Warning: kind of intense ramblings after an unintended visit to a concentration camp site.
In planning my trip to Europe, I had a long list of things that I wanted to do, sights I wanted to see, experiences I wanted to have. The one thing I was definitively not planning on doing during my time in Germany was visiting any concentration camp sites. I know I’ve mentioned once or twice how much I love walking through history, and that’s some pretty high-impact recent history, but when I walk through a new area I really feel my way through it, that’s part of what I love. I have never wanted to feel my way through a mass murder site. Particularly lately, I have tried to avoid feeling any more suffering than necessary.
You can imagine my surprise, then, at finding myself walking around the Flossenburg concentration camp. “Why on earth was I here” and “what the hell was I thinking” were two thoughts that may have floated through my head at one point or another. Here’s the thing though: I started my European adventure with the attitude of openness. I have some of my trip planned and some unplanned. I wanted to leave open-ended spaces for Life to fill up. On that particular morning I had nothing planned except to sleep in and and explore the area a bit.
My unexpected plans came by way of the incessant ringing of the phone – I was staying at a friend’s house and she was at work already so I answered it, figuring that if it kept ringing over and over it was probably either an emergency or for me. Turned out it was a mutual friend, who wanted to invite me to go on a field trip with her and her 9th grade class. Knowing I was probably not comfortable answering Loe’s phone, she decided if she just kept calling over and over, I would eventually get the hint and pick up.
She told me they would be busing through my area within the hour and if I wanted to join them I could run out to the highway and the bus would stop for me. You can guess where the field trip was headed. I took a moment to consider. I wanted to say no, but at the same time if you leave spaces for Life to fill up, you can’t really complain about what Life brings you. And I’ve often found that Life either has a twisted sense of humour or it likes to bring me face-to-face with the things I so desperately try to avoid, usually for my own betterment. Put another way: “life begins at the end of your comfort zone”, and if I avoided this trip, I figured I wasn’t really living up to that ideal, so I said yes.
Flossenburg is pretty close to the area I was staying, I was actually surprised at how close. It really puts things into perspective when your friend lives about 20 km away from what was a concentration camp. She told me that her grandparents watched Jewish prisoners be marched through their town to the camp. She said they would try to sneak boiled potatoes to the prisoners when then guards weren’t looking, even though they were not supposed to help in any way. I can’t even begin to imagine the helplessness. I feel helpless just when I think about how people must have suffered. Imagine seeing it in front of you. Would you try to help? Would you be more afraid for yourself and your family than for the fate of unknown prisoners? Who can really say where the limits of our own humanity lay until we are in that kind of situation. I pray I never have to find out.
Flossenburg was known for its granite-mining operation before it became a concentration camp. It became a camp very naturally because granite mining was needed especially during the war for infrastructure, and who better to mine than prisoners? Although that turned out to be untrue, as they were generally unskilled in mining and also too weak to mine granite well. It originally was a camp for those deemed criminals, either of the “career” variety (thieves, murderers, etc) or political ones (anyone who disagreed with the politics of the Nazi regime), although eventually it housed just about any prisoner who could potentially work the mines. Unfortunately it had a reputation as one of the worst camps, because the career criminals were given more power than the rest, and according to accounts from survivors, the conditions were pretty brutal even for a concentration camp. They fought only to survive, and many lost their humanity in the process, according to one survivor.
In the space of the 4 hours I spent at Flossenburg, the weather went from freezing cold and rainy, to a hail storm, to gentle snow and then blue skies and sunshine. Apparently this is very normal weather patterns for the Oberpfalz region. One survivor’s account said they were forced to stand for hours each morning and evening for role call, naked, even in 20 below weather. Hearing that and then getting soaked and freezing cold in a March hail storm so thick I could barely see the walls of the camp was sobering.
Although the tour was in German I had Cecily, one of Barbara’s co-workers and a former translator, stay with me and very kindly translate our guide’s words for me. I was a bit torn on whether I wanted the information, but in the end I am glad she did. I know it cost her quite a bit as she translated the horror stories to me. She was in turns stricken, sickened, and bereft. She tried to describe to me the pain she felt knowing that her people, German people, had done this. That this was a part of her history and therefore a part of her. I think it’s a part of us all, actually; we are all part of the same humanity capable of doing this to eachother. We talked, too, about the reactions of the students, from a group of boys who appeared completely indifferent, to the groups who seemed like they could barely take it all in, it was overwhelming and incredibly difficult to absorb, especially at the age of 14.
Cecily pointed out to me that of the 30,000 who died in this particular camp (estimated 100,000 people were held prisoner there) one was Canadian. Originally born in Switzerland, his family moved to Montreal when he was a teenager. He joined up and became a spy for the Allies, parachuting into occupied France and building up networks of informants to help sabotage the Nazis wherever he could. He injured his back on his landing but kept going until he was eventually caught and sent to several different camps, ending up at Flossenburg. His code name was “the Guy” and there’s a road named in honour of him in France.
We walked into the basement of the main exhibition building and there things really hit me. This basement was the original shower building where prisoners were brought in, shaved, hosed down, given a hole in the ground for a toilet. Basically the first place where they were debased, made to understand that they were no longer viewed as human beings. It was really difficult to stand there and listen to the stories of how the prisoners were treated. I have never quite felt like that in my life, sort of disassociated from reality and panicked. I had an urgent instinct to not touch anything in that room, even before I learned where we were and what it was. I was relieved that in the interest of preservation they had put a floating layer of glass over the original tile floor. I believe that everything carries a vibration and if ever I was in doubt, my experience in that shower room proved it for me.
I was also incredibly relieved later on when, because of the intense hailstorm that hit suddenly, we were not able to go down to the “Valley of Death”, the lower, hidden section of the camp where they held mass executions and burned the bodies. Instead we sat in the church that had been constructed on-site with plaques memorializing the nationalities of those who had died in the camp. They were made with clay brought from each of the countries so that the dead could rest with earth from their home. I thought that was a particularly beautiful gesture in a place that holds so little beauty.
Standing in the centre of Flossenburg at the end of this tour, I felt really old, and exhausted, sort of saturated in the aftermath of the pain of others. I know that sounds overly dramatic, but it wasn’t with a lot of emotion or any flare, I just felt really tired. I can’t imagine what it would be like to live there now – and people do. Up the hill side where rows upon rows of barracks stood during the 40’s now stand rows upon rows of houses, coming all the way down to almost touch the exhibition halls,
the original buildings. People live on that land, they have family homes there. They’re building a cafe in the old officer’s cafeteria. I wonder if it affects them? Actually I wonder how it could not – energy like that, misery like that, it must be felt in some way. They must be very brave or very stoic, the people who originally built their homes over this particular plot of land. We were told the survivors of the camps gave their okay that the land be used – it’s nice that they were asked.
Barbara and Cecily told me that one survivor of a concentration camp said that for the first 20 years after her ordeal, she could not talk about what happened to her. During the next 20 years when she was ready to talk, no one wanted to hear about it. Finally, in the last 20 years, people have started asking questions, and wanting to know the answers. Another survivor, in the film we watched, said he was terrified about what would happen when those who had born witness to the horrors of the holocaust were gone. Who would hold the memories of what happened?
This thought stuck with me, and I think if there is a reason for why I ended up going to Flossenburg, it might have been just that: the importance of bearing witness. It might be painful to know these things and hold this knowledge, but one thing I learned recently in my own life is that pain feels like it lessens, the more people you have who are there for you. I know that holocaust victims can’t know that I personally went to Flossenburg and heard their stories. Possibly most if not all of them have since passed away. But there is something to be said for the energy of so many of us holding the memories, the knowledge. I think maybe it is important, maybe that has a power of its own. Ignoring the suffering that has happened, or is happening, might be easier in the moment because it saves me from feeling helpless in the face of something so much bigger than I am. But in the long run I think it makes me shallow, makes my life a little smaller. And it makes me less able to see the opportunities where I can help, if I am turning a blind eye when I think I can not.
So at the end of the day I am glad I went to Flossenburg. Difficult though it may have been, I do appreciate experiences that force me to dig a little deeper and this field trip definitely did that.
And now, to lighten the mood, puppies!!