One of the disadvantages of flying standby is that you may be limited as to where you can fly. If you have a confirmed ticket, then you know where you are going. Sometimes you have to fly to a country you really do not want to be in, just because all other options are closed. This happened on my trip with my wife to Europe. The only airport in Europe that had flights from the New York area was Berlin.
Although I am not a child of Holocaust survivors, I had no desire to step foot in Germany. The counterargument is that if a person did not want to visit a country that had never persecuted the Jewish people then there would be few places to go. That may be true. However, it is crucial to not only consider the actions but the proximately of time. It has only been 75 years since the Holocaust, and some of those who perpetrated the crimes or benefited from the conduct are still alive. The pain is too raw to let go.
There were reminders of the Holocaust. One of the trains I rode had a stop in Wannsee, where in January 1942 there was a conference to decide how to deal with the “Jewish problem.”
I wanted to visit a concentration camp. The closest one to Berlin was Sachsenhausen. It was only 21 miles away. We went with a group of 28 people and I think Beth and I may have been the only Jews. It is important that non-Jews learn about and better understand the Holocaust.
We ended doing a reenactment. We took a train from Berlin, where many of those in the concentration camp came from. The train left us off about a mile from the camp and we walked through the main street of the town of Oranienburg, just like the prisoners back then.
My first thought was wondering how the local people feel about us going to the camps to see what happened. The tour guide made a better point, about the locals of 75 years ago seeing the tens of thousands of prisoners being walked through the town while the camp was in existence from 1936 to 1945. While in the camp, we saw a portion of the crematorium that was used.
These are examples that put to bed the myth that few people knew what was going on. The townspeople knew what was going on, but it did not bother them since the camp was an economic boon to the town.
Right outside the camp was an administration building. This was the building where the Nazis administered all of the camps including the “labor” and extermination camps throughout Europe. Since I was on a tour, we did not spend too much time in the building, which was unfortunate. The success of the perpetration of the Holocaust was due to efficiency, and this was the “brains” of the operation.
The extended camp had been destroyed and only the original camp as it existed in 1938 was left. To describe how it looked and how I felt being inside would not do justice. Here are a few highlights. At the front gate there is the sign “Arbeit Macht Frei,” which is more well-known as being at the entrance of Auschwitz.
There was a place that contained the ashes of Jews who were cremated at the facility. They also had the track where prisoners would “sample” shoes for the Germans and walk on them on various ground surfaces until they dropped (this was called “shoe running detail”). There were also the poles that they would use to torture the prisoners. They had rebuilt the barracks in 1961 with wood from the original structures. That wood was damaged when neo-Nazis burned it a few days after then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Shamir visited the site. It has since been repaired. It is amazing that so many people were put into such a small area. The walls and towers that existed 75 years ago were still up. It helped us visualize why it was impossible to escape.
The irony is that although the USSR prosecuted the camp commandant and other leaders, they used the camp to deal with their own political prisoners.
Next to the camp were these nice houses that at the time were occupied by members of the SS and their families. Now they are owned by civilians and look like any other houses.
We then went to Amsterdam. Anne Frank’s house is the most widely known location of Jews who died in the Holocaust in the Netherlands. Unfortunately, she was not the only one. 100,000 out of 140,000 Jews in the Netherlands were killed.
On one of the streets in the old Jewish quarter, along a canal, are ground plaques that list the names and dates of Jews from a specific address who died. The plaques face their homes that are on the other side of the canal.
I have been to places where many people have died, such as Civil War battlefields (Antietam and Gettysburg) and beaches at Normandy.
In all of these places, like Sachsenhausen, there is nothing remarkable about the land that gives any indication of the horrors that occurred there.
To end on a positive note, I davened in a shul in central Berlin that survived the war and has a daily minyan. Also, we spent Shabbos in Amsterdam and davened in a shul that survived the war because the Germans were unaware that there was a synagogue.
Despite what happened 75 years ago, Jewish life has returned to Germany and other areas in Europe.