality rate at this camp was significantly higher than the average. The areas that now had grass and wildflowers were dirt or clay that the prisoners had to make into bricks. But the hardest part for me was when we went to the place that used to be the prison within a prison, where prisoners who were especially bad or the guards just had a vendetta against were kept. And our teacher told us about one time when 19 Hungarians (I believe) were hanged in the hallway while the prisoners slept. Or stood, which was one of their punishments. I was less than two feet away from where these 19 people had died. And while someone had probably died on almost every inch of that concentration camp, knowing for sure that I was occupying the same space was really painful.
We then had a 6 hour bus and ferry ride back, which was much quieter than the way there. I determined that knitting has become my coping mechanism, and I’m pretty sure an obscene amount of chocolate was consumed. I’m not trying to trivialize the experience. It’s just that I have literally no idea how to deal with something like this. I guess we learn from it. And we have to move on.
Our teacher also told us about something called “Stumbling Stones” which is a wonderful project started by an artist in Germany. As my teacher pointed out, if every building where something bad had happened during the Holocaust was turned into a memorial, there would be no place left to live. Instead, outside buildings where people were taken from to go to concentration camps, there are little plaques with their name, date of birth, date of being taken, and, if known, date of death. They’re very understated and easy to miss, but it’s nice to know they’re there. Here‘s more information about them, if you’re interested.
It was a painful, emotional weekend. But I think I’m glad I went. It’s hard to know.
Plaque in garden of Bullenhuser Damm School
View from the spire of Nikolai Kirche
My teacher, at Nicolai Kirche