I have traveled internationally quite often over my life, but one of the most educational and emotional trips I’ve taken was to Germany a couple years ago. I went with a group from my church. Every day we visited historic churches and walked around different towns. Our main focus was to see and learn about places Martin Luther had been, but we saw many sights relating solely to the history of Germany, as well.
On January first, we visited the Sachsenhausen Memorial and Museum in Oranienburg, just north of Berlin. Sachsenhausen was a concentration camp from 1933-1945, after which it became a soviet special camp until 1950. Its one of the most infamous death camps from the holocaust, and has been a national memorial since 1961.
As we approached the camp, we saw a metal gate with the words, “Arbeit macht frei” (work brings freedom) spelled out within the iron bars. We went into the museum building and everyone got a set of headphones, a map, and a device that allowed us to select different lectures to hear about the components of the camp. After that, we were free to wander around and explore the camp by ourselves. As some friends and I began walking I noticed how dismal and dead the grounds looked, bare buildings surrounded by huge expanses of ground, dusted with snow.
We walked through the barracks in virtual silence. When it began snowing again one of us commented on how cold it was. A quiet fell as we all realized we were wearing our heavy winter coats, gloves and hats, in a place where just over sixty years ago people were forced to work wearing thin garments, that barely fit them.
We saw a crematorium were thousands lost their lives, and just stood there, in awe of the tragedy. I couldn’t even wrap my head around how many people had died, right there where I stood, just because of their religion, political views, or heritage.
We trekked across the shoe-testing track, where the prisoners were forced to test out shoes as punishment for some offense The purpose of those tracks was to find the most durable material for the soles of army boots, by marching around and around in usually ill fitting shoes.
On the bus back to the hostel, thinking about the concentration camp, the whole day felt surreal. It was the quietest bus ride we had the entire 9 day trip, and I just couldn’t believe how different it felt to actually be where these atrocities were committed. I had of course heard about the holocaust. I knew that roughly 6 million Jews died because of it, and of course it was always sad when we covered it in history. But seeing the dismal barracks, walking through the barren grounds, made it all too real.
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