- Travel and Places»
- Visiting Europe
The Concentration Camp in Flossenburg Germany
While traveling and experiencing Germany I’ve had many opportunities to visit concentration camp memorials. I’ve always hesitated. I am, as most Americans are, familiar with the holocaust and the unimaginable defilement of humanity that took place there. The images of stacked bodies and death by firing squads along with the mind boggling statistics are inescapable and unforgettable. We are morbidly curious and fascinated by the horror of it. Looking away is not enough. You cannot unsee it.
I felt as though visiting the camps would only be a depressing validation to what I already knew. There’s so much information fed to us from grade school and college history class material, television documentaries, and cinema. The material sells the idea well that Germans were cruel, violent people and that the nation was a cold, intolerant place full of rules and surveillance. We were (and still are) constantly presented with a historical view of Germany as an example of how scary dictatorships can be… how quickly one country can conquer and overpower other nations with the right (and wrong) leadership. There’s a lot of material out there presenting only the sad and terrifying past Germany shamefully holds.
There were 1500+ camps here during the war. But I waited three years to visit one because I wanted to see today’s Germany. So, it’s with this hesitance and preamble I present to you Flossenburg Concentration Camp Memorial.
Flossenburg was a work camp initially established by the SS-owned company DESt to mine granite and other building materials from quarries but gradually, as the war escalated and leadership’s tyrannical intentions became more apparent, it evolved into place where at least 30,000 people were mortally broken and robotically executed.
The weather when visiting was quiet poignant, incredibly cold (25 F/ -4 C), snow covering much of what was there. In a way, the snow made the entire place seem surreal. With the white layer covering post war additions, modern-dated as a tribute to contributors, it was easier to actually go back in time.
There was a small museum on the grounds, held in the former laundry, with photos of the first prisoner admitted there, Hitler visiting, flyers and materials preserved from administrative offices and a log of those soldiers who managed the grounds (with record of the roles they played) and were later tried as war criminals. There were also long lists of businesses and copies of their letters who’d asked the SS for the use of one or more prisoners as cheap or free labor in respect for their honor and devotion to the regime.
While flipping through the photos of those that committed the crimes, I couldn’t help but think of the universal mindset that is necessary for a successful military. People are trained to submit and act on the orders of others without question or personal consideration. It’s crucial that there is an almost reflexive compliance to authority otherwise there would be anarchy during the insanity and trauma inducing conditions that come with wartime. SS soldiers were trained in not dissimilar ways that all military men and women are today – but, and this is the biggest difference, their leadership was convinced of their superiority (as a very species) and many genuinely believed that the prisoners were subhuman and to be detested. It seems that Germans believed that Hitler’s speeches were often metaphorically motivational, caught in hope fueled denial until, when reality hit, he was too powerful to question or dare overthrow.
This museum (and as I understand most – if not all - memorials) are free to the public. This speaks volumes to the attitude that Germans feel about this history. These memorials serve not only to remind people about the travesty but to also perpetually hold accountable those that participated. When I came into the museum, it didn’t really occur to me, but then I wondered about the German curator when leaving. What is it like to run a facility that holds record of your own nation’s travesty like this?
After reading the history I felt much the same as I always do after seeing a documentary about the pain and futility of war. Falling out into the cold to visit the rest was an act of submission, feeling as though being here, mourning the dead and acknowledging the mindlessness of it all was reason enough to finish.
Leaving the laundry you face a mirror building which was once the prisoners’ kitchen. The empty void between can be easily imagined filled with sad, thin, dirty prisoners shuffling through snow waiting to die. There are many buildings that no longer stand, only a few are preserved for the memorial grounds and seeing the model inside of the museum will help visitors better grasp the size of the camp during the war.
I was interested in seeing what was deemed the “Pyramid of Ashes” memorial where bodies were stacked and burned after mass killings in the “Valley of Death.”The entire acreage is not big today… but it’s sufficient. Walking down the steps to the area where they performed deaths by firing squad I noticed how quiet and it was. It could have been considered peaceful if what happened here weren't so awful.
The pyramid was big. I’m mortified with myself when admitting that it wasn't as big as my mind had thought it would be. The statistics and the gargantuan scale of the war influenced me I’m sure in that my subconscious had lumped all 30,000 together and stacked them there. But this last sight and my confused reaction made it clearer to me why I’d hesitated to visit in the first place. There is no one monument or act or collection of words that could possibly describe, excuse, explain or erase it.
Thirty Thousand People is no small number. It’s estimated that over 11 million people died during the holocaust. There are 3 million people in the United States today. There is no official count of the dead… it is literally countless.
The history sounds like something from Faust’s description of Hell… But this country is not what it was in 1940. Things change and often times, for the better. As a result, I’ve always felt the need for a new perspective, if only to give outsiders a window to peek into. Most of what I’ve seen is beautiful scenic countryside, cozy little homes and castles straight out of a fairy tale. The people have been patient and kind with so many things, at the very least of which is the language barrier. They’ve been tolerant of the cultural differences I present them as an American and for those who don’t travel, curious about what it’s like across the pond. There’s joy to be found here in today’s Germany. But, I’ve accepted the fact that in order to realistically portray this place, the camps are an unavoidable part of it and by leaving those out my writing would be vacant.
Mainly this is simply my perspective on the bruised skin of an otherwise beautiful country. The good news is, the bruise is healing. I see a country resurrected (and still quietly learning) from an obscenely tragic past. The other articles I write will be about the joy of a post war Germany. They are still in mourning from the war but now, most have experienced the seven stages of grief and are eager to move on to acceptance and hope.