At midnight this past Thursday, I dragged myself to the train station to start our trek to Gatwick airport where we would be flying to Germany at 6am. I don’t remember much from that night, as I dozed off at any opportunity, but suffice it to say that we landed safely in Germany, and were soon packed into a very small, very European car on our way to Haren. Although I was still fighting sleep, I was able to appreciate the beautiful landscape. Haren is a small town in northern Germany, located fifteen minutes from the border with the Netherlands. Everywhere we looked, we saw farmland, farmland, and more farmland. On such a beautiful, sunny day, though, the scenery was aglow with pastoral beauty. The friend we were visiting, Christian, also introduced us to the notorious autobahn, Germany’s highway/racetrack. Although I kept reminding myself that it measured in kilometers per hour, my heart was still in my throat as the speedometer ticked up to 140. Speedily and thankfully, we arrived safely at Christian’s home in Germany, and met his family. His stepfather spoke no English beyond hello (although the German for hello is “hallo”, so he probably spoke no English at all), but Christian’s mother was able to piece together a few sentences. Christian had spent a year of high school in New Hampshire (where he met my friend Hannah, the connection that got us to Germany) so he was fluent in English. Occasionally, we had to play a guessing game when he couldn’t remember a word. For example, we spent fifteen minutes trying to come up with the word “hedgehog”.
We were given a big German welcome through a big German lunch. The midday meal is usually the biggest meal of the day in Germany, contrary to what we do in America. I wasn’t sure how I felt about eating a big meal so early, as I usually get hungry at night. When I saw the smorgasbord laid out before us, however, I became more concerned that I wouldn’t require sustenance for the rest of my trip. I couldn’t even see the table under all the food, which included boiled potatoes, bratwurst, schnitzel, cucumbers, spatzle (noodles), sauerkraut, and several other dishes that I ate without complete confidence as to what they were. There were some crunchy things in a pan that everyone put over their potatoes (which they mashed with their forks on their plates), but when we asked what they were, Christian told us that it was better if we didn’t know. Well, whatever they were, they were delicious. After lunch, we drove to an empty field where Christian pointed out a bomb shelter from WWII. It was difficult to pick out at first, because on one side it looks like a simple hill of dirt and grass. Once we got out of the car and walked around it, however, we saw the sturdy cement block that I believed could withstand a bombing or two. After the bomb shelter, we crossed the border into the Netherlands. Since Amsterdam would have been a considerable drive, we stopped in a town near the border to get a coffee and explore. Christian informed us that coffee shops peddle a lot more than just hot drinks in the Netherlands, however. Many shops sell marijuana if you know who and how to ask. Needless to say (looking at my mother here), we did not patron any coffee shops in the Netherlands.
We turned in early our first night in Germany, but the next morning, we were up and ready to seize the day. I have never felt more proud of my German heritage than when I saw what we would be eating for breakfast; large, crusty rolls fresh from the bakery smothered with Nutella. I was in heaven, and about ready to transfer over to Germany for the rest of my study abroad experience. After the perfection of breakfast, we got in the car to start our day. We first went to visit a church that has a very special claim to fame: it has the highest degree of tilt of any building in the world (that’s right, Italy, the Leaning Tower of Pisa has nothing on Suurhusen). The Lutheran church is still in practice, and the caretaker assured us that it was completely safe, having been fortified with cement blocks in 2002. After departing the church (which we dubbed, “The Tower that Leans the Most”, as the word “leany-est” unfortunately does not exist in the English language), we drove to our next destination; the site of a concentration camp from World War II.
Whenever my friends and I would discuss journeying anywhere in Europe, my mind automatically jumped to whatever significant historical events occurred there. Obviously, when discussing Germany, I thought immediately of WWII and the Holocaust. I have read so much about both these events in school and in my own study, so I was looking forward to seeing firsthand what I had only envisioned from words on a page. As is happening so often on this trip, the reality goes so much further than my previous conceptions. Before going to the actual site of the concentration camp, we went to a memorial cemetery where the bodies of the thousands who died were originally laid to rest. I was pleased to learn that all the bodies were exhumed, identified, and given proper burials in another cemetery far removed from the site of their torture and death. Now, the ground where they lay is marked by rows upon rows of haunting cement markers, with bushes growing between them that look alarmingly like barbed wire. We silently walked around the area, observing the memorials erected in memory of those who died. No guards were required to enforce good behavior at this site. The solemnity of the area commanded silence and respect, and we walked along the prescribed path in quiet contemplation. Even though no remains lay beneath the ground, I felt as if I could feel the presences of all those who had died there. It is a painful place to walk, but it is our obligation as human beings to remember not only the suffering of our fellow people, but that other fellow people inflicted that suffering. I couldn’t stop the tears that spilled. I had also wept the previous weekend upon seeing works of art, but this time I was not overwhelmed by beauty, but by hideous cruelty and suffering.
After leaving the cemetery, we drove a few minutes down the road to the actual complex of the former concentration camp. There is not much left to see of the actual buildings. After the war, when the Russians took over the camp, they started selling the former barracks and tearing down other remnants of the camp. They must have had many reasons for doing what they did, but I can’t help but wonder if they just wanted the world to forget that the Holocaust ever happened. As appalling as it sounds today, I can understand their motivations. The evil committed during that period is so unimaginable, so horrific, and still so fresh that the world was not ready to deal with the ramifications. Today, there are still people who deny that the Holocaust ever happened. Although it is painful, these issues must be acknowledged, because to ignore them is to allow history to repeat itself. During the drive to the memorial, I asked Christian how the Holocaust is taught in German schools. He told me that they are not spared the uncomfortable details, and that it is important for them to learn about, no matter how unsettling it is to know that your own countrymen committed these atrocities. But every country has uncomfortable history to learn. In America, we learn about the settlers who killed millions of Native Americans, as well as the slave trade when millions of human beings were held in captivity. No matter how painful, everyone must be aware of their own history. And people wonder why they have to learn about history in school.
The museum that accompanied the memorial was very thorough, but also endlessly infuriating as everything was in German. Poor Christian’s shoulder was probably partially dislocated from me dragging him plaque to plaque to translate. I was able to give my fellow Americans some exposition about the first display, which gave background about the Weimar Republic and how Hitler came to power. I was pleased to see that they included this information, as many people wonder how Hitler came to have so much power. It is easier to understand considering the desperate state (economically, politically, and socially) the German people were in after World War I. Any group of people would have been desperate for strong leader to help them. The rest of the museum detailed the history of the camp, with many artifacts and pictures to help tell the story. The Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, although powerful and masterfully put together, cannot compare to looking at evidence of such suffering in the same area where it occurred. The silver lining to times of the greatest cruelty and suffering is that they also foster the strongest and bravest people. On the door of one of the barracks, the word resister (“to resist” in Italian) is scratched into the surface, along with the signatures of several prisoners. That small act of defiance in such a desperate situation is why the phrase “triumph of the human spirit” exists.
After walking through the museum, we walked outside to walk through the actual layout of the camp. No buildings, walls, even the roads from that period remain from that period. But the remnants are still there. The foundations of buildings are still visible, and a fence runs along the perimeter of the camp where the barbed wire once loomed. A large stone circle remains where a large fountain once stood in front of the camp president’s residence. Rusted metals walls mark where the gates of the camp and guard towers once stood. One element of the memorial that affected me the most was the clusters of trees growing where the barracks once stood. In perfect rectangles exactly to the dimensions of the barracks that held camp prisoners, trees now grow. The rest of the area is covered in rocky gravel and stark paved paths for visitors to walk on. The poignant symbolism of the trees resonated deeply with me. New life now grows where so many had lost their own lives, projecting a message of hope for future. The millions who died in the Holocaust deserve our sorrow, but they also deserve a better future for all those who follow them where such horrors merely exist as warnings in history books.
On our way to the airport the next morning, we made a few stops along the way. We visited a medieval castle and museum (where once again, everything was in German, and we Americans had to content ourselves with looking at the pretty pictures). After, we visited the Cologne Cathedral, the largest Gothic church in Northern Europe. Although the cathedral was started in 1415, work was halted and not started again until the 1800s when it was finally finished in 1880. The sheer size of the cathedral is awe-inspiring, as well as the beautiful stained glass windows inside. While we were in the cathedral, we were discussing our heritage, because both my friend Adele and I are of German heritage. Christian thought it strange that Americans always say we are from other countries besides America, but we’re still (as the song says) proud to be American. But that is the great thing about America; it is a melting pot of so many different cultures which are celebrated and proudly remembered, while still being united together as the United States of America.
Overall, my trip to Germany was an enlightening experience. It was our first experience planning a trip, navigating the airport within Britain and Germany, and finding our way in a foreign country (where we don’t speak the language). We were exposed to a whole new culture and language, especially living with Christian’s family and hanging out with his friends. For me, the most unforgettable experience was visiting the concentration camp. It was simultaneously petrifying and heartwarming. For every story we heard of cruelty, there was another about survival, love, and strength. It showed me how important remembering the past is, that those things we’d prefer to forget can not be brushed under the rug and forgotten. We will simply continue to trip over it until it is pulled out and addressed. I would love to visit Germany again, because beside the ugliness of some of its history, it is still a beautiful country of rich culture and kind people, that I am proud to call a motherland.