Compassion is a complex emotion, that is often difficult tofind in a natural and sincere capacity.
Last week my refugee law class had an event with a guest speaker. The man works as the secretary general for a
major international torture prevention organization. He spent an hour and a half having a round
table discussion with us where he treated us as equals. He answered each of our questions with the
utmost respect and detail. I got the
impression that he not only cared about his work, but also cared about our
experience with him. He was careful not
to victimize or exploit the experiences of those he knows who have been
tortured. He was picture of
the evening we covered many subjects such as the definition of torture, when it
is applicable, who is responsible, and what is the purview of the law. Towards the end we were talking about what
happens when a state is found guilty of torture and they must redress. This is a multi step process that begins with
cessation, compensation, measures of satisfaction, non-repetition, and
rehabilitation. I thought that measures
of satisfaction was perhaps the most interesting. It is where the state must apologize,
acknowledge, or create acts of commemoration.
Our speaker then gave the example of man who had been physical tortured
for years, and further mentally tortured when his captors insisted that he was
not being tortured and no one would recognize his experience. As part of the states redress in this case
they simply had to admit that they had in fact tortured him, and give him the
mental peace of validation.
On my walk home and the whole week our conversation hung in my
mind. Then the following weekend I visited Hamburg Germany with my Genocide Class. We visited a number of site over the weekend, but the three most notable were a school where young Jewish Children were experimented upon, one of the main sites of the allied firebombing mission, and then finally Neuengamme concentration camp. Ill make separate posts about the first two visits, but going to the camp I found myself angry in a way I hadn’t felt in years
It had been almost five years now since I
visited seven concentration camps on a Jewish youth program called the March of
the Living. In April of 2010, I visited
these camps with ten thousands other students from around the world. We were broken up into regional groups of
roughly one hundred and each section had a holocaust survivor traveling with
us. It was an emotionally visceral experience
which changed my life and helped me better figure out what I want to do with my
life. I think about my experiences in
Poland almost everyday and they have
become integral to my understanding of genocide and the Holocaust.
Going to Neuengamme was the first time I had been back to a camp since
then. I knew going to a smaller camp
with a group of college students would be a drastically different experience
but I was still very surprised by my experience.
Neungamme was a concentration camp with roughly 103,000
inmates, fifty percent of whom died. In
contrast the average death rate at other concentration camps was thirty
percent. This camp was used as a brick
making facility and the work was tireless.
The deaths in this camp were not due to gassings or shootings, but
instead the harsh conditions and strenuous work. One particular work detail had a life
expectancy of six weeks. The camp still
has a majority of structures in tact.
Following the war however the German government converted the grounds
into a prison, so that it was restricted from public access. During this time they destroyed the
crematorium and the wooden barracks where the prisoners lived. The other structures were simply converted to
serve the needs of the prison. Then
under pressure from survivors and the international community the prison was
moved and the camp was converted into a museum.
I was surprised when the camp did not have
an enormous emotional impact. Perhaps
since many of the memorialization camps felt familiar to the styles I have seen
used in other camps. The barracks were
represented by squares of rubble organized in the shape of the foundation of
each building, the crematorium by a singular stone slab. There is also a restored box car where the
railroad track used to sit. We were also
able to go into the old brick making facilities which are fully intact. It was extremely powerful to have out
professors, who is a prolific orator explain and humanize each space in the
camp. On my trip back in 2010 I did not
have anyone who was an experienced educator such as himself on my program.
More to the point of why I was seething. We were given free time to explore the museum,
which is in one of the main buildings.
Since the building were used in the interim years for the prison, they
are new and sterile. They do not
represent the camps or the lives that ended in them. The museum had a similar stiff approach. It was a series of factual exhibits,
primarily in german and mostly consisting of text. It was none of the emotional manipulation I
had grown accustom to in the other camps I had visited. The other camps work to illicit a reaction,
where as this one presented a collection of information. I did not feel the same human connection.
Walking through the museum I saw a young woman, who was not
in our group who was going around with a selfie stick and taking pitures with
different parts of the exhibits. This is
when I started to get angry. Usually I
am not one to dictate other peoples experiences. People process and understand situations in
different ways and they should be entitled to do so. At the same time I firmly believe that
certain spaces demand a degree of respect, which everyone should abide by. We were standing in rooms where people were
murdered and I do not think taking selfies is an appropriate thing to do in the
space. I felt thankful that at least she
was not a part of our class.
As I continued through the museum I started to feel slightly
disturbed that I was no reacting to what was before me. There were no chills down my spine, no water
in my eyes, and no tightness in my chest.
I walked through the remainder of the exhibit to our classes meeting
point, reprimanding myself for a lack of feeling.
Then towards the exit there were a group of
girls from my class circled around a vending machine trying to select a
snack. It seemed normal enough, then
as we gathered outside where the barracks used to be they began giggling and
trading pieces of candy. I felt the
anger return in force and I searched for empathy. Thinking perhaps this is how different people
process. But I could not imagine it was
acceptable to laugh and talk in such a place. Our professor returned and walked to the
bus. We walked across the place where
roll calls were held on our way to the bus.
During roll calls prisoners were forced to stand for up to thirty hours
at the SS’s mercy, in perfect form, at times collapsing, which meant certain
death and a recount. At this point the
girls from by class started shouting to one another across the space. They were laughing at full volume shouting about
the drunken escapades of a mutual friend with no regard for the space. My eyes filled with water and suddenly in
their disrespect I felt the full impact of the space. Walking to the exit I thought of the lives
lost in the camp, the sadistic pleasure men took in inhumane cruelty. I thought about the families that were broken,
and how hard survivors and community members have worked to make this
concentration camp turned prison into a space of remembrance.
I don’t want to pretend I am on any sort of
moral high ground and I understand that I have a different experience and connection to these sites. I have to keep reminding myself that the only thing I truly have control over is my reactions and my behavior. When I see something I don’t understand the best initial reaction is not anger, but compassion. Then work from that place. In their disconnect, I was also able to rediscover what these places mean to me. They represent pain and suffering, but they also stand for the human capacity of strength and resilience. To survive Neuengamme took unimaginable will.