Visit to Sachsenhausen, 1999

The text below was originally three e-mail messages sent by "Nicole" (a pseudonym), a graduate student in history (Middle Eastern Studies), who took a trip to Berlin during an extended research stay in Israel. The second of the three messages describes her visit to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp memorial site. The visit took place in May 1999.
"Andrea" was also a history graduate student from the US, and shared an apartment with Nicole in Israel.

When she first showed me the letters a year later (May 2000), Nicole wrote:
"The second letter is about the camp, but the three are meant to go together to show how conflicted I was about having such a great time in the land of "Bad Germans." In fact, when I returned to Israel after that trip I had the worst culture shock of my whole year (after 8 months there!). Berlin is wonderful!"

See also the additional note at the end of this document.

prepared for the web in May 2001 by H. Marcuse, for placement with my collection of descriptions of touristsí visits to German concentration camp memorial sites. (back to my Dachau page).

Hello Everyone!!!

Well, Andrea and I just got back [to Israel] from a perfectly amazing week in Berlin, so I thought I would tell you all about it. Berlin is both inspiring and hideous, so I will give you the inspiring now and the hideous later. Needless to say it may be the most fascinating place I have ever been (I always have to exclude Jerusalem from such a statement!), a city with a history so twisted and challenging, architecture not to be believed in its diversity, and a present day restructuring that really makes you feel that you are witnessing history in the making beyond anything I have ever seen.

Our trip started out with scheduling trouble at the airport here in Israel which could have been an utter disaster but instead resulted in the Al Italia guy bumping us from our budget flight on Al Italia to the Lufthansa flight which normally costs $900!!!! so we got to Berlin in comfort and style for budget prices...huzzah!!!!

When we arrived we were thrilled to find that the little pension that we had booked and expected very little from was actually a wonderful place on a gorgeous 19th century street (Bleibtreustrasse--"staying true to yourself street" in Charlottenberg), and in a building which escaped W.W.II bombing, with 20 foot high ceilings, huge French doors everywhere, art deco stencils on the walls, and beautiful stained glass. We were only three blocks from the metro, the SBahn (Savignyplatz), and the street was lined with gorgeous cafes and trees and upscale shops--tres posh!

We did so much that I will just give you some highlights. One of the nicest things for us was just being away from Israel and the Middle East and all of the annoying aspects of that. After I went to Cairo I thought that maybe Israel was, as some have suggested, "Like Europe," and "the First World," but I WAS WRONG!!!!! It was so nice to be in a place were men don't grab at you or say gross things or ogle you in disgusting ways if you make eye contact with them, where the streets are wide and pothole free, and sidewalks don't have cars parked all over them, where people stand in line and don't push and shove and yell continually, where you can cross the street easily when it's your turn, where people SMILE AT YOU(!!!!) and say PLEASE and THANK YOU, and where the public transportation is clean and efficient and even cheaper than Israel!!!! It was also so amazing to have unlimited access to more familiar foods, and something else, which might seem weird but really meant a lot to us--Sunday was a true Sunday, and not the first workday of the week. I grew up with Sunday as a day to sleep in and enjoy, but here that day is Saturday...seems like an easy adjustment, but it's not, since it's really your only day off here in Israel. So my first SUNDAY AS A SUNDAY AND NOT AS A MONDAY since October was very reassuring!!!

What we did, however, on Sunday, was go to a concentration camp that day, but that's for the next email.

Berlin is currently going through a massive overhaul; the city is being reunified since the fall of DER MAUER (the Wall) in late 1989, which is a social and economic nightmare, the capital of the Bundesrepublik is being relocated from Bonn to Berlin, and many parts of the city which were never rebuilt since W.W.II are being redesigned. This means that there are over 2000 (that's two thousand!) building sites in the city right now, and they are not small. The skyline is a veritable symphony of cranes, giving Berlin an erector-set feel to it unlike anything I have ever seen. And what they are creating is this weird futuristic city, combining the older Berlin architecture with steel and glass. Everywhere you go there are coloured pipes (I have never seen bolder use of colour on buildings or cars than in Berlin, and I loved it!!!!! Bright orange, green and yellow homes next to red brick and blue, all on one street!) (I fell in love with the purple piping delivering god knows what all over the city), funky construction vehicles, and architects' signs broadcasting pictures of what the buildings will eventually look like. In most places there are no obvious signs of where the Mauer stood, only the sudden decline in standards of living, the difficult and haggard looks on peoples' faces, and the graffiti which covers almost every building in the city. It's as if the loss of the Mauer for graffiti artists' self-expression has merely been transferred to every other artifice, leaving tags and murals throughout the city. The most amazing example of the changes in Berlin is the Potsdamer Platz, which was the main centre of the city pre-war, left utterly unbuilt in the years of the divided city (those of you who have seen Wim Wenders' film "Wings of Desire" will recall the scene where the old man tried to find the Potsdamer Platz in the shadow of the Mauer, to no avail), and which is now being utterly rebuilt and redesigned as the focus of the New Berlin. Only two memorial pieces of the Mauer and one lone watchtower from the Eastern side remain from what was less than 10 years ago the deathstrip of the divided Berlin.

We loved seeing the new Reichstag, which only opened last month to the public and which will be the seat of government again as it was in Germany before the Nazis burned it down in 1933. The original heavy grey moulded building proclaiming its allegiance to Dem Deutschen Volke has now been topped off by a huge glass dome, which is supposed to symbolize the openness of the new united Germany. Andrea and I were so happy to be able to go to the top, which afforded us amazing views of all of the city, and we wondered just how the east and west sides will ever be fully integrated into each other. maybe they won't!!! but the Reichstag was a really well-done remodeling job and will surely render Bonn utterly provincial in no time at all.

We also spent a lot of time just walking through some of the old borderland neighborhoods which are now undergoing major processes of gentrification but still have really intense and exciting feels about them. Prenzlauer Berg was my favourite neighbourhood, formerly in East Berlin and now a heart of the Berlin Szene (scene), it was an amazing mix of run down squats, refurbished 19th century buildings, vacant lots, cafes and restaurants and bars to die for, and gorgeous people of every ilk. Kreuzberg was also a fantastic neighbourhood, the West Berlin borderland area which is now really hip but doesn't have any sense of pretentiousness about it. Shoneberg was another wonderful neighbourhood, arty and studenty, where Andrea and I wandered through a great Saturday morning market, eating the weird yet wonderful CURRYWURST that Berliners seem to love and buying silver buttons to sew on our leather jackets so that Berlin will always be with us!!!

Food and drink of all sorts became a major preoccupation for us while in Berlin!!! While hummus and falafel might be fun to eat occasionally, or even regularly, in the states, I AM SOOOOO SICK OF IT!!!!! So, we shunned all kinds of probably-good Turkish and Lebanese food, and instead ate things like REAL THAI (the green papaya and coconut milk were amazing!), FONDUE, ALSATIAN, SAUERKRAUT and FRIED POTATOES, and I even ate something which I always loved but hadn't had for a few years (trying to be a good vegetarian)--PORK SALAMI!!!!!!! and I reveled in it--no guilt WHATSOEVER!!!! Oh my God, we were in heaven!!! And the cafes!!!! You can keep Israeli coffee and baklava for the time being--bring on the Milchkaffe and millions of amazing tortes!!!!! And the bars!!!! God, ordering a Brandy Alexander and not hearing "ma???" ("what?") is a dream!!!!! So we basically scoped out our favourite restaurants and bars and then made them part of our intense living life schedule, which basically saw us in a cafe around early dinner time, having coffee and cake, then maybe having a drink somewhere and taking a nice walk (never got dark till about 930--vive northern latitudes (or longitude, whatever the hell it is!), then having an amazing meal around 9 or 10 till about midnight, them hitting some great bar. We made friends with Wolfgang, the bartender at Gainsbourg near our pension who brought Andrea (the world's most pleasant wino I am convinced) his best reds in all of their appropriately-lipped glasses, and fell in love with the nameless bartender we dubbed "Immer-woman" ("forever woman") at Nick Cave's bar Ex'N'Pop, a dive you could live in with the world's most normal and yet still interesting clientele you could ever imagine. And all of it was no more expensive than we pay for anything here...and the booze was much cheaper. VIVE A STRONG DOLLAR!!

And we kept running into the same damn people even though the city has like 3 and a half million people in it!!! One day at this one cafe called Cafe Adler which is across the street from the Checkpoint Charlie museum, a young German woman sat next to us, and the next day we saw her at Sachsenhausen; one night at our fave Thai place we sat next to this huge German punk band and their record exec from the States, and a few nights later we sat next to them at our fave Alsatian place--they said to us, "what does "fate" mean?" and told us the city was very small :) ; one evening at a fun fair we stood in line for (God bless them!) NACHOS(!) behind this blind German guy, who we then ran into in the UBahn a few days later; we bought a paper from a cute homeless East German dude on the SBahn and then bought another from him another day on a totally different train was hilarious!!! And just randomly we had so many conversations with on the UBahn and SBahn, on the street, in cafes, etc...everyone was so open to talking to us, it was quite special.

There was much more, but I will leave the rest of the good for now. The next letter will be about the horror and the hell that is Berlin's history...and which Andrea and I explored at depth. I'll try to write it soon.

Love to all!

Nicole :)

Hello again everyone,

Well, now is the time for me to tell you what Berlin was *really* like to two historians like Andrea and myself, beyond the food and drink and construction sites--a place of unimaginable horror and layers upon layers of disappeared history which people could walk quietly by and never know anything about. Andrea and I devoted a great deal of our time in Berlin to finding the old Jewish history, and the new; we've both been interested all of our lives in the history of the Third Reich and the Holocaust--Andrea studies it (her dissertation is an examination of Jewish diaries in Europe written from 1939-1945.) So here are some of the things we did, discovered, and were horrified by.

SACHSENHAUSEN: Only 12 kilometers (about 8 miles) from the city centre of Berlin is the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, the last stop on our local SBahn line, and the second largest camp in Europe after Auschwitz in terms of people passing through it. It was established in 1936 and over 200,000 people experienced the hell that was Sachsenhausen before the Soviets liberated it in 1945. (They then decided to continue the torture, making it a Gulag from 1945-1950.) Andrea had already been to Dachau but this was the first camp that I had ever been to, and it's not really possible to describe what it's like, so I will just try to give you some gut impressions. I almost chickened out at the last moment, but I realized that it was my responsibility to go, and I am very glad that I did. It was without a doubt the most horrible thing I have ever seen....I can't really imagine it now sitting here at my desk in Israel only a few days later.

One of the most powerful aspects of it was that the train station of today is the same one as the station then, so what we did was arrived in the suburb (Oranienburg) in the same station as all the prisoners had, and walked the mile or so though the town to the camp, just as they did. You walk past all the homes that were there when the prisoners were, with people living literally right next door to the entrance, and you think, "what is it like to live here now?" the obvious "how could people live there *then*?" and "what is it like to live in a town now when all the tourists are coming to see the concentration camp and looking at you with hateful disgust?"

People put rocks on Jewish graves, and halfway into the walk, Andrea and I realized that we should have brought rocks from Jerusalem--which was a moment of emotional difficulty, to say the least--but instead we picked up some nice ones half way there in a park and carried them to the camp.

Today the area has patches of amazing trees--the alpine kind of northern Europe, of course--filled with frolicking birds singing amazing songs--so it's hard to really feel what that march was like for the prisoners. It reminded me of a poem written by a child in the Terezin camp; the poem talks about how beautiful butterflies are, and then ends with the line, "There are no butterflies in the ghetto."

The camp has two distinct memorial sections today. As it was in the GDR (East Germany), a nation founded on the premise of denazification, the original memorialization is all very Soviet and totally anti-fascist, with no mention of Jews whatsoever, only emphasis on "anti-fascist" activities and resistors. In 1990, however, with the unification (die Wende) of the two Germanys, the Bundesrepublik established a really impressive Jewish memorial museum in a former barracks; it was set on fire by Neo-nazis in 1992, but has been restored and was very good at personalizing victims and educating. The downside is that the scumbags who torched it were only given a couple of months in jail...something that is NOT advertised in the exhibit but doesn't exactly impress the visitor, that is for sure.

I found the roll call yard and the place where "medical experiments", i.e. gruesome tortures, were conducted, to be the two most difficult places to stand. That was when I really felt most strongly the whole "how the hell could anyone live right here?" But then Andrea said, "We could say that about all of Germany and Poland," which is true.

One of the really shocking things to us was that almost every single person there as a tourist was German. In fact, everywhere we went, regarding the holocaust or nazi terror, the majority of people were German, intently reading and learning, and very very serious. It was a promising thing, and made looking at the people who caused this nightmare a lot more bearable to me, for in Germany I found myself looking at everyone who might have been of the age to be alive during the Nazi years with real disgust and contempt.

WASSERTURM: In Prenzlauer Berg, my favourite neighbourhood in Berlin, there was, during the Third Reich, a massive brick water tower, several stories high, two doors away from a synagogue (the only one in Berlin to survive the Kristelnacht in tact, by the way), which as early as 1933 the Nazis used as a torture chamber against communists and Jews. The point of using the wasserturm for this was that the hollowness of the structure allowed for the screams of the torture victims to echo throughout the neighbourhood as a warning to everyone else. Well, in one of our guidebooks, it said, "Now standing on the sight is a block of flats." Andrea and I thought, "wow, that's really disturbing." Well, more so than we thought. When we got there, it turned out that THE WASSERTURM ITSELF IS A FASHIONABLE BLOCK OF FLATS!!!!! even with a massive plaque in front of it proclaiming the fact that people died in this hellish place, people now live in this building!!!! This was the most disturbing of all the things I saw in Berlin. I just cannot express how much that disgusted was to the point that I almost wanted to knock on people's doors and tell them how much I reviled was purely hideous.

SHIMON: In the Scheunenviertel, a pre-war Jewish neighbourhood of mostly Eastern European immigrant Jews to Berlin, Andrea and I were eating lunch in a sidewalk cafe, and suddenly saw this tall young man with a kippah on his head, walking in a bookstore proclaiming its specialty as "Judaica." Well, this was a shock--to dress like a religious Jew in Berlin seemed amazing to us!!! So we went in and talked to him--his name is Shimon and he's only 22--for was really interesting. He told me about his family's story, which basically was that his maternal grandmother was a survivor from Poland who in 1945 was put on a refugee boat to Sweden, but the Swedes refused to take them. So the boat drifted from a couple of months in the Baltic sea, until finally it landed for good on a small German island called Rugen, where she stayed. Shimon's father was a Jew from Bukharin, and Shimon grew up under the GDR. When his parents divorced when he was small, his dad was deported back to Ukraine (then USSR, of course), and it wasn't until after the Wende that Shimon was able to go to the Ukrainian embassy to find out where his dad was. They told him that his dad was now in Haifa, so Shimon might move to Israel eventually. However, he loves Berlin and is active in the tiny yet growing Jewish life there. (With over 10,000 Jews in Berlin, yet only about 200 who attend the one functioning synagogue in town, it's a very secular Jewish community, and this guy is religious.) But here was the most intense part. He said that pretty much every day he is spit on or at least yelled at, people saying to him, "You are a JEW????!!!" Some of the people who do this to him are Turks or Arabs, but many are Germans. His family fear for his life since he chooses to cover his head with a kippah, and he told us how happy he was that Israel existed, so that he could always go there if he had to. It was the first time I really heard anyone actually say that and mean America, England, and other such places, Jews don't have to worry about fleeing their homeland at a moments' notice, but for a German Jew, the fear is palpable.

CEMETERIES: There are three Jewish cemeteries in Berlin, and we went to two of them. The first we saw was in the Scheunenviertel, and the nazis completely desecrated it and removed all but two headstones and all of the immense trees that were there; today it is only a memorial site, and you could easily walk past it and not know it was ever a crowded, ivy-covered cemetery. But the second one we saw, in Prenzlauer Berg, was really something to see, because it too was desecrated, yet the broken headstones remain. It is a sea of broken graves, massive marble slabs shattered into pieces, covered by huge ivies and entirely shaded by massive trees that were used as gallows by the nazis. Today apartment buildings overlook the scene, and Andrea and I just could not get over the kind of anger and sheer strength necessary to cause such horrible damage. The memorial plaque was really powerful: "You stand silent in his place, but when you leave, do not be silent."

I could go on and on, but I will leave it all at that.

Love, Nicole

OK, one more round on Berlin!!!

So, what kind of conclusions can I make from the bizarre passionate love/utter repulsion feelings engendered from the amazing Berlin? Literally the first real day we were in Berlin Andrea and I were madly in love with the city and scheming ways to live there for awhile, but at the same time, our first day there we were already confronted with its hideousness--you can't avoid it when you are searching it out as we were. I mean, how can you miss it when you are obsessed with things like "Heroes," "Metropolis," Nina Hagen, and the Nazis and the Holocaust from a young age as I was??? I mean, when you look at Otto Dix paintings and see beauty, there is something wrong with you, I admit!!! The attraction of Berlin seems to be an attraction to all that is horrible about art and how that art can both translate into and reflect the most sinister of human activities and emotions.

Look at the Mauer. That wall was a hideous thing, brought upon the Germans by themselves, of course--something which people feel uncomfortable saying but I have no problem saying it--but something that ripped families apart, killed hundreds, crushed the lives of millions, and fractured Berlin probably irrevocably for at least a century (I imagine its ramifications will be felt that long anyway.) But there is this weird Mauer nostalgia that I saw, this sadness that you didn't get to see the divided city, to know what it was like to be trapped by a 45 k wall in an island of western consumerism and freedom of expression surrounded by a sea of repression leading 80,000 people to work for the stasi (secret service) and fink out their neighbours to a repressive government. I mean, right now I live in a city which is "unified" in theory but is utterly divided in reality, and I sure as hell would be devastated to see the walls go back up in Jerusalem--there is nothing romantic about that. (Those of you who have been to Jerusalem--can you imagine having to go through checkpoints and the dreaded Israeli security checks every time you crossed from the New to the Old City???) Yet Andrea and I ran to see the murals of the Mauer--artwork that epitomizes the misery of entrapment and despair, and bought postcard after postcard of divided Berlin, jealous of those who knew that time before. What is that all about?????

And the KaDeWe, the huge department store of Berlin, is another place to wonder about. You step off the UBahn and are greeted by this massive sign right in front of the KaDeWe, only in German, which says, "These are names we must never forget: Auschwitz, Theriesenstadt, Sachsenhausen" etc etc--the names of all the concentration camps. You see that and it makes tears well up in your eyes and you're almost choking, but then we marched straight into the massive food halls of the KaDeWe and binged on food to bring back home to Israel (things like refried beans and salami!), utterly forgetting about the millions of people who **starved to death** because of those names on the sign outside. How else could you live if you lived in Berlin, but to compartmentalize your entire reality? We started it the moment we arrived.

And the memorials really make you wonder. The Kaiser Wilhelm Church on the Ku'damm is very powerful--an entirely bombed out shell which was never rebuilt, but instead stands as a monument to the horrors of war. But the Neue Synagoge, in East Berlin, was rebuilt by the East Berlin Jewish community in the 1980s, yet it is only a museum and not a working synagogue, and was totally disgusting to me...all I could think of was how the Nazis wanted to have a big museum documenting the vanished "race" of Jews, and now there is such a museum, about the vanished Jews of Berlin in the shell of their empty synagogue which is gorgeous on the outside but an utterly dead building. For those who rebuilt it, though, it was a sign--"we are still alive!" Why would the church be more powerful to me, when I revile the German Churches of all faiths and their inability to stand up against the Nazis, and have so much feeling for German Jews, wishing that that synagogue was functioning?? Especially when here in Jerusalem I often despise the religious Jews who want to establish a theocracy and look at me with darts of hatred in their eyes.

This is the frightening mystique of Berlin, a place where perpetrators can become victims, victims are utterly invisible, and artists can capture the horror and make it seductive and gorgeous. Bright colours--orange, green, blue, red, yellow--flank homes and cars against a slate grey sky, disguising the utterly black terror where blood red seems the only appropriate colour. Technology becomes the focus of people's live--techno music, the latest gadgets, the famous German innovations in cars and machinery, the bizarre building apparatus--it's all there like a gigantic mask, a modern fantasy disguising the fact that it was modernity and technology and "progress" that caused the Nazi hell. And this weird cult of politeness and privacy which was so incredibly fantastic for Andrea and I, coming from the most bruised, noisy, and brusque society I have ever seen, yet, how easy to turn that into merely looking the other way while everyone around you "disappears?"

So Berlin...we fell in love with it. Andrea and I are freaks attracted to the dark side. We got drunk every night, ate tons of food that was "bad" for us, sought out all things horrible to torment ourselves with the history that thrills and repulses all at once, admired all the stereotypically "German looking" men, barely slept more than a few hours a night, and were devastated to leave. If you are ready to face all that, get yourself to Berlin!!!!


A year later (May 2000) Nicole added the following anecdote to these e-mails:

"Anyway, as I said to you, when I got back from Sachsenhausen I really wanted to get the feeling of the place off of me, which manifested itself at the time as taking a shower as soon as I got home [to the hotel in Berlin], and not wearing my clothes (especially my shoes) for the rest of my trip. But the weirdest reaction I think I had in regard to the feeling of 'being dirty' after visiting Sachsenhausen happened shortly before I left Israel in July. I used to go to the Dead Sea a lot, to a spa with sulfur pools etc., and often when I would go, there would be old women in the pools with tattooed numbers on their arms from the camps. I was pretty used to it by July, but I hadn't been there since I went to Berlin. Well, my last time there I was in a pool and two old women with tattoos came into it, and I immediately felt totally contaminated and wanted to get out. I also felt completely ashamed and forced myself to stay, but it just brought me right back to 'that place' in a weirdly material way. Mostly I felt horrified by the way I reacted to 'victims' as agents of contagion, but such, I suppose, is the nature of something so irrational (?)."