I walked through the Holocaust Memorial in the middle of Berlin and felt its impact, but I took photos. Here I walked in the footprints of a terrible history, and I did not want to record it.
Most of the buildings are gone. The infirmary remains, site of medical “experiments”. A barracks building, with its three-high bunks that held nine. The foundations of “Station Z”. Administrative buildings. A watchtower. There is a tall pillar in memoriam, erected by the Soviets in 1961. There are rectangles in the ground where the many barracks once stood. It was raining, and the dirt paths filled with puddles reflecting the grey sky, leafless trees.
There was a section of fence, a part only of what once ran around the entire perimeter, electrified, and those with guns were given the order to shoot without warning anyone who approached it. Suicide, it would be called, but those who ran at the wire probably saw it more as an escape.
At the end our guide closed his tour with a statement on the importance of humanising the people involved. The victims, dehumanised for so long before the camps began their slaughter, labeled inferior. The soldiers, dehumanised by the observers of history ever since, labeled monsters.
“People ask how I can come here so much. I’m here at least once a week with tours. I guess I do become a bit desensitised, but not fully. I think it’s important to humanise the people involved… Nowadays everyone knows that you can make ordinary people do terrible things.”
You can make ordinary people do terrible things. It is hard to judge, he says, you cannot judge, these people. He made the point of their world, so different to what we are used to in many places now, though certainly not all. A place of endless and terrible war, of extreme politics, poverty, fear. It is important to remember, he says. This is why these places have so many visitors, tens of thousands here every year, hundreds of thousands, millions, to Auschwitz, every year.
And he made me think of every time I have walked past a beggar in the street and not given money. Of every time I have ungraciously thought to myself that I would never let myself end up there, I would not lower myself, demean myself, to be there in the squalor and filth of the street… These are terrible thoughts. Unkind thoughts. And I questioned them then, standing between the two long buildings of the old infirmary, and wondered: in a way I am no better, if I have dehumanised these people in order to not feel guilt or shame at not helping.
Why do we visit these places? “You can make ordinary people do terrible things.” Not only because these events should be remembered. “Because then we remember that terrible aspect of human nature.”
Because every person involved in these camps, on every side, was human.