Sachsenhausen – Berlin
People do not walk around the streets of Oranienburg; they tiptoe. The children are unaware that the ground underfoot which feels both so steadying and assuredly solid is liable to shatter in the next second or perhaps never at all. Such is the transience of the place.
Oranienburg is an unexploded town in Brandenburg. Approximately three hundred pieces of unexploded ordance are sprinkled across the underbelly of the town. It is thought that the search for these unexploded weapons will not be completed until the end of the century, and so the aftermath of war continues to pulse through the towns and cities of Germany.
I visited Oranienburg on account of it being the location of a key historical site, . Residents in Oranienburg live in commonplace cul de sacs, these converge around a large expanse of land blocked by vacant walls and a heavy gate with the words “Arbeit macht frei” bent into the bars. This translates to “Work sets you free.” The Nazis had adopted it to emblazon the gates of a number of camps. It is most prominently seen at Auschwitz although the letter “B” is upside down. The prisoners made it to defy the message so the tour guide explains.
Nearby, there are houses built within throwing distance of these walls where dogs can be heard barking, children crying, parents scolding. A television blares out a series of sounds and images that merge intro an intrusive background noise which seems almost rude in its proximity to the camp.
As the tour guide leads the tourist group, of which I am a part of closer to the entrance, you cannot help but think to yourself, “How could they not have known?” Did the residents bury themselves into layers of self deception until they had convinced themselves that the blooms of smoke were from fires or the nearby factories?
Walking around you feel an inexplicable sense of guilt and a shared sadness, as though you should be ashamed. It is the same solemnity that hangs over you when you visit a graveyard or attend the funeral of a distant family member you never really knew.
I stayed toward the back of the group and became conscious of how small we probably looked in the open courtyard. It had been a cold day and so I went to pull my coat on but again that guilt comes back to you, stronger with every layer of clothing you don against the cold.
Other groups, mainly schoolchildren, began to fill the open space. The loaded silence which surrounds the camp is broken by the shrill ringing of smartphones. Children were pausing with their front cameras to take photos of themselves in the camp, first in the gallows then the gas chambers.
I think for those who have not lived through it, war seems a like a fable. It appears no more real than the stories read to children at night intended to fascinate and capture their imagination.
I chose to depart from the group eventually and cut to the end of the tour. They had set up exhibitions in what had used to be the hospitals used for experimentation. This part I found perhaps most disturbing but I thought it important to see the whole of the camp. It is a part of history that demands to be recognised, however much one might want to ignore it.
At the end of the tour, one of the SS offices has been converted into a modern tea rooms. It has that seventies garish quality to it in its choice of décor and offers a basic selection of hot drinks and cakes. I was acutely aware that other than the babble from the schoolchildren, no one else was speaking. I found it bizarre that there was a service to sit and eat tea and cakes in a concentration camp. A friend once told me they experienced the same phenomena on a visit to Auschwitz where just outside the gates sits a chain of fast food restaurants.
It was soon easy when back on the tour bus to forget the reality of what you have just seen. I came back into the heat, chatter and life; the petty every day worries of the people around me. I think that maybe we are taught to place such atrocities as the camp in the obscure veil in your mind where all objective history lays.
Caitlin Gallagher – YJA Senior Correspondent