“You’re planning on visiting a concentration camp? I wouldn’t recommend it — you won’t have a very good time.”
Good Lord I hope not! What kind of a monster would enjoy visiting a concentration camp? *shudder*
And yet, this is exactly what someone said to me when I was explaining the various things we’d do and see while in Berlin… including visiting Sachsenhausen, which had been the smallest concentration camp, but also the administration centre for all other camps.
“You won’t have a very good time.”
What do you say to that? I mean, where’s their head at? All these years later, it still absolutely boggles my mind.
I mean, of course this person was right. We visited Sachsenhausen on December 26th, 2007, and it was a truly difficult day. But I don’t think there is any other way to visit a place where such atrocities took place.
An excerpt from an email I sent to my dear friend Eliza on December 31st, 2007:
“That was a morose day — cold, windy, and my trick knee had come out of joint, so I was hobbling about in pain, and… I think that that was the best way to experience it. I mean, obviously a visit to such a horrible place won’t be a walk in the park, but I wasn’t anticipating the cold, hunger, and pain. But that made it more of an intense experience, and I think that’s important.”
When I talk to people about why we visit the sites of former concentration camps, I often end up ranting and yelling. Here are some things that I yell in frustration: “We MUST visit them! We MUST face what has happened in the past, so that we don’t do it again! And we must NOT simply think, ‘Oh the Germans back then were just terrible people and that’s why this happened.’ We’re ALL capable of committing unspeakable acts, if pushed far enough, if we become desperate enough, and if we’re deceived enough!”
There’s so much context to the position of the German people, and Hitler and the Nazi machine was a LOT more nuanced than this. Sure, not every German citizen knew the exact details of what was going on behind those walls, they must have known something unpleasant was taking place. However, after years of being trained to be obedient, trained to conform, they weren’t about to ask any questions.
And… think about it. Isn’t this like us today? Nearly everything we do in North America today is negatively affecting people we can’t see, but we’d rather not think about it, and we instead check out a hilarious cat video or some other brainless distraction. My point is this: most of us, most of the time, would rather believe happy lies than difficult truths. Yes, the Holocaust was nauseatingly, excruciatingly horrible.
We go, we learn, I’m stunned, and I cry.
I remember asking Desiree, what the German people thought about this place. It was a difficult question to ask… I’m not sure I’d have the guts to ask this question now, actually. I could see it was a painful question, and I felt truly insensitive.
So no… I didn’t have a very good time. But I was faced with some very ugly, painful truths about humanity. And I think that’s more important than having a good time, all the time.