The Sun Will Come Out

When team Hohenshwangau was in the Residenz museum in Munich, we met a nice guy who worked there. We must have looked totally lost because he asked us, “Ausgang? Exit?” After a bit of small talk, we told him we were going to Dachau the next day. He warned us that weather conditions feel more extreme there. A bright, sunny day becomes a smoldering hot day; a cold, raining day becomes a freezing day.

Dr. Pitcock proceeded to tell us it was going to rain, so prepare for the cold. So naturally I wore chacos, shorts, and a T-shirt. While my mom would probably freak out if she saw me walking out into the cold in what I had on, I’m so glad I made the choice to not dress warmly. Even when being in the physical location of such atrocities and injustices, it can be hard to wrap your mind around what went wrong. It’s hard to understand the reality of what happened. And while I may have been shivering, I don’t think being comfortable in a concentration camp would feel appropriate. One of the ways the SS would torture prisoners was by making them stand outside in the elements. That’s it. They would stand there and endure hours of role call as a form of torture. That’s how horrible the conditions were: even standing outside was unbearable to them because they weren’t properly clothed, fed, and were constantly on their toes to make sure nothing they did would get them killed.

Standing in the location of where Roll Call occurred was difficult, but I’m so glad I took the time to stand there and absorb the environment around me. Just beyond the walls of the camp were trees, a flowing creek, and the beautiful nature of Germany. It reminded me of how often we take naturally beautiful things and pervert them into dangerous and painful places filled with hatred.

I decided it was time to move into the building with the sort of museum portion of the camp inside to give myself a break from the rain. This museum was the culmination of everything we had learned from the last two cities. I was able to see the Nazi’s rise to power, the persecution of anyone who posed a threat to or disagreed with the Nazis, and the torture the Nazis put their prisoners through.

The Nazi ideology viewed Jews as objects without rights or dignity, or intrinsic value. Every nasty joke was met with applause, every bit of indecency was met with vile laughter. Health care was a joke, the only viable explanation for how the medical system worked inside the camp was “the more Jews that died, the better off the Nazis were”. Life became savage for the prisoners. A spoon or a plate could be the difference between life and death, and they were valued much more than we could ever imagine. Punishments ranged from whipping, to tying a human’s arms behind their back and hanging them from their wrists, to executions. Nothing was too inhumane for the prisoners because the prisoners were not viewed as human beings.

Human beings are not tools; and whipping them does not change their physical capabilities. A certain guard asked a prisoner to operate two machines at the same time. When they told him it was not possible, he replied with “then I’ll just write a few reports – after a few of you get whipped, the rest will work.” Everything the Nazis did was to achieve death of Jews: either in spirit or in body. Prisoners were not allowed to seek shelter during bombings, medical tests were conducted on them to see which organs fail first during hypothermia or how malaria affects the body, the list goes on and on.

Eventually, the Nazis realized that the conditions were so bad for the prisoners that they were not going to be able to achieve the work they were counting to win the war. Imagine that. Conditions were improved not because of some great revelation that what they were Doing was objectively wrong, but because they needed the labor of their prisoners.

They eventually had a reward system set up for the humans inside the camp. What crushed me was that the highest reward a prisoner could receive was a visit to a brothel. Labor trafficking thus fed into sex trafficking during this time. Nazis were rewarding their prisoners with more brokenness.

It took me about four hours to get through the the building. Needless to say, my spirit was crushed after reading everything I read in the building that many of those atrocities took place in. But as I opened the doors, something remarkable happened: the sun came out. The cold and the rain disappeared, and the air was warm. I didn’t understand at first what God was trying to tell me, and I still don’t think I fully understand it, but I think it has to do with the fact that human beings are seeing this information and being hurt by it. That hurt allows us to remember what happened and stop it from happening again. The purpose of visiting a concentration camp is not to feel sorry for all of the pain and suffering that happened to all of those people. The purpose is to pass down the memory of injustice so the small things like racist jokes, sexist comments, bullying, and a lack of empathy can be stopped before they take root and become something much worse.It’s on the people who have walked in the footsteps of the oppressed to remind the world that “it has happened, so it can happen again.” The sun came out when as I exited the building because the informed can bring light to the darkness and warmth to the cold by having empathy and heart.

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The Brutal Honesty of Berlin

Experiencing Berlin in this way has been one of the most incredible and humbling experiences of my life thus far. Not only am I experiencing a foreign country for the first time, but I am doing so in a place so rich with history that I have the opportunity to see firsthand the impact of the two World Wars and Nazism. I also have loved exploring a new country with new friends and establishing new relationships.

Day One: This day was so exciting for so many reasons! This day meant the beginning of our exploration of Berlin, the beginning of our friendships, and the beginning of Cultural Routes. My group explored the Soviet War memorial, Checkpoint Charlie, a panorama museum depicting Berlin as it looked with the wall up, Treptower Park, the Eastside Gallery, and Karl Marx Alley. The most fascinating part of this day was viewing WWII from an entirely new perspective – the Soviet perspective. In many textbooks of history, the discussions of WWII leave many details about the Soviet Union’s involvement out. However, between 25 and 27 million of the 55 million people killed in the war were citizens or military members of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was a crucial factor in WWII, but it is easy to forget. One of the most fascinating things about Berlin is that it does not shy away from monuments and museums that portray every aspect of WWII, including the Soviet influence and impact in the war. Teptower Park was especially impactful. The symbolism in Treptower Park blew me away. The Soviet Union stares across to Mother Germany, holding the child Future of Germany in his arms, and crushing the swastika underfoot. Memorials like the Soviet War Memorial and Treptower Park serve as reminders that there are other sides of the story than the ones we consistently read in history books, and that there was suffering on all sides.

Day Two: Although this day was more centered around general German history, the most impactful moments for me were at the Berlin Wall Memorial. This memorial pointed out many facts I did not know about the Berlin Wall. For instance, I did not realize that there was a region between the West and East Walls in which booby traps, barbed wire fence, and inner walls were added to keep people out. The map of the memorial had dots spread across the map, pointing to exact locations of “incidents” where people died trying to get across. It put the desperation of the East Berliners into perspective; we stood on the ground that literally meant life or death to the people attempting to escape. Seeing the faces of those who died trying to cross the part of the Berlin Wall where we stood made it feel much more real, especially because many of the deaths were children. For the rest of the day, my group learned a lot about German history. We went to the German History Museum and the Berliner Dom, which was probably my favorite part of the day. The Berliner Dom has a beautiful cathedral, a crypt underneath, and a stairway up to the dome that provides a 360 degree view of the city.

Day Three: This was the most emotionally exhausting but most enlightening day of the three. We visited the Museum to the Murdered Jews of Europe and the accompanying memorial. Even the blunt, harsh names of the museum and memorial foreshadow the brutality of the information and stories enclosed within a single city block in the middle of Berlin. Words cannot accurately describe the heartbreak I felt in my soul when I learned the stories of fifteen Jewish families that were separated and murdered by the Nazis, when I read the letters, postcards, and death notes of men, women, and children about to be murdered in the extermination camps, and when I heard the grotesque personal testimonies of people that survived the horrors of the concentration camps. Witnessing these events brought our group together as we discussed and reflected upon what we saw in Tiergarten. These atrocities completely dehumanized millions of Jews as they were humiliated, tortured, and murdered just because of their beliefs. It is difficult to comprehend how people were able to commit these acts against their fellow man and laugh about it. We discussed the effects of extreme nationalism and how to handle this information through faith. Although we did do other activities that day, we bonded the most as a group because of our experiences in the museum and memorial.

By far the most fascinating part about Berlin is its humble honesty and refusal to shy away from the past. From building an empty library in the location where Nazis burned books at Bebelplatz to memorials portraying the deaths of East Berliners as they tried to cross the wall to dedicating an entire city block to the disgusting treatment and genocide of Jews, Germany does not attempt to hide its history. It embraces its past and portrays it in as many ways as possible to keep the memory alive. In the Museum to the Murdered Jews of Europe, a quote from Primo Levi is painted on the wall: “It happened, therefore it can happen again; this is the core of what we have to say.” I think we can all learn something from Berlin about honesty and accepting our flaws and mistakes. Without acknowledging our past, we have no hope of recovering and learning from our darkest moments. I am thankful that Berlin uses its past to teach others in order to prevent atrocities such as the Holocaust in the future.