It is one thing to hear about the Holocaust in general terms. Even the way it is taught in schools is still, in some ways, Holocaust Light. I do still remember very clearly reading Elie Wiesel’s Night in 8th grade and wondering how anyone on either side of the fence could hold onto their sanity in those circumstances. To be unsure what tomorrow will bring, to know that it will bring something terrible, the dreadful awareness of what has been lost and the even worse awareness of what there is left to lose. To stand on the other side and be the person signing the papers, turning the gas handles, pulling the triggers. I could only wonder what alchemy had been done to their brains to make this okay, to make this terrifying, thorough and brutal extermination and dehumanization needed to “secure the Fatherland” happen. In school, we really only got broad reasons for how this systematic extermination of all the “impure” people was justified. Maybe a bit about how it fit into Hitler’s methods of uniting his people and furthering his party’s goals. I’d read some more on it, but it wasn’t real. Then in Berlin I went to the Topography of Terror museum, the former site of the headquarters of the department that coordinated all of this. It is not an artifact-heavy museum, rather the museum is stark, full of information and chilling photographs.
We forget or perhaps were never really told that although the state persecution and extermination of the Jewish population is today the bold centerpiece of Nazi wrongs, the Holocaust could not have happened without some level of complicity on the part of the general populace. How was this complicity elicited? Well, it started with making it illegal for Jews (insert any other “impure” minority here) and non-Jews to have sexual relations. Women who flouted this had their heads publicly shaved bald and then were paraded through the streets with a sign around their necks explaining that they had sullied the purity of their race. Other sins that were contrary to the ideals and goals of the Nazis resulted in similar punishments. At the same time, the party also created programs so that hard workers earned a vacation paid for by the state and low-interest rate loans for recently married couples. It was through these two kinds of programs and other campaigns that the Nazi party made sure their populace was on board and would be inoculated with their ideas. They took differences that were already there, but not necessarily highlighted and drew definitive lines. Then they rewarded those on the right side of the lines who marched in step with their ideals. It was chilling to read about the ways they manipulated their own population and declared entire communities that considered themselves German to be outcasts, different and insidious contamination that needed to be purged.
It is also vital to mention that there were more categories than Jew that were persecuted. I would never want to downplay that dreadful wrong, but sometimes in the midst of the almost total destruction of Jewish communities in much of Europe, the other minorities that suffered are entirely forgotten. The gypsy population were considered entirely unsuitable and also almost entirely exterminated. Various Slavic “races” were considered beyond hope and also condemned to the camps. There reached a point in the war where soldiers would march into a village and simply exterminate every single person because that village had been determined to have only people who were unsuitable to continue living. Male homosexuals were put in the camps without a doubt, through female homosexuals usually had to do something else, like have a strong political opinion that wasn’t in line with the Nazi opinions. Political enemies of any kind were put in the camps, they were in fact the first people to be questionably detained for the safety of the country.
In some ways even more chilling and heartbreaking was the killing of the disabled. The government was aware that the people would revolt against this, so it was done quietly. In various hospitals around the country adults and children with varied illnesses such as epilepsy, “retardation”, missing limbs, and schizophrenia were killed with drugs or slow starvation. Their families would be sent a form letter informing them their loved one had died of some complication, but they should consider it a kindness to themselves and the country. The idea, of course, was that people who cannot work take up the time of caregivers that could be used more productively and eat food that could be eaten by people who are going to work. The obvious solution is to eliminate them…or not. Reading about this in detail made me want to go back in time and find a way to give Hitler a disabling disease, so that he could patriotically eliminate himself for the betterment of his country. (not that it would have gone down that way, but I can dream angrily)
I faithfully read almost all the text in this very text heavy museum, but by the time I got the bit about trials I got so angry every time one of those officers got off with nothing or almost nothing in comparison to what they did to all those people that I simply had to stop.
Outside the museum is a preserved portion of the Berlin Wall, which had one portion where someone had written MEANINGLESS.
The other primary Holocaust memorial I went to was the Holocaust Memorial, which has a fancy name that goes something like The Holocaust Memorial to the Jews of Europe. Completed in 2006, it is a field of grey stelai that stretches across the space of 3 soccer fields. The architect purposefully created a memorial that can be interpreted in many ways. You can walk between them, get lost in them and as you come towards the center the stelai tower over you, unadorned and stark. I found the memorial very moving, simple and appropriate. Across the street is a larger version of one of the stelai, tilted and with a little hole that lets you see a video of several gay couples kissing. A more recent addition by the gay mayor of Berlin, this honors the gay population that was devastated by the actions taken by the Nazis.
Under the main memorial is a museum memorial that made me and most of the people who went through it cry. A timeline in the first room gives you an over view of the Holocaust. The next room has panels on the floor with excerpts of texts by people in the camps who mostly did not survive. One is a girl writing to her father saying essentially, my mother and I love you and by the time you read this, we will be dead. A few of the quotes are from people who clearly never gave up, while others ask what there was left to hope for. The most powerful room of all follows 16 families through the war. You see their picture, learn their names, occupations and a bit about their lives before the war. Then you learn how it was ripped away from them. No family survives the war complete and in some cases, no one survived. I did not get through all 16 of the family stories.
The next room is dark, with space to sit. One at a time, first in German, then in English, a Jewish person who died in the Holocaust is remembered, their story told in about 30 seconds. Especially after the room before it, I don’t know how long one could sit there, but it is a good memorial, simple and powerful. While their story is told, their name is projected onto two walls.
The final room tells you about the primary camps and gives you the opportunity to hear survivors from each camp tell a memory from the camp. It is soul-crushing just to hear and see it and I can only praise anyone who came through it whole and willing to share their story.
I would like to end this post simply by saying never again. I have a vague memory that there is some organization related to the Holocaust or other ethnic cleansing that has made this their motto and I can only agree. It is not about not hating Jewish people (though that is hopefully implicit), it is about never allowing difference to divide communities and give an excuse to call someone else less than human. It is telling leaders that there is no excuse for dehumanizing any part of the human population. The Family of Man exhibit highlights that across the world, people are people. Across the world people fall in whatever their culture considers love, have children and raise them. Everywhere people work and play, sing and dance. Maybe there is no Universal Grammar or underlying human rules so to speak, but there is something that connects humans to other humans. No one should have to fight for the right to be human and no one should stand by and watch while an organization or government takes away another’s right to be human. Humanity is not a right, but a state of being that all members of homo sapiens sapiens enjoy, even the most dreadful men to walk this earth like the people who enacted the horrors of the Holocaust. Okay, so that was more than a few words, but I think they are important and something we need to remind ourselves of periodically.