First of all, I’d like to dedicate this post to my sweet sister, Jamie, whom I desperately wanted to share the experience with. This essay is for her and many others. Many years ago, she introduced me to the book ‘The Hiding Place’. With trepidation I agreed to read it, worried that it would destroy my rose-colored view of the world. It ended up making me see the world a bit more clearly along with the miracles of love and forgiveness God will never leave us without. It taught me that those who perished were not so different than me…in fact, the roots of my own religion are shared with the many of the victims and their families.
(In an effort to make the experience more real, I’ve included some video excerpts of specific areas of the camp. Please forgive me…all I really wanted to do was crumble into a ball and sob and obviously, I’m much more articulate on paper than I am live.)
My journey to Ravensbruck began in Berlin, Germany. Literally steps from where the Berlin Wall stood for decades, lies a Memorial to those who lost their lives during the Jewish Holocaust. It was stark, rigid and inorganic. I was struck by the absence of warmth, serenity of earthy tones or nature’s touch. All that was there were cold cement slabs ranging in height, going on and on in front of me. Walking down its path the slabs I stood over were shadowed by taller ones progressing to others that towered over me. They seemed to swallow the observer whole. It was a bit intimidating and frightening. It was reminiscent of when Ebeneezer Scrooge, cornered by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, falls into his own grave and faces his own lifeless body.
(And darnit, none of the pics from this presentation turned out.)
The next plaque informed the viewer that the previous photo was the last one taken of the two of them.
As night approached, it was time to leave. For a girl who grew up surrounded by fairy tales with nothing less than happy endings, where the princess ALWAYS gets kissed, this was a cold, dark reality. It left me searching desperately for happy endings that didn’t come.
We parked the car in a spot overlooking a pristine lake. It was clean of any litter…not a shred of trash or refuse. All that was in the water were some twigs and apples that had fallen from the apple trees lining the lake. It’s striking to realize that these apples were probably from trees or grown from the seeds of trees that obscured the inhumanity occurring just beyond. Those apples could have fed people who were starving to death only a few feet away from them. As if that weren’t heart wrenching enough, that beautiful lake, the Schwedtsee and its surrounded forest conceals its miserable secret. The ashes of thousands upon thousands of men, women and children were deposited there.
At the edge of the lake, overlooking a charming little town was a monument. At the foot, were dozens of flowers and candles left by those who came to shed tears for the past inhabitants of Ravensbruck.
We passed the crematorium, a wall of nations and a monument for St. Maria, a nun who traded places with a young woman who was scheduled for the gas chamber. Just beyond lie the old prisoner’s jail barracks. Walking in to the upper floor, we were bowled over by the smell of funk and sanitizer. It permeated the building. Later, He-Man told me that after spending at least four months of his life studying and practicing in cadaver labs, the smell of death, decay and chemical preservation can not be forgotten. Chemicals used for sanitation will never rid the walls and floors of what it absorbed.
The rooms served as individual tributes to victims from each nation represented at the camp. The lower level displayed the holding cells and inhumane treatment those who were ‘disciplined’. I sat in one of the cells, alone for a time, considering what it must have been like to be in total darkness for three months.
|I believe this room represented Poland. Notice the photograph of the feet and lower legs on the left. Some of the legs are covered in gangrene.)|
|An view of the building’s two stories from the stairwell.|
At this point, perhaps needing to be alone, I left the building to walk along the camp’s grounds. Many of the buildings are gone. They were casualties of the next war. Used by the Soviet military for training and testing, most of the foundations aren’t even there anymore.
There was a marker indicating the area where Role Call was held. It was a cruel place. It was far enough away from the buildings and hilled camp borders that the biting winter wind would blast the barefoot, naked bodies as they marched to keep the circulation flowing. Sometimes the people were too weak to march and their feet would freeze to the ground.
The barracks were not much better. They were drafty, makeshift ‘buildings’ that would have been condemned had they been in the US.
As I took a turn on the grounds, listening to my own feet on the gravel, I considered others, how their footsteps, bare and broken, tread this sacred ground. Their footsteps left prints that must never, ever be forgotten.
Meeting up with my party we walked further around a large building used as soldier barracks. To me, it looked like just another way to block out hope of the world beyond. Just a few steps away, a completely different view lay before our eyes. Beautiful, quaint little cottages sat upon the hillside. These living quarters were for the higher-up SS officials and their families so they could be together…it made me want to vomit. Of course the view from their windows showed nothing of the atrocity behind the wall.
|Steps up to the cottages for SS officials and their families.|
Further on, the soldier barracks were still in good shape.
It continues to defy comprehension.
As our tour of the camp concluded, I began to wonder why it was that even with all the sadness and heartbreak there was a sense of peace. Obviously, these are sacred grounds where visitors are hushed with reverence and respect. But how was it that I could leave feeling hopeful?
That hope comes from the lessons I choose to take from this place and others like it.
*It’s knowing that no matter what evil one man and his minions can unleash upon the world, there will always be people who do what’s right, regardless of the consequences.
*It’s refusing to live in ignorance of the suffering of other people.
*It’s recognizing the charmed life we lead is available to us because others paved a path of tears the world won’t easily forget. The suffering endured by a people who were different, even in the smallest measure, keeps our eyes wide open to the devastation hate and lack of ignorance can create.
*It’s choosing to be happy in spite of what life throws at us, understanding that the life we live is beautiful, painful at times, but truly beautiful.
We walked away from Ravensbruck Concentration Camp less than a week ago. I couldn’t allow too much time to pass before putting pen to paper in an effort to share my thoughts on the experience. I hope the memory stays fresh in my mind for years and years to come. Because I can’t allow myself to forget any of it. I must always remember the Grace in my life and in the life of others. I can never fail to recognize the gifts given to me and I must never forget to appreciate them. Among the richest of blessings the Ravensbruck of today afforded me was something so many who entered these walls were robbed of; the priceless gift of leaving with those I came with.