Last week I returned from my second and (at the moment) final field trip of European Holocaust sites. Another gruelling itinerary and I returned home exhausted and in need of a break from Holocaust-related sites. I found that after visiting so many sites within the space of a month – reading so much atrocity-related material, and walking around these huge former concentration camps – is both physically and psychologically intensive. I found it hard to take in everything, and that it really does become the case of ‘information overload’. I have, however, learned a lot from these field visits, and would love to continue research in this fascinating area of tourism, memorialisation and how modern states remember ‘difficult heritage’. Next on my agenda would probably be to explore how France and / or Italy represent their historical part in the Holocaust – both their co-operation and resistance to the National Socialist regime. And I would really love to plan an extended trip to Poland to visit the former extermination camps, the former ghettos, and the contemporary sites of memorialisation. But that’s all for next year, as I still have pages and pages of notes from my field trips to write up, and numerous photographs, documents and literature to wade through!
This trip to Berlin involved a much more mixed range of sites. Although it did include some in situ sites where the atrocities and historical events took place (for example, Sachenhausen KZ memorial site, and the site of the former SS offices – now The Topography of Terror). But it also included sites of education and memorialisation, such as The Jewish Museum, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (and nearby memorials to the Roma and Sinti, and homosexual, victims of the Nazis). I also spent some time wandering around the old Jewish quarter of Berlin (Scheunenviertel) and took an interest in sites remembering the Soviet occupation of East Berlin (from remains of the wall in Potsdamer Platz to Checkpoint Charlie) – both of these areas of Berlin are of interest in themselves from the context of how tourism has impacted on the authenticity and ‘historical narrative’ of the place.
Even a casual tourist to Berlin, not primarily interested in the Holocaust or National Socialism (NS), cannot help but take in something of the historical context of Berlin under Nazi occupation. Berlin is such an iconic city and the ‘historical scars’ of National Socialism are to some extent unavoidable. For example, while I was there temporary exhibits were advertised everywhere about the history of Berlin under NS or during WWII, and memorials to either the soldiers or the victims of this era are plentiful. Take for example, the book-burning memorial in Bebelplatz, or the famous glass dome of the Reichstag (representing the transparency of German government post- Nazi dictatorship and the burning of the building during that time). Another prominent memorial site in central Berlin is the Neue Wache or the New Guardhouse. Originally a memorial to those who had died in the Napoleonic wars, and then to those who died in WWI, it was badly damaged during WWII. After the war it was in Soviet-occupied East Berlin and became a memorial to the victims of Fascism in the 1960s. Post reunification, Neue Wache was reopened in 1993 as Berlin’s ‘Central Memorial of the Federal Republic of Germany for the Victims of War and Tyranny’. In the centre of the interior stands the ‘Mother with her Dead Son’, a sculpture by Käthe Kollwitz, which is exposed to the elements as it sits beneath an opening in the roof to symbolise the suffering of German civilians during WWII. It is a good example of a site for memorialisation of war victims that has been rededicated, and its commemorative message changed, over the years. Unsurprisingly, the use of the site as a memorial to the German losses of war has raised controversy, especially as (some critics argue) it makes insufficient distinction between types of ‘victims’ and now reflects a somewhat outdated perspective on how WWII fits into German collective memory.
Even if you do not go into a museum detailing this period of history in Berlin, or do not want to specifically visit a Holocaust memorial, you almost cannot help remembering the victims of National Socialism when you stumble across one of the numerous ‘Stolpersteine’ or ‘Stumbling Blocks’ embedded in the pavement. Artist Gunter Demnig initiated this commemorative art by installing brass plaques in the pavement outside the houses where victims were deported by the Nazi’s. The first ‘stones’ were laid without permission in Berlin in 1997, and were later legalised. Stolpersteine can now be found all over Europe and there are nearly 3,000 of these in Berlin alone. It took me a while to find one – and I went to the area of Hackesche Höfe in the Jewish Quarter to maximise my chances – but then I found them all the time (some on their own and sometimes in large ‘clusters’ representing whole families or groups of families). I took the time to stop and read the inscription, and think about who they were and their fate. One (pictured at the start of this post) remembers the Schneebaum family – a Jewish family deported from Hackesche Höfe by the Nazi’s. The family were deported to Auschwitz – the parents along with their two children Thea (aged 12) and Victor (aged 2) – where they were all murdered in 1943.
A key aim of my visit was to experience Berlin’s (in)famous Holocaust Memorial – more correctly The Memorial to Murdered Jews of Europe , completed in 2005 (after 17 years of discussion over its construction!). I knew that my apartment was near the site (the memorial is very centrally located and covers a 19,000-metre-squared area near the Tiergarden) but was surprised when I looked out of my living room window to see it was literally on the adjoining street. From a distance it is impressive – you can see the tall apartment buildings, residential streets, and busy roads that surround it – and it really stands out and forces you to think about what it is and what it means. However, such abstract memorials, whilst more open to individual interpretation, are contentious as survivors and relatives of victims arguably prefer figurative memorials. The memorial consists of over 2,700 concrete blocks or stele to represent sarcophaguses and, from a distance is supposed to resemble a large Jewish cemetery. On closer inspection I was less impressed as you see the now cracked concrete in places, the growth of cheap fast food restaurants that surround its edges, and the groups of tourists sat on the slabs chatting and eating. To experience it properly, however, you have to wander into the maze of stele where the floor climbs and dips, and the stele vary in height until in the centre they tower far above you. Although not really a maze, as the stele are organised in straight parallel lines, the changing heights of the slabs and the shifting gradients of the floor are a little disorientating. The memorial is aimed to disorient, to confuse and to be rather claustrophobic. The need to find your own path through the ‘maze’ is therefore meant to represent finding your own interpretation of the Holocaust. I also visited the nearby 2008 Memorial to Homosexual victims and the quite recently completed Memorial to Roma and Sinti victims. The latter is a commemorative fountain that consists of a glass stone within a pool of water, where a fresh flower is placed every day, and music is played through hidden speakers. I found this memorial understated and quite moving. It is also accompanied with information panels to place the memorial in context. Both these memorials were initiated after critics complained that the 2008 memorial only remembered the Jewish victims at the expense of remembering other persecuted victim groups.
I spent the best part of a day exploring The Jewish Museum, located on Lindenstrasse. The building is spectacular being composed of the original Berlin Museum baroque building and the extension by Daniel Liebeskind started in 1992, and opened in 2001. Its twisted zigzag design is said to represent a distorted Star of David. It’s an impressive zinc-coated building with asymmetrical cut-outs for windows, that shines blue in the sun. Its design (to grossly over-simplify, as I know almost nothing about architectural design) symbolises the impenetrability of the Holocaust, and the voids and absences that have been left following the attempted extermination of the Jewish race. It’s intertwining connections and bridges also represent the continuation of Jewish life and culture. I would recommend you visit this museum, even if you don’t have time to explore the exhibitions, or want to pay the 7 Euros admission fee, the architecture itself if worth seeing – Liebeskind’s accomplished design for the building really is a work of art. The museum is extensive covering almost two thousand years of Jewish history and culture. I focused on the basement exhibitions consisting of the Axis of Emigration, the Axis of the Holocaust and the Axis of Continuity, and the ‘voids’ and accompanying installation art , etc. (such as the Holocaust Tower, Kadishman’s ‘Fallen Leaves’, and the Garden of Exile). I also covered the exhibition detailing the trends in the persecution of the Jews in Germany from the Weimar Republic, to the Nazi period, and the extermination of the Jews. It really is a powerful, moving and tastefully designed museum. Every part of the building has been so well thought out, and the gardens outside are very beautiful and calming with deckchairs on the lawn where you can sit and reflect on your experience, and take in a view of Liebeskind’s stunning building. The Axes intersect each other and at the end of the Axes you find spaces to reflect that have been used to incorporate the installation art and voids. At a later point in time, I will blog in more detail about the museum, Liebeskind’s thoughts behind the design of the building, the ‘voids’ located within the structure, and the exhibitions themselves.
I felt that whilst in Berlin is was not only important to think about and learn more about the victims of National Socialism, but also to think about the perpetrators – the Nazi elite, The Gestapo and the SS. The Topography of Terror was set up as a temporary exhibition after the discovery of the foundations of the Gestapo Headquarters and underground prison cells. Due to its popularity, and a campaign to emphasise the need to remember (and not hide) the perpetrators of the Holocaust. The exhibition is housed in a new ultra-modern building located on the corner of former Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse (today’s Niederkirchnerstrasse) and Wilhelmstrasse on the site of the old Gestapo building, and the nearby sites of the SS central command and the Reich security main office. The original buildings were badly damaged during the war and the decision was made to subsequently destroy them completely. In the decades after the war the German government were reluctant to preserve the site and it became a wasteland, with plans in the 1970s to build a road through the site. Criticism began in the late 1970s and 1980s to no longer conceal the site’s dark National Socialist history. It is a potent exhibition, comprehensive in its coverage of the historical context – both social and political. It powerfully reminds us of the scale of control during the Nazi regime, the bureaucracy of SS administration (which brings to mind so strongly this ‘banality of evil’), and the callous disrespect for human life. I found a lot of the images and facts displayed here very upsetting. But I did not really get the sense that the location of the exhibition was important or was really incorporated into the building – it all felt rather removed from the site’s historical past, it could just have been another ‘out of situ’ museum really.
The last major site on my ‘dark tourist’ agenda was the former concentration camp of Sachenhausen. Established as a permanent camp in 1936, Sachenhausen was one of the early camps primarily constructed for the containment of political prisoners. Similarly to Dachau it became a ‘model’ camp: with visitors taking tours of the camp during its Nazi operation, it also featured heavily in dictating how other camps were run, and was vitally important in the training of SS staff (the special ‘deaths head’ SS responsible for running the concentration camps and whose administrative centre was the nearby town of Oranienburg). Sachenhausen is of special interest because after its liberation by the Soviets in April 1945 it became their Secret Service’s (NKVD) ‘Special Camp No. 7’ used to imprison Nazi’s and other ‘anti-Communists – and over 12,000 of these prisoners died here from disease and malnutrition before its closure in 1950. In 1961 a small part of the site was opened as memorial but with the emphasis on anti-fascism rather than memorialising specific victims – so in a way it continued to be used for Soviet propaganda purposes. Changes in the ‘narrative’ of the site and its presentation as a more holistic memorial began after the reunification of Germany in 1990, and it was reopened in 1993 as a triad of camp memorialisation sites with Ravensbrück and Buchenwald camps. Sachenhausen, like Dachau, did continue to be used, and faced considerable political manipulation about whether to remember its past, and how to construct that representation. It does, however, feel totally different to Dachau it that it speaks of its Soviet past in its blocky concrete rebuilt structures, and its central ‘Liberation’ obelisk built by the Soviets. It is a rather sad and desolate site in places – no freshly mown perfect grass, glaring white paint and gravel as at Dachau. The roll call yard is left as bare dusty soil, and sparse bits of wild grasses and weeds are left to spring up in places. Its structures are rusted, dishevelled, and forlorn – and somehow this makes it feel more authentic (although in reality, like Dachau, many of the existing structures have been reconstructed and changed due to its functions post-war).
Sachenhausen sits today at the end of a pretty tree-lined residential street. It is easily reached from Berlin and tours run daily from Alexanderplatz. I didn’t want to go on the organised tour so, as with my previous visits, hopped on local public transport. It’s a 25-minute train journey to the town of Oranienburg were the camp is situated. Unlike Dachau town, Oranienburg is not as notorious to the public, although it played an important role in the camp system, as it was the administrative centre of the concentration camp SS divisions. It’s a 15-minute walk through the town to the camp. Tourists flock to the site and, although the site so large that there isn’t the sense of general overcrowding, at times certain ‘landmarks’ of the site are very congested with tourists. There were numerous tour groups including many school groups of teenagers of different nationalities. Italians seemed particularly prominent in large groups. The mortuary and dissection building was so overcrowded as the groups seemed to congregate here, crowd into the mortuary room, line the dust track outside the building, and sit on the rails and even the ramp where the bodies were pushed down into the dissection labs in the basement.
At times I was a bit dismayed by the large groups laughing and running around. Groups of teenagers sat on the steps outside the infirmary barracks enjoying the sunshine as it was a really hot Saturday when I visited. The infirmary barracks contained excellent modern exhibitions about the medical care, mistreatment, medical experimentation, forced serialisation, and murder that took place here. Other barracks contained other exhibitions, and there is also more information about the history of the camp as a memorial site in the museum just outside the entrance gate. I liked the themed exhibitions at several places in the camp as it made the information salient to where you were standing, and avoided placing everything within one all encompassing but factually overwhelming exhibition such as the one in Dachau, or even the extensive new museum at Mauthausen. At times you could wander the barracks alone. I went into the basement of one of the old infirmary barracks and saw the ruins of the Soviet-era camp’s kitchens that had been built in place of the war-era dissection and medical experimentation rooms. I was the only person down there, and in the adjoining tunnels that join the barracks underground. At other times I had to leave because of the crowds of shouting and laughing groups of teenagers, which contrasted crassly with the awful history of the place. And when I went to the Soviet Liberation memorial that dominates the camp today I found there a group of Russian teenagers who were laughing, play-fighting, and throwing around the pebbles that had been placed on the memorial by mourners commemorating lost relatives or countrymen. In other places tourists sat on the gravestones for mass graves of specific victim groups.
When I had more time to reflect and managed to get away from the numerous, sometimes-disruptive tour groups, I did get emotional here. It feels like you are really left here to make your own interpretations of the site, and it does feel run down, neglected and a somehow barren. When you step through to the Western side of the camp complex you find the remains of ‘Station Z’ – the centre of killing in the camp from 1942 onwards. As well as the old crematorium complex, you are first confronted with the executions trench. The most common form of killing here was mass shootings (such as the shooting of 10,000 Soviet prisoners of war in September 1941), although the SS did experiment here with ‘gas vans’ and a small gas chamber was completed in 1942/3. The East German government in the 1950s deliberately blew up the crematorium building – what remains are the foundations and the partly destroyed crematorium ovens. Unlike Dachau, where people queued to enter the gas chamber and take pictures of the ovens, here it felt a calm, sad yet commemorative space. It is concealed from the outside as it is encased in a concrete shell, and inside I stood looking at the memorial to the victims of Sachenhausen and walking around the remains of the ovens. It was emotional – a little haunting – and felt more respectfully and fittingly done somehow – or maybe it was just luck that the organised tours hadn’t caught up with me yet. Also well peaceful was the woodland memorial garden outside the main entrance. Here understated and unostentatious national memories to victims can be found among a pretty expense of fir trees. Not as religiously orientated as Dachau’s memorial, and not as grand as those there or at Mauthausen, but a pleasant, more contemporary, complement to the Soviet memorials within the gates of the camp itself.
A rewarding, but exhausting end to the trip, and my third ‘complete’ concentration camp visited within a month. The trips have really enhanced my understanding of the demands and compromises faced by these memorial sites, as they are increasingly part of the ‘tourist-trail’. It has highlighted to me the sometimes-conflicting demands of different types of visitors, and the difficulties of remembering atrocities within those countries that were most complicit in the crimes. As attitudes towards the events change, and as time passes and the ‘wounds of memory’ become less personal and less raw, the dominant narrative clearly shifts. This narrative is invaluable in understanding the role of dynamic collective memories in national consciousness and national identity. All of this happens within the entrenched context of ‘dissonant heritage’ – what we choose to remember, which victims are remembered, and how we remember. It reveals a lot about how a nation shapes its own history and comes to terms with its victimisation and complicity during the time, and also about how a nation comes to terms with the burden of responsibility in the years (and decades) after the events. All of the sites I visited left a different distinct impression on me. I learned a lot, perhaps too much, of the awful things that happened in these places. The stories and the images in particular remain sharp in my mind.