twenty-one

Nope, no quippy titles or alliterative themes for this post. I just can’t quite think of one that’s appropriate for the subject matter.

When last I updated this blog of mine, Lis and I had just concluded three marvelous, marvelous days of adventuring through Edinburgh. They really were quite amazing. Since then, we have gone to the Cliffs of Moher — or, for you Princess Bride fans, the Cliffs of Insanity — and, with our “reading week” off from class, I flew off to the Netherlands and then met up with Lis in Berlin.

Highlights from the Netherlands include seeing the lovely Erika, eating delicious Dutch food, attempting to learn Dutch — really, I’m quite dreadful at it — and seeing the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum, and the Anne Frank House.

Highlights from Berlin include my awe at their train system, a fun restaurant called Wok to Walk, a tour of Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, a bicycle tour of the city and, on a lighter note, eating Berliners with Lis because, you know, Ich bin ein Berliner. 

But before diving in with the deep-thinking and heart-aching accounts of my travels, here’s a glimpse of the Cliffs of Moher  –because they are extraordinary and, quite frankly, staggering — not least because of the incredible gusts of wind.

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Do be warned: this post, at least, focuses on some rather bleak experiences, and if you are looking for another happy-go-lucky, all-is-well, “I’m seeing the world and study abroad is the best thing ever!!1!!!!11!!!!” post… this is decidedly not that, so read with caution.

The problem I’m currently facing is that, with so much to discuss, and so much of that being of a sensitive nature — how do I put into words the experiences I had this past week?

How do you write about the Anne Frank House and its feeling of calm, quiet mourning? or discuss the sense of horrible suffering and animalistic brutality that clings to the walls of a concentration camp? or talk about the deep, sorrowful silence of the Holocaust memorial without belittling those it memorializes?

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The truth, you see, is that I’m scared of what I can do. Words have power, like many things, and sometimes… sometimes, as much as I love writing, writing just – won’t – cut it. I can’t do full justice to these places, and you will just have to bear with whatever few words I manage to string together. I hope they find some meaning to you. I hope they make you think at least a little bit about this world we live in, about the capacity of human nature for suffering and for inflicting pain, about the way nations treat their pasts.

I really admire Germany. Confronting the past really isn’t easy, is it? Not for anyone, really. All of us manage to inflict such trouble upon this world during our few short years… now imagine that Hitler was in your past only a few decades ago, and with him the entire Nazi regime. Then imagine that a few short years after that, your capital city was behind the Iron Curtain — and was itself divided between the Allied Forces in the West & communism in the East.

Berlin is a city of scars.

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Berlin Mauer — the Berlin Wall

Sachsenhausen — well. It may not have been what are referred to as “killing camps” — 40,000 people died in its walls, and 60,000 died after leaving; compare that to Auschwitz II-Birkenau, for example, where 1,100,000 people died — but it was one of the first, and can one really use a quantitative scale to diminish the horror of these places? That seems wrong. One of the guys on the tour with us said “Only 40,000 died here?” — as though he was not impressed at all with the number of deaths in this place. I heard that and, even though I knew he meant it as a comparison — it felt like being hit in the solar plexus with a soccer ball. Only 40,000. 

To be honest, I kind of wanted to turn around and punch him in the face.

Okay, maybe not punch him in the face. I did want to turn around and take him by the shoulders, tears in my eyes, and tell him this: People died here, sir. Forty-thousand may not be 1.1 million, but can you imagine everyone you know just dying? Because that’s what that would be like — except worse, really, because you probably don’t even know 40,000 people. 40,000 people would be like wiping out all of Penn State, or all the students at the University of Southern California. All of them, dead. And not just dying, but being gassed, maybe, or shot in the neck, or hanged and forced to suffocate because they purposefully used a smaller rope than would break your neck, even by accident? Because, sir, these people lived here. And they weren’t just people en masse, they weren’t just numbers like the Nazis gave them, they weren’t just statistics. Each person who died here knew other people, hurt other people, loved other people — in short, imagine 40,000 YOUs dying. Because each person here had as much at stake as you would.

The truth of the matter, I’m afraid, is I’m rather a coward. I’m much more eloquent in my head than I ever am in person, much braver in my mind than I am in real life. I’m sort of like a reversed Tin Man: instead of having courage and thinking I lack it, I think I have it and actually don’t.

So I put my head down, grit my teeth, and tried not to cry. You can’t cry, Connor. Not yet. Later, maybe, but there is more to be seen here — there is more to learn. Open those eyes and look, girl. 

I could sit here and type out a list of facts for you, a list of facts about the horrors of Sachsenhausen and other concentration camps, about kommandants and where they went during their careers, about the brothel that was eventually created to encourage prisoners to work harder, about the twelve boys used for disease testing, about the way the prisoners were literally worked to death because they were not fed enough to make up for the calories they burned doing hard labor, about the different manners in which the imprisoned were killed…

I could do that. I like facts, usually: they lay things out clearly, neatly, succinctly. The problem with facts lies with their false black-and-white approach to what is actually a mess of tangled grey yarn.

Later on during our tour, another man was talking to our guide about Nazis after the war. “Why couldn’t they apologize?” he asked, “Why couldn’t they be remorseful?” Many of the former Nazis admitted their involvement with these horrors, see, but they did not apologize for them.

Unfortunately, life does not work that easily. You can’t just say “sorry” and waltz away after being one of the tools that enforced what was basically a production line o torture and murder. There’s no way to face up to that guilt on your own — it’s psychologically and physically impossible. The human brain works in curious ways, and that kind of admission is one of the things that would send someone into shock, I think. I’m no psychology major, but between my limited coursework in the subject and my own limited experience of life, I have learned there are some things that we just aren’t capable of doing on our own.

As I was thinking through the psychology of all this, the way that maybe the Nazis wanted to apologize, wanted that sort of mental release, but maybe they just couldn’t do it — I was struck with one of those odd text-to-life moments: Think, and try for some remorse. Being within the ranks of what has sometimes labelled itself the Potter Generation, my brain seems to skip towards those books quite frequently. Perhaps that’s just the nature of the subject matter, though: good versus evil; strong, solid friendships; loyalty and laughter; love conquering death. Childish though it may sound, those books resonates frequently with my own experiences of life.

Remorse— that’s the one thing, Dumbledore tells Harry, that can save what is left of Tom Riddle.

And then of course all the emotions that you had when you read Deathly Hallows come streaming into an already rather tense mental and emotional situation and, remarkably, shed some light on it. Rowling wrote her books so that the only thing that could save this shell of a man — this person who has so, so broken everything about himself and everything around him — was remorse. If he could feel sorry, if he could face the pain in admitting he was wrong, he could survive, he could heal, he could change — but he couldn’t do that, could he? Because that knowledge would break him.

We are frail creatures, humans: a bunch of over-grown egos living in these fragile frames that can’t quite withstand the force of acknowledging our own failures, our own sins, the amount of pain we can inflict. We do extreme things in situations when we are faced with our own selves — when, as Orwell wrote, our faces have grown to fit the masks we made for them. The bike tour we went on took us by Hitler’s bunker (which has been filled with sand and water, apparently, and is buried somewhere beneath a parking lot), where he gave his new bride a cyanide tablet and then shot himself. The Nazis in the concentration camps opened up the doors and sent the prisoners on evacuation marches for miles upon miles upon miles — upwards of 30,000 people were forced from Sachsenhausen alone on this death march, leaving 3,000 to be freed by the Red Army in the following days.

How do I write about that? About the extremity of the Holocaust, the desolation that was Berlin after World War II, the delicate structure of a city that housed millions? How can I even hope to explain all of it? I don’t even fully understand it myself — if anything, I have improved my perspective while lessening my comprehension.

I wrote somewhere above this mess of sprawling, rambling thought that I admire Germany. I do. I can’t think of a single nation that hasn’t completely messed up everything it supposedly stood for — just look at what happened to the countries in the British Empire, or what happened to the Native Americans, or the period of the Troubles in Ireland, or the whole eugenics movement (which was definitely not contained to the Nazi regime). Every single nation has its issues, and some of them are huge.

Name one that has made such an effort to own up to the scars and work past them.

One. Go on, think of one.

Go on!

You can’t. To my knowledge, there isn’t one. Granted, I don’t know details of every country in the world: I really only know a bit about the U.S., Ireland, the U.K., and some about Germany and the Netherlands. Of those, Germany is the one that’s making the effort. Did you know that all the concentration camps are now memorial sites? Not even that, but all German students are required to visit one in order to complete their education — as a student group, usually, and often with another student group: going to a Danish concentration camp with a group of Danish students, for instance — and have a seminar discussion about it afterwards.

Y’all, that’s tough. Healing is hard work (I should know. I’ve got a battered knee and some sort of weird head cold right now, and the amount of energy I’m spending just sitting here, typing this? Well, it vastly outdoes what energy I would normally require for such a task). It isn’t easy, it isn’t fun, and it can hurt like the dickens — but it’s necessary if you want to move on. And after a history like Germany’s, who wouldn’t want to move forward into a more promising, uplifting future? Interestingly, Berlin is now known as one of the most accepting cities in the world.

The East Side Gallery constitutes the longest preserved section of the Berlin Wall. Almost every inch of it is covered in murals, totaling in a length and number of murals that impressed even this mural-loving Philadelphia: the longest over all string of murals in Europe, it stretches around 1.3 km… almost a mile of murals.

The other side of the East Side Gallery particularly caught my eye. It featured dozens of large-scale photographs stretched across every square inch in a temporary exhibit titled “Wall on Wall.” Each picture showed dividing walls, from the peace walls in Belfast to the border walls between North and South Korea. The artist aimed to show that “walls do not solve political conflicts: they reflect political failures.” The exhibit aims to stimulate discussion about the divisions walls cause, the feelings of inclusion and exclusion, the need to be rid of the walls and the need for reconciliation — because, the description explained, walls are built by human beings, and that means they can also be torn down by human beings.

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Yes, Berlin is a city of scars, but they’re healing in patterns that push: for equality, for freedom, for justice, for grace — for beauty amidst a city of past destruction.

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… even if that beauty might seem a little strange.

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9 thoughts on “twenty-one

    • I like the way you say that — the murals as acts of reconciliation. It’s kind of like having your friends sign a cast when you break your arm or your leg, isn’t it? A sign of healing. Thank you for that.

  1. It was incredible reading about “my” city. Thanks. Sachsenhausen still smells like death. I was nauseated the entire time I was there and our kids had to be excused from the second school trip, having found that once was overwhelming and horrible enough for a lifetime. I would have loved to ask that guy how many were killed in 9/11. Oh, is that all? Right. Thanks for your compassion. But isn’t that how we all belittle the negatives in our lives? Not that bad…?

    • It is so true that we do belittle the negatives… but then, comparisons are not always used for the best, are they? Thank you so, so much for taking the time both to read and to respond — it means a lot to me, not least because you must understand Berlin and its scars better than I do and still took the time to read my thoughts about it. Thank you.

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