We have all undoubtedly learnt about Nazi Germany time and time again. Whether it was in primary school, as a teenager or in higher education, it is a topic that is repeated so often, that we sometimes find ourselves barely tuning in. Someone says “The Holocaust,” and we reduce a mass extermination to lessons on Anne Frank’s diary or the Boy in Striped Pyjamas. Whilst these accounts are both informative and heart wrenching, the atrocities that took place between 1933-45 involved millions of Anne Franks and millions of boys in striped pyjamas, not forgetting the millions of political prisoners, homosexuals, disabled peoples and gypsies.
At the major camps located in Poland and Germany, thousands who did not comply with Nazi ideals arrived everyday, over and over again until the lives of 11 million were taken. Whilst we can teach this statistic in school, “hearing is not like seeing”. I don’t doubt for a second that education is the key preventative to future genocide, however I am a firm believer in living history. Sat in your comfortable classroom, in a completely different century, it’s almost impossible to imagine the context in which 11 million were murdered.
On a trip to Germany this year, I visited a camp. It was a bitterly cold Saturday morning and I had spent most of the walk up complaining about the temperature. Wrapped in four layers, a hat and a scarf, I walked into the courtyard of Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp for the first time. Located in the suburbs of Berlin, this camp was primarily for political prisoners from 1936-45 and was the training centre for Schutzstaffel (SS) officers. Sachsenhausen was not originally intended for extermination; rather was a labour camp and the model for other concentration camps, both in its design and treatment of prisoners. When foreigners at the time came to visit they were given a selective tour by the SS that masked the horrors taking place behind closed doors. Underneath Nazi claims of scientific progress and balanced meal plans for prisoners, in reality, executions, poor living conditions and medical experimentation were killing thousands.
(Image found on http://www.holocaustresearchproject.org/othercamps/sachsenhausen.html)
“And there I saw this horrible misery, I saw the barracks, saw the people starved into skeletons- almost naked. That was in May. Then we were led on. I saw the piles of hair. The piles of shoes, and I was so devastated, that I thought- and still think today- what an unbelievable crime happened there “ (Helga Heinrich, Orienberg)
Passing through the infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” (work makes you free) gate, I felt ashamed for having winged about the weather. I was finding one hour outside difficult when prisoners wearing vastly less clothing had spent up to 9 years. Standing where thousands had been abused, overworked, tortured or killed, the Holocaust felt heavier and more real than any lesson, film or book ever could.
I saw the kitchens where workers would have been encouraged to follow Heinrich Himmler’s order: “As far as rations are concerned, we must see that we gradually achieve rations similar to the rations of Roman soldiers or Egyptian slaves.” I stood in a bedroom- a quarter of the size of my own- where eleven Jewish children and young men picked for hepatitis experiments were kept and forced to have injections and liver punctures. I observed the medical tables where prisoners were subject to experiments and the basements in which bodies were kept. With only the camp and my thoughts for company, this was a feeling that my classroom could never provide.
You could read 1000 books on The Holocaust, yet nothing prepares you to witness the atrocities that humans are capable of. I didn’t need to see a concentration camp to believe that the holocaust took place. I needed to see it to feel it. We vow- and rightfully so- that “never again” definitely means “never again”. Yet, arguably we become immune to this message. The atrocities that took place between 1933-45 were not an exclusive event. It was not the first, and is certainly not the last example of the consequences of human hatred. Prejudice is a weed that needs to be constantly cut back and it is the educational value of visiting former camps that reinforces the vow “never again”.
This article was written by Lily Pryer, the Communications Coordinator at STAND France. Lily is a History and French student at the University of York and is currently following a year abroad programme at the Sorbonne Paris IV.