Ok, so I’m trying to catch up with my posts… apparently working five days a week makes this a lot harder than when I lived in Cape Town and had like five hours of class a week. So the second weekend of August, I went to Hamburg to visit my friend Simon, who I went to UCT with (I am also aware that it’s now somehow the end of August, seriously Father Time, cool your jets). My trip had a double purpose, as, one hour south of Hamburg is the site of the Bergen-Belsen concentration and eventually displaced persons camp. This camp has particular meaning to me as the concentration camp is where my Babcia and Dziadzius met when they were teenagers, and they were married in the displaced persons camp following their liberation. So this post is actually really hard for me to write – I tried describing to my parents what visiting the camp was like and just started crying again. But the post is going to start off on a lighter a note! Hamburg is a great city!
I arrived in the city Friday morning, and Simon was doing bar prep, so I decided to do a free walking tour. It was of course pouring, and I optimistically had decided to leave my rain coat and boots in Den Haag. But I powered through it (mostly I met an Australian guy who let me share his umbrella), and got to learn a bit about Hamburg’s history.
Basically, Hamburg has had a lot of fires. That was my big takeaway. The old city hall was destroyed in “the great fire of 1842,” and it took just under fifty years to start construction of a new city hall (which is the one pictured above). The current city hall was finished in 1897, and is insanely huge. At 647 rooms, it has at least six more rooms than Buckingham Palace. I say at least six, because the 647th room was only discovered in the 1970s, after a filing cabinet was moved and a new door discovered. So nobody knows for sure whether or not other rooms exist. Apparently Germans aren’t ones for floorplans.
The courtyard of the Rathaus was really cool – I wish I had better photos, but there was a wedding shoot taking place, so I guess they got to take precedent over the tourists looking for photos.
This fountain is actually dedicated to the goddess Hygieia, who represents hygiene in Greek mythology. A fountain to Apollo had been planned until the cholera outbreak of 1892, in which Hamburg, one of the largest shipping cities of that era, essentially ignored the possibility of cholera affecting a city so great as itself. Guess how well that turned out.
Hamburg also has a lot of churches, which were affected by some of these great fires, and by Allied bombings during WWII. Apparently during WWII, you could see Hamburg burning from 50km away.
Hamburg is also a very canal-heavy city. Apparently it looked very much like Amsterdam until the great fire, which was obvious when we saw some of the buildings that survived the fire.
I also got to visit the old main port area. It’s now full of warehouses that have been renovated into museums or other relevant buildings, and actually looks really cool.
I also visited a church that wasn’t ruined: St.Michael’s, which is the largest church in Hamburg, and has a tower you can climb up. Simon had finished his bar prep by then, so we actually got to climb up together and he showed me the different areas of Hamburg.
Simon and I had to catch up, of course, which involved many beers. We were not able to visit Hamburg’s red light district because apparently they throw urine and feces on women if they enter… so I didn’t want to chance that and we opted for some less dangerous bars. We also visited a carnival, and briefly discussed going on the German version of the Zipper ride, only to discover a few weeks later that that very ride broke.
So… that’s why I went on the Zipper once in my life and will never do it again.
We ended up partaking in a much safer activity – canoeing on the canals of Hamburg! We were a little worried they were out of canoes and we were going to have to take a rowboat, which would have been a little too Notebook-y for our liking.
All in all, it was a great visit! Simon had planned on coming to Bergen-Belsen with me, but had some work come up last minute and had to stay back in Hamburg (which meant I drove my rental car, which was of course a convertible, on the Autobahn at 180km/h all by myself). Honestly, it was probably for the best that I went alone, because crying in front of people makes me uncomfortable and it was a lot of me being the awkward crying girl at the camp. Literally, I’m pretty sure I walked into the museum there, saw one photo, started crying, pulled myself together for about ten minutes, and then cried the rest of my visit.
Everyone knows how terrible the Holocaust was. I don’t have words to describe how awful it was, but I mean, you all know. It’s a massive genocide of people orchestrated by a psychopath who thought himself and his beliefs superior to others, and that his rise to power gave him the right to decide who was worthy of life. It’s insane, and it’s gut wrenchingly disgusting.
I’ve always known how terrible the Holocaust was, and I’ve had exposure to survivors of camps before. My grandparents met in a camp, we had an Auschwitz survivor speak to my school when I was in grade ten, I now work in a Tribunal that deals with the genocide of an ethnic group; I’m not by any means ignorant of the crimes carried out by the Nazis, and what they entailed. But this was my first time visiting the site of a concentration camp. I don’t think I can put into words how powerful that experience is – it’s something you really have to experience for yourself to understand. The fact that this camp was the one where one half of my family began made it even more powerful to see.
I’ve had many people ask me if I have Jewish roots; no, I do not. The Jews were obviously very highly persecuted by the Nazis, and the crimes committed against them were truly horrendous. By no means am I trying to play a “my genocide is bigger than your genocide,” but I do think that popular history has overlooked some of the atrocities committed against non-Jews, especially Poles, throughout World War II. The fact is, the bulk of Poles, Jews and non-Jews alike, lived under Nazi rule, and were sent to concentration or death camps during the war. Non-Jewish Poles were also considered to be a sub-human race by Hitler, so suffered the same fate as Jews of all origins during World War II.
Bergen-Belsen began as a prisoner of war (POW) camp in Fallingbostel. In 1940, French and Belgian POWs were sent to a former construction workers’ camp, and the camp was expanded in 1941 to account for Soviet POWs. In 1941 and 42, roughly 20,000 POWs died due to lack of food and the terrible living conditions. The camp was handed over to the SS (the elite Nazi police service, headed by Heinrich Himmler, which was condemned as a criminal organization during the Nuremburg trials) in 1943, and turned into a full blown concentration camp under their watch. It remained a concentration camp until it was liberated in April 1945. During those two years, at least 52,000 civilian men, women, and children died in Bergen-Belsen. The exact number is unknown, as the Nazis burned the majority of the records of the camp when it appeared as though they were losing the war, in order to erase traces of their crimes. In fact, there are only three Kokocinskis (my Dziadzius’s family) listed as having entered into the camp, none of whom are my relatives, and no Naskreckis (my Babcia’s family). Only 10,000 of those who died at Bergen-Belsen are actually known by name, due to the lack of records.
There were some prisoners of the camp who kept diaries. The museum at Bergen-Belsen only knows of fourteen of such diaries. It was not only extremely difficult to keep a journal or diary in the camp, due to lack of writing utensils, lack of time to write, and a lack of paper, but it was also a a great risk to keep a diary in the camp, as the SS would kill anyone they found with such documents (again, to limit their criminal exposure).
My Babcia moved this past month, and my mom went to help her pack her belongings. One of the things she found was a journal. Right now, we’re keeping it in our family, until we decide what to do with it. It belonged to my Dziadzius, who was fourteen when he was sent to the camp. He managed not only to write in it for a short number of days, but to keep it hidden for two years, and to bring it all the way to Canada following the war. So it might seem a little selfish to be keeping the fifteenth journal from Bergen-Belsen to ourselves, but this is a piece of my Dziadzius that we didn’t know existed, and that we never had the chance to talk to him about. For now, it’s just for us.
Following the camp’s liberation in 1945, it was transformed into a Polish and a Jewish displaced persons camp. There was roughly 10,000 people in the Polish camp, and 12,000 in the Jewish camp. The camps developed their own societies, with schools, newspapers, and athletic competitions. The will of humans, not only to survive, but to live, is astounding.
My grandparents were married outside the Bergen-Belsen displaced persons camp in 1946, in a town called Fallingbostel. My Babcia wore a dress made of parachute silk. My Dziadzius had been fourteen when he was sent to the camp, and my Babcia, sixteen.
My Babcia had a terrible time dealing with the death of my Dziadzius in 2002. I have a better understanding of why after visiting the camp. As I said earlier, we all know how terrible the Holocaust was. But to see the images of what my grandparents lived through absolutely destroyed me.
I don’t know how anyone could live through that.
I don’t think I can describe it beyond that. The images of the bodies of innocent people who had been left to slowly starve, and knowing that many of these people would have been my grandparents’ friends, when they were teenagers. I just don’t know how you keep living when all around you is horror. During the liberation of the camp, British soldiers were told to photograph and note their observations.
I couldn’t bring myself to copy any of their photos. The last thing I wanted was to find the image of someone my grandparents knew. Knowing that my grandparents were essentially children when they were forced into this place is terrible. I think we often overlook the stories of people that are removed from our generations, and merely discredit people because they’re older than we are and we think they don’t understand what we’re going through, especially when we’re young. Ask your grandparents about their lives. Ask your parents. I can’t imagine losing this part of my heritage. My Babcia is, and my Dziadzius was, extremely kind and generous, and to me, never showed any of the scars that must exist from this time. Again, the human ability to live amazes me. I am so incredibly proud to come from a family with that much strength, and that much love. To not only live through such a terrible place, but to have love grow there, and build a marriage out of that absolutely blows me away.
All that’s left of the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen is the foundation of a couple buildings, and the mass graves of the Nazi victims.
There have also been memorials erected on the site. The Polish prisoners erected a simple birchwood cross the day after their liberation, April 16, 1945. Those who stayed in the DP camp then created a much larger cross, which was put up in November of that year. It has been replaced several times due to deterioration, but maintains its original size and form.
This may sound odd to say, but despite the fact that I cried my way through this visit, it was strangely beautiful to visit the camp. It’s peaceful now.
Kocham cię bardzo, Babcia i Dziadziuś. Jesteś dwóch silnych i niezwykłych ludzi. Będę bardzo szczęśliwy, kocham jak ty.