During our stay in Germany, we left Berlin for a day trip to two camps used in the Nazi's concentration camp system. About two hours north of Berlin, we arrived at the site of Ravensbruck. Here the Nazis established a camp solely for women--over the course of it's use, Ravensbruck held political prisons (primarily) as well as Jews and other targeted groups. Today Ravensbruck contains remnants of the former camp that has been interspersed with various memorials. Something interesting about the camps outside of Berlin is their history following the Second World War when the Soviet Union controlled East Germany. While Bergen-Belsen was controlled by the British (I believe), Ravensbruck and the other camp we visited, Sachsenhaisen, both featured communist era memorials. These memorials often ignored the Jewish victim of the site and focused more so on the evils of rightist Fascists. It has only been the last twenty years with the collapse of the USSR that these sites have begun commemorating in more inclusive ways.
Ravensbruck was particularly moving for our program director, Elaine Culbertson, whose mother survived a death march from Auschwitz to Ravensbruck as the Allies narrowed in on German forces. Even though many of the buildings do not remain, the camp's location remains fixed. Elaine was especially struck by the close proximity of the town near the camp. As opposed to other more remote camps, Ravensbruck borders a beautiful lake used by the locals for boating and sailing. From the camp you can quite clearly see into the center of town--the church and other buildings are easy to identify. Elaine's frustration boiled at the lack of action b the townspeople, not just here but in general in occupied territory. Unfortunately work is being done on the camp and their exhibit was not open.
Heading south about 20 miles outside Berlin, we arrived at Sachsenhausen. This camp consisted of a complex system of numerous satellite camps. The site itself evolved from a camp for political opponents of the Nazis to a part of the concentration camp system. The physical size of the camp also increased over time as the Nazis brought different groups of prisoners to the camp. Such prisoners included those of high priority, such as Stalin's son, who perished in the camp system before liberation. The most difficult part of our tour of Sachsenhausen was the medical building/morgue where experiments were conducted. Everyone seemed moved by the sterile white building with a lingering smell. Construction is also going on at Sachsenhausen to more aptly memorialize the site.
Both Ravensbruck and Sachsenhausen were terribly interesting and moving to visit. To me, visiting the camps is the only way to truly grasp the methodological system put in place by the Nazis. The ground feels hallowed and sacred when I stand at the site of such mechanized destruction and devastation of a people. But our journeys to camp sites are not done. We will visit three of the Nazi's killing centers: Majdanek, Belzec, and Aushwitz-Birkenau. As fast paced and jammed packed as this trip has been, I count my fortune to bear witness at such sites throughout Germany and Poland.