Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp

I have been in Berlin for 20 days so far. I have learned a lot. One thing I learned last Tuesday at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp is that mass graves have flowers. A lot of flowers. In fact, if there is no sign or plaque nearby you would mistake mass graves for private gardens. Believe me, you would.

To get at this Soviet mass grave (the main Jewish one is in the front of the camp) I followed my map to the farthest corner of the camp. In order to get into it I had to pass through a revolving exit, like those that allow riders out of the El stations but not back in. I walked over to the flowery mass graves and sat under a shady tree whose leaves made enough noise with the wind that I couldn’t hear the street. I sat there mostly isolated, my only companions were the happy bees and the innumerable livelihoods at my feet.

Though I could not hear the street, I could see it, and from my bench I could also see the houses surrounding the camp. People actually live in these houses that surround the mass grave.

When I left the mass grave I realized I was locked out of Sachsenhausen. There is a black metal fence about 9 feet tall and the revolving exit is no entrance. So what could I do? I ignored the security cameras. I threw my bag over and I jumped the fence. I sort of escaped into a concentration camp. It was weird. But fitting for the whole paradigm. That is, that the black fence I jumped is the grandchild of one that kept prisoners (perhaps many that ended up in the mass graves) out of freedom, just as my generation is the grandchildren of survivors and victims. Times change.

In 2007 I jumped a fence to get into a concentration camp. I will never forget that. Times change. We need a new global Holocaust curriculum to find a fresh entrance into assimilating the Holocaust into our own experiences or else it will end up with flowers lined neatly in rows on top of the grass on top of the fertilizer on top of the soil we use to bury it.


The area around the camp is a middle-class borough of Berlin. There’s no way to explain to an American Jew the oddity of walking past perfectly normal apartments and houses on your way to a concentration camp.

I took the local commuting train to the camp. Imagine that. Imagine taking the El to a place where you can see execution trenches, parade grounds, electric barbed wire fences, ovens. Truthfully, I don’t expect any Jew in America to understand it. Chances are no American Jew who hasn’t seen it for him/herself can even imagine it—simply because of how we were taught to think about the Holocaust. It has become, for too many of us, an untouchable graveyard in the sky with a headstone for each and every one of us.

In order to understand the weight of this event, you have to remember my education. You have to remember the large Holocaust curriculum we as Private Jewish School students—and generally, all American students really—were put through every year leading up to Holocaust Remembrance Day.

I remember large assemblies for Holocaust Remembrance Day. I remember one year they put a computer in a main axis of the school that counted numbers so fast they were basically a blur on the screen and counted numbers this fast all the way up to six million. I think it took a few days—just to show how large a number that really is.

I remember also the engrossing sobriety we all felt that day, even from the earliest years of Elementary School.

Recently, in some of the research I’ve done on the creation of Israel and the discussions surrounding it after World War II, I’ve come face to face with the fact that the Holocaust contributed greatly to the formation of a Jewish state. This is no grand discovery. It is only important as a personal realization. I have had to make myself look as objectively as possible at the speeches of Golda Meir and wonder whether she invoked words like mass murder, Holocaust, etc. unfairly in front of various UN commissions and hearings. Whether she marred that untouchable graveyard in the sky with dogmatic graffiti. I have had to wonder whether it was a manipulation of history (like saying a specific event in South Africa that ended 15 years ago applies to Israel now) and whether it was, as many bogus thinkers have said, an example of finagling Jews maneuvering within the system while using their European background to make friends with the Western Powers in the UN just to get their, our
, my, way.

The point is, in all my studies from as far back as I can remember, up to this day, the Holocaust has been the pinnacle of Jewish existence. It is the example of persecution, it is the example of how being different in society has its price. It is the meaning of being Jewish without a Jewish homeland—it is heartbreak but strength, it is stories of courage and stories of tragedy, it is disunity and unity, it is history, discussion, love, family, knowledge of self, immigration…all these things which are central to the life of any Jew in any part of the world.

This heavy moment. I walked from the S-Bahn, through the tree-lined middle class street, towards the fulfillment of 20 years of being Jewish and at least 10 of knowing that being Jewish meant I could be slaughtered like cattle.

Killed like cattle. This is another important feature of Holocaust education. Trying to bring the scope of what happened into the student’s life. (The computer is a good example). It is of course the basic premise of Holocaust education: we mustn’t forget. At Schechter we saw survivors, old survivors, with tattooed numbers on their arms. My friends’ grandparents. The survivors are rare because they survived, yes, but also because everyday they manage to overcome what is the natural absolutely one hundred percent natural and expected and fair reaction to the Holocaust—be it individual, societal, whatever—to simply forget about it. Often, our mind can’t process it so it just forgets it. These survivors, besides being heroes and storytellers are also hard living evidence that we can succeed against the mind’s natural tendencies and keep the Holocaust pertinent. They are beacons of memory.

The problem is this: what happens when a superior tells an adolescent the same thing over and over again? Yeah, chances are he/she will quickly tire of the whole topic and will even reject against it. Clean your room. Do the dishes. Read about the Holocaust.

We are fighting a great war to remember the Holocaust. We fight to keep our minds from rejecting it, we fight to keep it from becoming mere homework, we fight to avoid an over-exposure of the issue, and we fight those idiots who defame and destroy evidence and memories.

But the biggest battle is with time and distance. We fight the fact that Eastern Europe is so far and the 1940s so long ago. We Americans are so comfortable talking about the Holocaust, it seems. But we are lucky. We are far from its epicenter. We have the luxury of not seeing buildings destroyed by World War II at every streetlight.

We feel comfortable speaking about the Holocaust because it is what we were taught to do. Keep the memory alive, discuss it, turn it over, learn the facts, see the documentaries, etc. etc. etc.

Our educators figure it’s the only way. They figure it’s the best way. And they’re well-intentioned, but wrong. They’re wrong to see it as something so impregnable. We learn about the Holocaust as an event that is impossible to gain perspective on. As something unimaginable. Incomprehensible. Unfathomable. And worst of all: Inhuman. But wait. Humans did do it, right?

Well I went to a camp. I was there. When I return to the States I will arrive as a new survivor. In a way, this email is an assembly and I am the survivor telling the story of the unimaginable horrors of the camps.

Yes, we the survivors. I’m not saying I went through their struggle or that my trip to the camp is the most unique event in the history all of American Jewry, I’m not that deluded. But I realize my responsibility to bring some of the personal experience of my trip back to the Jews I know, and who, like family members that got out before the War, are unable to see the camps.

I bring an important message: we are wrong. Dangerously wrong.

Our approach in trying to imagine the unimaginable is wrong. First of all, it’s pessimistic because it assumes that most will not be able to grasp the Holocaust, and that we shouldn’t even really try. Bull. Why can’t we understand the Holocaust? Why can’t we place everything we know about the Holocaust outside of old books and lectures and into personal experience?

For example, I walked from the train station to the camp through an outer borough of Berlin, perhaps not so different from an area like Wilmette or Evanston or any suburb of any city that can easily reach the city center. And I kept thinking to myself: How is it possible to buy an apartment on the same street as a freaking concentration camp??? In my mind, it is absolutely the same as owning a house on Moses’s beard, or in the Garden of Eden.

You see, we have elevated the Holocaust to an event so unattainable in experience (because we really can’t go back in time) that we lose any kind of personal relevance. And we lose the valuable fact of life that, you know, it continues. That life goes on. That there is grass where there was blood. That I may be a thread from the twine of a noose at the gallows in Sachsenhausen does not stop me from growing into something of equal impact, though not effect, to the world.

There is no doubt in my mind that we can learn to imagine and understand the Holocaust. That, when I found myself at the physical manifestation of the very soul of post-1945 Jewry, when I looked around and felt my fellow Jews’ tears on my own cheek, felt my fellow Jews’ fears in my own stomach, knew my fellow Jews’ hopeless hope as if it was all my own, I could imagine a concentration camp. Because I was there. I was in it. I stood where my tears had fallen and where I had lined up for roll call every morning beside fellow Jews who would not last the day or would survive until freedom and write me letters from an apartment in Jerusalem.

But through the whole camp I never forgot the inhabitants of the houses overlooking the mass graves, this generation of neighbors of the ghosts of my fellow Jews and their souls’ screeching. And that is when I knew I was understanding the Holocaust.

If we continue to elevate the Holocaust, we will succeed in making it something that is awing and impressive in the highest sense. Like a piece of art so valuable it must be kept behind closed doors. And it will be lost to us forever.

The Holocaust happened. But, despite what the educators will tell you time and again, it will never happen again. It, like September 11, 2001, like April 29, 1987, like any day or event, is unique to its actual occurrence. All we can do now is take as much of its soul as possible and implant it within our everyday lives. The Holocaust was the genocidal murder of the Jews and other groups by the Nazis during their reign. There was no Holocaust in Rwanda. There is no Holocaust in Sudan. These are genocides. That was The Holocaust.

But aspects of the Holocaust—political control, scapegoating, systematic murder—will and do appear scattered throughout history and in our time in various forms. The question is two-fold: First, how do we respect and honor the Holocaust as the enormous event that it was without elevating it beyond our experiences? How can each human install a piece of a gas chamber into their hard drive without crashing the system? Second, how do we extract the threads of the Holocaust that appear to this day in such a way as to inspire action?

For as long as the Holocaust remains so lofty in the clouds above us, as long as humanity waits patiently for another Holocaust to begin so it can swoop in heroically and stop it, as long as we expect something unimaginable to occur in our actual lives, we will never ever appreciate the Sudans of our time. They will be, simply, “not-Holocausts.”

We must take from the Holocaust that which makes us cry, but not that which makes us traumatized; we must take from it that which makes us see the world as it is. As a place where SS guards, humans, could be turned into freaking dogs. Where we can utilize the knowledge hat the human is a vastly workable medium—the same bottomless human possibility that intrigues my father and pushes him to challenge convention everyday in order to heal unhealable ills is also able to create monsters. But we are not appropriately using the knowledge that humans can act this way if we merely use the Holocaust as a reference or cliché.

We would do better to understand the Holocaust as something that actually happened, with evidence one can see and touch and smell and hear and taste (I don’t recommend it) for him or herself, so that one can become their own survivor. For he/she will survive the mind-blowing realization that innocent broken paled emaciated circumcised non-circumcised communist bodies once burned in those ovens.

With that knowledge, the survivors need not remember grainy black and white photos and movies with swastikas and marching. I can simply read the front page of the New York Times with the same fascination and awareness as I did looking around the Parade ground at Sachsenhausen. A simple look around will show where the disaster lays, to this day. Where there are people sharing our oxygen and recreating the actions of those who set-up and ran the camps. And while every year students around the world are made to sit patiently while speakers struggle and inevitably fail to make the “unimaginable” horrors of the holocaust comprehensible to 1st graders, people continue to die for no good reason.

Two nights ago, at dinner with my host parents and my host mother’s daughter (who is my age and studies here in Berlin) an argument broke out over Kristallnacht, about which the daughter was writing a paper. She told me that it is politically incorrect to say “Kristallnacht,” as it is to say “Third Reich.” Apparently, the proper term for that night is “pogrom.”

I didn’t make too much about it, but my host father got upset because he feels that by calling it a pogrom academia is removing the significance of that night in the spectrum of all the events after it. He feels as if it is yet another example of this generation of Germans avoiding the Holocaust.

One of the advantages of staying in a place as long as I am is that you get a sense of people’s lives, and more, the way they view their lives—besides just the buildings they live in or the history of their city. I have learned that in Berlin, where touching history is a daily occurrence, the Holocaust is not often a popular topic for discussion. My generation here feels as if they are made to feel guilty about it. Or they feel overly emotional towards it and tire of it (as would I if I lived on the same street as a concentration camp, imagine). Meanwhile, anti-Semitism lives, and racism towards Turkish and black is equally well-off.

And as I’m sitting at the table twirling my pasta, besides thinking “Man I wish I knew German,” I began thinking about how good it is, at least, that they were arguing about the Holocaust and, judging by their volume, being passionate about it. The two will remember that argument. It is entrenched in their personal experience.

And we as humans, we as Jews, we as Jews in the Diaspora, we as American Jews, must find a way to similarly overcome. We must overcome our distance from the days and the location of the Holocaust; we must find a way to extract the power of the Holocaust as a real event pertinent to our everyday lives. We must not allow its scope and size to choke our ability to act. We must remember the Holocaust, but more, we must live with it in our hearts lest it become, like the Spanish Inquisition, just another bold term in a high school history textbook destined to fleetingly pass in and out of our memories as it pleases.

[This week, on a trip to Poland, I go to Auschwitz-Birkenau. The education continues.]