Margaret Freeland holocaust travel visit salt iron

Visiting the Ghosts of the Holocaust

While in Germany for Reformation Day, I took a detour to visit Buchenwald, the “model” concentration camp near Weimar, Germany. Most people make a pilgrimage like this once in their lifetime, if ever. I’ve done it three times now.

After this latest trip, I revisited the journal entries from my two prior pilgrimages. I was amazed at the growth in my experiences. Today I’m opening my journal publicly in the hopes that my reflections will impact others — and that they might consider making their own pilgrimages.

Sachsenhausen: The Empty Place

About two weeks into my first trip to Germany (as an adult), I made my first pilgrimage. Sachsenhausen is located twenty-two miles north of Berlin. After opening in 1936, it held primarily political prisoners until the fall of the Third Reich. In German, the camp is called a Konzentrationslager, or KZ for short – pronounced KAH-tzett.

June 5, 2013

Before we left this morning, I asked myself, what will it be like to visit a KZ? What will I think; what will I feel? We’re packing lunch, but will I even want to eat there?  We took the train to Oranienburg and, after a 2 km walk through the city, arrived at Sachsenhausen. Only a few of the original buildings remain, but the foundations of most of the other buildings within the original triangular camp remain. We had an audio guide – I think that actually made the experience less startling because you had no time to think; everything was narrated. It was interesting and informative, though.

And what did I feel? I really didn’t grasp that the stones I walked on were stones on which they had also walked with mandatory packs or stood at strict attention. I had to remind myself that the barracks I walked through were the very places where thousands had lived, slaved, starved, and died. The warm weather and glorious cloud-dotted blue sky spread in stark contrast over the infirmaries, gas chambers, crematoria, and mass graves. I walked down the execution trench… and back out, grateful to be able to do so.

I think of Sachsenhausen as the empty place because of the disconnection from the scene that I experienced. I had to remind myself about the former occupants; they didn’t come alive to me. While much about my feelings and experiences has changed with each subsequent pilgrimage, the pervasive sense of gratitude remains. I am grateful to be free, and this gratitude drives me to remember both those who were not free and those who misused their freedom as an opportunity to abuse.

Dachau: The Place of Worship

A month later, while exploring Munich during my alma mater’s German summer study abroad program, we went to Dachau, one of the first camps opened. At that time, it was the poster camp – the sanitized façade presented to the public, the name German mothers dropped when chiding unruly children. Today, we remember it as one of the more notorious camps within the borders of modern Germany.

July 6, 2013:

A group of us went to Dachau. It was incredibly powerful.… There was no audio guide; I just walked around, read signs, and thought. For me, it was like a place of prayer. I thought about Isaiah 53: He came into our world; He took our sorrows, burdens, and pain upon Himself. Although the suffering in Dachau was immeasurable, He suffered even more. In Dachau, I could sense a small fraction of His suffering. I thought it was fitting that there is now a Protestant church within the camp walls – and Catholic and Jewish memorials as well. Right next to the camp, there is a Carmelite convent as well.

Time has not erased the surprising sense of peace I felt at Dachau. It was as if the continual prayers of the Carmelite sisters, who have dedicated their lives to intercession, were bringing peace, hope, and even healing to the wounds of the past. Deena Metzger echoed the same appreciation for the convent in her Los Angeles Times article, “Pilgrimage to Auschwitz: A Jew Finds Peace in Carmelites’ Convent.”

Buchenwald: The Place of Remembrance

This, my third KZ visit, was the first since I finished in-depth Holocaust reading for my college thesis. This time, with their stories in mind, I felt a personal connection with the sufferers.

October 29, 2017:

The weather was cold, windy, and threatening rain, but I’m glad I braved it all.… Buchenwald is huge. Not many buildings are left, but that doesn’t lessen the impact. The camp sits atop a hill, so the lights, loudspeakers, barracks, shots would have been visible or audible to all below. I kept crying out for peace for all who suffered there, and for their families.…

I had to catch the last bus back to Weimar, which departed after the Gedenkstätte [memorial] closed for the night. I was afraid I would have to find my way back alone if the bus didn’t show – but it did, and I wasn’t the only one waiting out in the cold and dark. But the shiver dance did make me think. It reminded me of the poor women, dripping wet and stark naked, forced to stand outside all night in the snow and icy wind. I had so much more than they did: warm clothing, a fortifying lunch, the prospect of relief. So much to be grateful for.

This will not be the last time I walk through the gates of a KZ. Gratitude is still the defining emotion that stays with me, but my experience deepens with each visit. No longer do I visit only to keep alive the memory of a nondescript group of victims. I visit and remember individuals who had lives and stories – lives and stories that were cut too short, snuffed out too soon. In today’s uneasy times, a KZ reminds me how critically important it is to see faces – fellow humans – instead of adversaries on the other side of the rift; to listen, to show respect, and to seek understanding.

Invitation to Pilgrimage

Visiting Holocaust memorials is not and should not be easy. However, it is a worthwhile pilgrimage for every person to make at least once. If I could, I would give this advice to my younger self before her first visit to Sachsenhausen.

#1 Prepare in advance. Reading memoirs has helped me see faces behind the numbers and statistics associated with the Holocaust. Some of the most powerful memoirs I’ve read include:

Corrie Ten Boom – The Hiding Place.

This classic was my first introduction to Holocaust literature. It is the account of a Dutch watchmaker’s daughter who, with her family, sheltered Jews before they were caught and sent to a concentration camp. Ten Boom was a strong Christian, and I found her faith-grounded perspective both inspiring and challenging.

Piera Sonnino – This Has Happened: An Italian Family in Auschwitz

Like Ten Boom, Sonnino lost her entire family in the Holocaust. What particularly gripped me about this memoir is the way Sonnino’s writing drew me into the emotion of the moment: As her life is increasingly drained away in Auschwitz, her words become more fragmented, more charged. Her account helped me to see inside the mind and emotions of the survivors, not just understand facts about them.

Nanda Herbermann – The Blessed Abyss: Inmate #6582 in Ravensbrück Concentration Camp for Women.

Herbermann, a German Catholic journalist, was imprisoned for her work with the resistance movement. Her time in a KZ was relatively brief, but her memoirs reflect on some lesser -known aspects of the Holocaust era. Her memoir is one of the earliest-published accounts (1946).

#2 Leave the audio guide behind. I love learning and loathe the idea that I will miss out on important information, but the constant presence of a voice to murmur facts, statistics, and explanations during my visit to Sachsenhausen stifled the reflection and interaction that are critical to a meaningful visit.

#3 Take time. Taking a guided walkthrough at Buchenwald satisfied my desire for information and deepened my ability to understand what I was seeing while still leaving room for thought. It also provided me with the opportunity to ask questions of a knowledgeable person and to learn from the questions and reactions of others in the group. Equally important for making that visit meaningful was the time I spent after the walkthrough to wander the grounds and process the scene on my own terms.

The Next Pilgrimage

I am headed back to Europe in May, and Auschwitz is on my itinerary. Before I go, I plan to re-read Piera Sonnino’s memoir again – it’s been almost six years since This Has Happened first made the Holocaust personal to me. The complex at Auschwitz is enormous, so I’m sure it will be a full-day trip: participating in a guided walkthrough, wandering the grounds, and – in the spirit of the Carmelite nuns – praying. Praying that the past would teach us a spirit of understanding, and that we would never stand by to let the past happen again.

Author: Margaret Gassner

Margaret (Freeland) Gassner graduated from Hillsdale College with a B.A. in Accounting and German. She returned home to the Pacific Northwest, where she works in the estate, gift, and trust tax group at a large accounting firm. When she’s not at work, you might find her outside hiking or in the kitchen testing a new recipe. She and her husband also enjoy running a small Airbnb and contributing to the hospitality ministries of their local church.

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