An update from Denise Gee of SMU News & Communications:
How places of serenity could cultivate unmitigated cruelty is a paradox that presents itself at the very start of our group’s Holocaust study tour. (It will be a continued theme.)
SMU Embrey Human Rights Program Director Rick Halperin has led us to the Berlin suburb of Wannsee, where an icy mist hangs outside a circa 1914 Italianate villa. The most respectable aspect of the elegant manse — designed by famed German architect Paul O. Baumgarten for the family of an industrialist — would be forever overshadowed after Jan. 20, 1942. That’s when the house, owned at that time by the Third Reich, brought together 15 Nazi SS and civil service members to formally agree on “The Final Solution to the Jewish Question in Europe.”
Their codified agreement, the Wannsee Protocol, officially set in motion the systematic murder of 6 million European Jews whom the Nazis considered “a storage problem” as well as a genetic threat to the Aryan race. (And while the conference was held in utmost secrecy, its minutes, discovered in 1947, served as key evidence at the Nuremberg Trials.)
While admiring the villa’s fine craftsmanship and design, including floor-to-ceiling views of formal gardens and the lake Greater Wannsee, it’s easy to see how the architects of the Holocaust could have arrogantly convinced themselves, cognac and cigars in hand, that they were sitting at the top of the world, holding the very keys to life and death.
While the House of the Wannsee Conference now stands as a structural embodiment of Nazi-era power and greed, its atonement serves in being a Holocaust memorial and educational site, opened to the public in 1992 on the 50th anniversary of the conference. (For a chilling dramatization of it, watch “Conspiracy.” The 2001 movie features Kenneth Branagh’s brilliant portrayal of SS security general Reinhard Heydrich, who chaired the conference in the home he planned to live in after a German victory in World War II.)
An even more breathtaking place of both beauty and wickedness is the concentration camp Ravensbrück, on the banks of Lake Schwedt, 70 miles north of Berlin. At the turn of the 20th century the site had been a popular spa retreat for well-heeled Germans.
At the start of World War II, however, the location’s remoteness, along with its access to rail lines and the River Havel, led to it being transformed into a women’s detainment camp. From 1939 to 1945, more than 130,000 females would either stay in Ravensbrück or pass through it en route to other camps. Women there were mostly political prisoners and resistance fighters, Jews, Romas and Sintis (“gypsies”), Jehovah’s Witnesses (who would swear allegiance only to God, not Adolf Hitler), “anti-socials” (alcoholics) and “degenerates” (homosexuals).
While seeing what remains at the camp — quite more than we expect, making for a deeply powerful start to our journey — we’re repulsed by the terror those at Ravensbrück had to experience. They were beaten, starved, shot, gassed, attacked by dogs, left to live in unimaginable filth, manipulated to turn on each other, forced to undergo abortions or watch their babies die from malnourishment or exposure, and made to work as sex and/or slave laborers (the latter of which included making electrical components for V-1 and V-2 rockets for the Siemens Electric Company). Some 90,000 women died at Ravensbrück, a statistic made even more torturous to consider in light of the camp’s pristine setting, where the medieval village of Fürstenberg across the lake looks like a Dutch Master painting.
Ravensbrück’s efforts at redemption emanate from an almost overwhelming collection of art by the camp’s former inmates and female artists from the countries they represented. Each room inside a restored cellblock, for instance, provides a powerful artistic response to what happened at the concentration camp; outdoors, so do two massive, haunting bronze sculptures that elicit tears.
Ravensbrück continues to operate as a camp, though a somewhat controversial one. Each summer, restored guard quarters open as a youth hostel and conference center. And every July, sections of the housing is made available as overnight accommodations for the few remaining camp survivors (most of whom were children while imprisoned there). But why, we wonder, would anyone choose to stay at Ravensbrück after such unprecedented horror took place there? The reason, our guide explains, is one based on many survivors’ wishes: That the grounds, which for many years inspired peace, should return to inspiring peace.