The itinerary of the Mediterranean cruise that my husband Ray and I took during the summer of 2016 included places that I’d lived in (Rome) or visited (Venice, Florence and Barcelona) during Dad’s Foreign Service career.
With the marvelous exception of stunning Dubrovnik and beautiful Croatia, I had sufficient linguistic skills to happily negotiate our adventures (Italian for the boot, French for the Riviera) and we were both at home in Barcelona, where Ray’s mother was born, although we saw and heard more Catalan than Spanish than the last time we’d been there. It was heaven revisiting really old haunts!
This year, we were both ready for new venues, and so we booked a cruise on the Celebrity Silhouette to the European, Scandinavian and Russian cities on the Baltic Sea.
Two days out from Amsterdam, we arrived at our first port of call: the German seaside resort of Warnemunde. Living near true (warm weather) seaside escapes in South Florida, we’d chosen a tour that explored the region a few hours to the south of the coast.
The excursion began by commuter train, rolling through a summery countryside of sunflowers, silos and fields of grain. Only a solar farm kept it all from looking like the landscape between the Twin Cities and South Dakota, a trail worn into my DNA from Home Leave pilgrimages.
Our morning destination was Oranienburg, a small town a few miles outside Berlin. As we walked from the depot to a waiting tour bus, the collection of bicycles parked tightly wheel to wheel told of the commuters who’d be back at day’s end. It was a pretty little town, the homes pale yellow with red roofs and red geranium window boxes. A few white clouds hung in the blue sky. It was going to be a warm day.
Toward the edge of town, the bus turned right past several handsome homes surrounded by lush gardens. At the end of the street, the bus took a sharp left into a parking area. We followed our guide back along the neighborhood street a short ways, and then color bleached out of the day.
Sachsenhausen Memorial and Museum. Sachsenhausen, Himmler’s model concentration camp. Built to give architectural expression to the Nazi world view. Designed to symbolize the subjugation of its 200,000 prisoners to the absolute power of the SS.
They slept a hundred to a barracks built for a third that, shoving to get to the small toilet and washing space and crust of bread before the guards pushed them out to the windswept yard to stand in the open for hours.
They were marched out to work in the village brickworks to support the Nazi war effort. As the German army began to thin in the waning days of WWII and every available man was conscripted, the SS increased the prisoners’ meal rations so that they’d survive to replace the factory workers. Over the camp gate, this is emblazed in iron: Work Makes You Free.
Between 1936 and its liberation on April 22 and 23, 1945, tens of thousands of people died at Sachsenhausen. Words fail us. We leave a stone.
After decades of denial, a reunified Germany has slowly but firmly turned to look at the horror of the Nazi regime. The effort is meant to “guarantee memory.”
Twenty-five years have gone into the restoration of Sachsenhausen’s original buildings, design and artifacts. The Berlin Holocaust Memorial, which we stopped at in the afternoon, is an unavoidable block-wide grid of unmarked slabs of grey stone laid out like coffins, soaring over death-shadowed canyons in the center and emerging into the ongoing life of daylight.
These words were found in a note written by a Schasenhousen prisoner whose humanity the SS could not beat down:
Without commemorating all who were killed with complete contempt and hate, we cannot move forward. And even as we do look back, there is no guarantee that evil won’t creep back in: the right wing party made gains in the recent German elections.
We too have a shameful past: slavery. Emancipation did not lead to freedom, and we’ve allowed slavery to morph into accepted behavior in this country. Jim Crow. Lynching. Segregation. Discrimination. Incarceration. Death at the hands of the police. Indeed, Nazis and Klansmen march in support of racism under the cover of the First Amendment, and statues of the Confederate military are defended as “heritage” to be protected. It’s a heritage built by slaves and defeated in the Civil War. True freedom and liberty are yet out of reach to persons of color.
What if, instead of ignoring objections or tearing Confederate statues down, we found a way to lay out the full story, to force ourselves to look at our own dark past? Let’s talk about why we had a Civil War, and what has happened since. Until we can force our country to stare down its horrific past, we will never be free of it.
It seems to me that we should all kneel to acknowledge the injustice that we have never addressed. Maybe, once we have all bowed our heads, we can begin to talk about how we’re going to move forward. Together.