Human Rights in Germany Spring2011

During spring break 2011, students, faculty and staff are visiting Holocaust sites in Germany.

‘To each his own’

An update from Zohra, a junior pre-law and psychology major with minors in human rights and Latin:


'Jedem Das Seine' sign at BuchenwaldToday’s heavy fog and rain was only fitting for our camp visits.

The Buchenwald camp site was expansive and highly realistic in the thick fog present. The camp had been liberated by American forces shortly after the abandoned prisoners had taken over the entire camp. The clock at the main entrance stands at 3:15 p.m. – the time at which the prisoners had been able to take over the camp. This camp’s entrance gate was highly unique: instead of the usual “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work will set you free), the gate instead had “Jedem Das Seine” (To each his own) across the entry gate.

Cart used to transport corpses at BuchenwaldIt seemed that this was the case because throughout the camp there was death. However in their servitude and death prisoners were in groups, never considered as individuals by the Nazis. For example, even in death a cart (at right) was used to pile and carry the corpses from the various killing sites on the camp to the crematorium or the corpse cellar.

World cemetery at Flossenburg
Memorial church at Flossenburg Jewish memorial at Flossenburg

After Buchenwald we went to Flossenbürg: the fog accompanied us, but here in the mountains there were also clumps of snow. The cold weather conditions really do put it into perspective, especially for a cold-sensitive individual like myself. The camp is carved within a former mountain village and royal castle.

Inside the memorial church at FlossenburgAs part of the memorial, there is (clockwise from top left) a world cemetery, a Jewish memorial, and a church dedicated to all lost at Flossenbürg. As we trekked up and down the mountainside throughout this camp we all sat and took a moment of silence and solace in the church, regardless of all of our religions/beliefs (we have people of all three monotheistic faiths on this trip). Praying in the church (at right) for all of us was a welcome refuge from the terrible landscape and history of Flossenbürg.

At the end a group of us set out to enjoy the city afterwards as has become our routine: It helps us to counter the immense sadness that we witness since sun-up.
At dinner in GermanyThis group bonding at German-speaking restaurants needless to say leads to much confusion for all of us. (We can barely speak German with a translator around; reading and comprehending it without a guide, chaos ensues.) Regardless of our lingual problems, we all come together and celebrate our new-formed friendships that are blossoming in Germany. This support system helps us as we go through the various camps and even when we visit Italian-German restaurants. (This is our group from dinner tonight.)

It’s interesting to note, by the way, that Germany has a range of multicultural food: from Cambodian to Mexican-Spanish to Italian. In fact, this trip has opened a window for us into the highly diverse German culture that exists today. It is truly nice to know from time to time that it is so contrasting to the bigoted ideas from not 50 years ago.

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Feeling the camps’ anguish and terror

An update from Zohra, a junior pre-law and psychology major with minors in human rights and Latin:

These past two days have been packed with visits to concentration camps. On Tuesday we went to Sachsenhausen and Ravensbruck.

Zohra1.jpg Sachsenhausen was amazingly expansive. The camp had been liberated by the Red Army, and for the most part was erected initially in memoriam of political prisoners. It has now grown to include tribute to all of its victims.

Looking through the camp, you are enveloped by the barbed-wire fence, wall and guard towers (photo, right). With the barbed wire and walls, it would have been futile to climb for escape. They linger till this day to serve as a reminder of the true defeat one feels when inside the camp walls.

Zohra2.jpg There was also a Station Z on this site. Station Z was the final station one could be at; it was the extermination site. To be able to see through the windows and walk through the crematory (photo, left) was seriously life-changing.

At this grave site the majority of us tried to maintain the sanctity of this site. However it was interesting to see and note how some youths were acting at this sacred place. While some were giggling as they sat upon the graves themselves, others sobbed at the pain and suffering that had occurred here. It was highly upsetting to see those who literally sat upon the ashes giggling among themselves.

Zohra4.jpg Ravensbruck was especially moving. It was the most horrific gender-based sites of the Holocaust: it was only for women and children, run by SS women officers. The Camp is situated by a beautiful lake. But the events that took place here were not so: women and children deemed unfit were cremated (photo, right).

Zohra6.jpg The horrors here, cannot be summed up in words by me. However, each affected country had a room in the old prison filled with memorials and art to remember the lost souls. The Polish art sculpture especially grabbed my attention (photo, left). It seems to perfectly sum up the pain and torture that took place at this horrific place.

On Wednesday, we went to Bernburg. Bernburg was a Euthanasia site as well; located within a functioning hospital, all knew but chose to ignore what was taking place on the other side of the hospital. Here “unfit” humans were first gassed in the gas chamber and then cremated. The exhibit is still part of an operating hospital.

Zohra9.jpg The exhibit has maintained the gas chamber – though no longer functioning – for visitors to step through the same rooms were thousands took their last step. All workers at this extermination facility in Bernburg were forced to watch through a small window before they were allowed to work. The regime wanted to ensure nobody could claim ignorance of the happenings here.

After Bernburg, we visited the treacherous Dora-Mittelbau: Dora is located within a mountainside. Here a group of Dora’s prisoners was held in tunnels within the camp to create the missiles that were attacking the Allies. The average life span of this group was 4 months: once you went in, you never came out. Walking through the tunnels was daunting and scary – even for a claustrophiliac like myself. We walked on bridges over the catastrophic happenings that had taken place in the tunnels – though not all prisoners of Dora were sent here. Needless to say, it was the most treacherous job to have.

These past two days have been very moving. I have had feelings of pain, anger, frustration, fear, sadness, and even tears. It is true that life will not be the same after this spring break; but I welcome it with open arms.

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An important question: Why?

An update from Zohra, a junior pre-law and psychology major with minors in human rights and Latin:

Today was the first of our three days in Berlin. We had our city tour guide back with us today. Our today were focused mostly on the various memorials and Euthanasia sites set up throughout the city.

zohra16.jpg Our first stop was the memorial to the members of Operation Valkur (Valkyrie). This is what the movie with the same name was based upon. We saw the plaza where the firing squad killed the members of this resistance movement. We also saw the statue dedicated to Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise’s character) who not only risked his life but also his family’s. We then drove over to a small euthanasia memorial.

zohra17.jpg Today, euthanasia is defined as assisted suicide; the Nazis used this as a means of cleansing. The Nazi regime considered anybody who was mentally ill, elderly, physically disabled, mentally disabled (i.e. learning disabilities), or homosexual unfit. Those that they deemed unfit were taken to the hospital under the guise of treatment, but were then killed by gas. This operation, known as “Aktion T4” occurred from 1939 to 1941, having killed at least 200,000 men, women, and children. Currently this memorial consists of outdoor information boards and a sculpture (see picture); a memorial/museum is in the works at the same site.

zohra18.jpg After visiting these memorials we went to the Topography of Terror Museum. This museum is phenomenally detailed and was once outdoors under the remainder of the Berlin Wall. Today the Berlin Wall is gated off (tourists were coming and knocking out self-made souvenirs) and the exhibit, now much more detailed and updated, is enclosed in a building bordering the remains. I found a graffitied remark that sums up my feelings about the tragic events that took place in Europe. I’m sure that this question will remain with all of us throughout the trip.

zohra19.jpg A look into this exhibit drastically raised my high blood pressure: as I dove deeper and deeper into the exhibit, my disgust and anger rose as well. A picture that touched many of us was the one you see to the right, of the Gestapo cutting the beard of an arrested Jew. Throughout the exhibit details of the Holocaust were portrayed for each of the affected groups and countries. It also gave details about the workings of the Nazi regime and its resistance groups. I (internally) cheered for the resistance groups and the survivors while despised the disgusting Nazi regime even more so than before.

zohra21.jpg On our way to the Deutsches Historical Museum, we saw a replica of Checkpoint Charlie. Checkpoint Charlie was operated by the U.S. Army in West Berlin as a station for passage through the Berlin Wall. The actual checkpoint no longer exists, so it was re-created for all, especially tourists. In fact, souvenir shops surround it on both sides! Finally at the Deutsches Historical Museum, we went to our particular years; the museum covers the history of all of Germany and is divided by its eras. In our particular section we were able to see Nazi Germany pre-, during, and post-World War II.

zohra23.jpg This museum’s artifacts were fantastic: we were even able to see the different Nazi uniforms worn by its officers. Throughout the museum there was all sorts of propaganda used by the Nazis to promote the “supreme Aryan race.” This museum served as great background for our next visit for the day: Haus der Wannsee Konferenz. An ardent supporter of Hitler sold the Wannsee House to the Nazis; the House is extravagant, needless to say. The gorgeous backdrop and house are marred by the evils that took root here. Even the trees seemed ugly: they seemed to reflect the ugliness that Hitler and his SS officials had schemed inside the Wannsee House. It was an experience to walk through this plush house while looking at the bureaucratic artifacts of the Nazi regime.

Today was a very busy day and we’ll continue to have a busy week.

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Remembered pain at Neuengamme

An update from Zohra, a junior pre-law and psychology major with minors in human rights and Latin:

Bullenhuser Damm Rose Garden

Today we started out in Hamburg, where we first went to the Rose Garden. The Rose Garden was created as a memorial at the murder site of 20 children and two or three doctors. These people were killed on April 20, 1945, as a gift to Adolf Hitler. They were child experiments of SS Doctor Kurt Heissmeyer from Neuengamme Concentration Camp. In order to clean the site [Neuengamme], the SS moved them over to the Bullenhuser Damm Satellite Camp. They were killed by hanging via meathooks in the basement of a building. These children were ages 5-12.

Interestingly enough, the building where they were murdered is still functioning: It is used as a grammar school, complete with a playground bordering the memorial. For most if not all of us on the trip, that was highly strange. These children and teachers come here every day where innocent children were cruelly killed; it is understandable, but highly unreal.

Filing cabinets at Neuengamme Concentration CampAmong the multiple memorial plaques was this main one (at left), which reads, roughly translated: Those who come here be silent, when you leave be not silent.

After paying our respects at the Rose Garden, we went over to Neuengamme concentration camp itself. Buildings of the camp that are no longer in existence today were marked off by massive rock re-creations, while one had been re-created into the exhibition center. This exhibition center was phenomenal in showcasing the horrors of the Holocaust. Throughout the exhibit, there were multiple remnants of both prisoner and SS life. This included the multiple files of registrations (at right), with one drawer a quarter of the way open out of multiple file cabinets. The meticulousness of the SS was as if they were keeping inventory, because after much dehumanizing that’s all the prisoners were to the Nazi regime.

Open filing cabinet at Neuengamme Concentration CampThe basement in the Exhibition building has not been renovated and maintains its integrity: You can tell the second you cross over from the modernistic exhibition over to the decaying concrete steps. Your nose is the first to alert you to this. I have truly never smelt anything like it and in fact my eyes teared: not from the mustiness of the smell, no, but from the pain that swept over as I crossed the threshold. I was not able to stay long in the basement simply because it became too hard to bear to remain in there for too long. However, that only snapshots the immense emotional impact of the exhibition.

Brick factory at Neuengamme Concentration CampOut of the exhibition, we went to the brick factory. Luckily for us we were able to go beyond the gates inside the blank building. The kind man that let us in was an Episcopalian Polish pastor who brings any interested congregation members to see the camps over the weekends; he found out via our travel liaison, who is also Polish, that we were students. Upon learning this, the kind man used his master key and rusty English to give us a special tour of the untouched part of the building where the laborers worked (at left). The coldness of the cement combined with the cool outside weather (about 46 degrees F) had us freezing within 10 minutes with winter coats on. To imagine hundreds of prisoners in thin clothing would work through the cold winters of Germany to stay alive, for hours, days, weeks, months and years on end.

Though most of the sites we have been to thus far have been sterilized from the pain, it is still able to pierce through the modernistic facade and hit you hard. Today has set the tone for the majority of the trip: It will be a very awe-inspiring visit marked with memories of the experienced pain.

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