Monthly Archives: April 2016

Berlin, 1943

“When the Nazis came for the communists,
I remained silent;
I was not a communist.

When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent;
I was not a social democrat.

When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
I was not a trade unionist.

When they came for the Jews,
I remained silent;
I wasn’t a Jew.

When they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out.”

-Martin Niemöller

I went to Berlin with the intention to challenge the tourist paradigm.  I was not going to stay in a charming flat in Mitte, visit the Pergamon Museum, or take a river cruise on the Spree.  Instead I stayed in the Jetpak Alternative Hostel in Kreuzberg, a neighborhood where kaleidoscopic graffiti adorns every surface, Soviet buildings hunker, punks bang buckets, and clubs thump and howl with electro music until the wee hours.  Mitte will still be Mitte if I come back to Berlin in 20 years, but already encroaching bands of yuppies are opening quinoa and fair trade cafés in the early skirmishes of the Battle to Gentrify Kreuzberg.  I had to see the “real” Berlin before it becomes anodyne, and besides, it was cheap.

But I’m not really talking about Berlin here.  I want to talk about a little town 22 miles north of Berlin called Oranienburg.  I want to talk about Sachsenhausen.

Sachsenhausen is a camp in Oranienburg that began as a concentration camp for undesirables, became an extermination camp in 1943, and after the end of WWII became Soviet Special Camp No. 7 for internment of political prisoners.  It was intended to be a model camp where new techniques of administration and extermination could be tested before being scaled up to all the Nazi concentration sites.  Sachsenhausen prisoners were among the first to wear colored triangles to denote their religious affiliation, the camp was built in a semi-circle layout that was applied to many other camps, bunkhouses were constructed with central washrooms and uninsulated sleeping wings that became standard elsewhere, and it housed a training barracks for Shutzstaffel officers who subsequently were deployed to oversee other camps.  The maxim “Arbeit macht frei” is typically associated with Auschwitz’ imposing gates, but it was first displayed at Sachsenhausen before being deemed suitable for other locations.  New lethal gases were tested on prisoners there, as well as chemical combinations of methamphetamine and oxycodone intended to make German soldiers tireless and insensible to pain.  Sachsenhausen included a circular track consisting of stretches of sand, cobblestones, rubble and gravel where prisoners were forced to march 40 kilometers a day to test boot soles being developed by the Third Reich military.  It was by no means the largest or deadliest of the extermination camp system, but it was the most meticulously planned.  Every aspect of the camp was iteratively tested and adapted to ensure ultimate control and humiliation of prisoners.

I went to Oranienburg with two friends on a train that pulled us out of the grimy suburbs of Berlin into pastoral fields and quaint villages clustered around modest stone churches.  It was a gorgeous sunny day with fat cumulus clouds skidding across the sky.  We walked through Oranienburg for over a mile to get to the gates of the camp and along the way we heard the wooooop wooooop of an air raid siren reverberating around the town.  We exchanged a few jokes about the Brits coming back to finish what they started and walked on.  When we got into the camp we asked about the siren, and the man behind the reception desk at the museum explained cheerfully that it was a common thing to hear in Oranienburg and the surrounding villages.  The Allies had dropped thousands of bombs in the area during the war, and many of them had lodged two meters deep in the loamy soil in the area and failed to detonate.  These days whenever unexploded ordnance is found tactical bomb defusion teams would clear the area, deactivate the bomb, and then sound the all-clear siren to let people know that everything was safe.  They’ve found over 410 explosives in the last 50 years.  It seemed prescient to think that on a day that we came to tour a concentration camp Germans were still taking covered from Allied bombs, and we walked into the camp in an appropriately thoughtful mood.

I think we hardly said ten words to each other for the next two and a half hours.  There’s not really anything to say as you walk through a place like this.  In Rwanda I walked through fields and churches where thousands of people had been slaughtered with machetes, and they had this same heavy ominous feeling over them where you felt as if you had been cast back in time to when the atrocities were still taking place.  This camp was different from Rwanda due to the precise and scientific way that atrocities were committed there.  At the original camp commandants house the museum had preserved a letter from one director who boasted about how clean and orderly the camp was, without a blade of grass inside the prisoners compound and the bunkhouses spaced perfectly evenly and extensive record keeping that noted to the kilometer how many punishment laps each prisoner had been forced to walk.  The letter betrayed no sense of shame about the activities of the camp or attempts to minimize the brutality of conditions there.  The brutality was presented objectively.  His interest was in how consistently and efficiently he could run a brutal operation.

The voices of the prisoners themselves aren’t lost in the museum and preserved site.  Many inmates at Sachsenhausen were educated, middle-class people from the Berlin area who expressed shock and consternation at being uprooted from their lives and herded into unimaginable conditions.  Martin Niemöller is one of the most well-known voices of Holocaust remembrance, and he was held in a prison cell in the center of the camp.  Artifacts like prisoners’ shoes and toothbrushes and letters (all written in German by camp decree) are displayed.  The most devastating thing I saw was a small mirror in a hand carved wooden case that an internee had made.  It was mindboggling to think of someone counting such a superfluous and impractical object among their meager possessions, and also taking the time to carve it and make it beautiful.

Look, the whole thing was horrible.  It was also remarkably well preserved.  I believe that the modern German nation has made commendable efforts towards denazification and education.  It’s impressive to see groups of German school children being led through a site where their grandparents may have been guards or prisoners.  The German Finance Ministry has a program in place to pay for in-home hospice care for Holocaust survivors around the world, which was covered in a New York Times article yesterday.  Nevertheless, a sin as great as Sachsenhausen is not quickly forgiven or forgotten.  When I walked out of the camp I was surprised to find that the backyards of tidy little houses abutted the walls of the concentration camp itself, and shrieking kids ride bikes and kick soccer balls in the shadow of the guard tower.  Does growing up next to a place like that instill you with a sense of fear and shame, or does it all become banal over time?

As I walked back to the train station through town I stopped looking at the kids and began to focus more on old people: drinking beer in front of cafes, riding the bus, chatting with each other as they tended their gardens.  I wondered how many of them had stood along the boulevard that ran to the train station and thrown rocks at Jews and socialists and gays as the prisoners were paraded to the camp in 1942.  It took years to try the top Nazi command at Nuremburg, and rank and file soldiers were hardly punished after the war, so people who only hurled stones and jeers are unlikely to sleep poorly at night worrying that a Truth and Reconciliation Committee will come for them some day and demand reparations.  The greatest consequence for their actions that these former Nazi sympathizers will face is that 71 years after the end of the war Sachsenhausen still stands, looming over their houses, and every day Germans and foreigners finish touring the camp, walk through their town quietly, look at them, and wonder.



Sam takes a bath

Out of all the countries I have ever visited, I can say without hesitation that Hungary is the most recent.  We landed in Budapest on a sunny Wednesday afternoon to find to our joy that Hungary is both warmer and cheaper than Denmark.   After collecting our enormous backpacks we headed into the city, which felt like a long distance from the airport.  We rode on a bus for close to half an hour past rows of tidy little houses, stretches of woods where you could see little encampments of guys drinking beer and cooking, and a lot of open fields on both sides.  Maybe Budapest wants to be prepared for a massive expansion in the next few years, or maybe tectonic shifts have dragged their airport farther and farther from downtown.  We transferred from the bus to an ancient metro car which rattled us into the heart of the city.  We came up an extremely long escalator and were about to emerge from the bowels of the station when suddenly a mustachioed ticket inspector materialized out of thin air in front of us.  I thought this would be fine because we had already purchased tickets for both the bus and the metro at the airport, but he told us that we had neglected to get a ticket punched at some point and therefore they were invalid.  This seemed unfair because we did have tickets, we never passed through any turnstiles, and it was never clear where or how you had to get them validated, and eventually he relented and demanded one fine shared between the two of us.  There would be no paperwork.  We paid and left.

Despite that rocky entry, I really like Hungary.  My greatest disappointment with Copenhagen is that even though everything was so sleekly designed and convenient, due to a couple of big fires in the 19th century the city doesn’t feel very old or historical.  Budapest is the opposite: the subway is ancient and confusing, bike paths are faded, pedestrians and drivers are fairly indifferent to crosswalks, but the city is old and beautiful.  I was expecting it to feel grim and Soviet, with a lot of concrete and people driving around in Ladas, but in reality the people are energetic and youthful and there are lots of handsome buildings lining the boulevards and the Danube river.

I did cool stuff in Budapest.  I went to a ruins bar called Szimpla Kert, which is housed in an abandoned building and full of weird surprises like a room that offers a bathtub and livestock scale as seating options and graffiti on every surface of the walls and ceilings and a DJ perched in a crowsnest above the bar and courtyard playing eerie music and surveilling the whole scene.  I toured the House of Terror museum, which was the home of the Hungarian secret police from WWII until the revolution in 1958.  I got a haircut from an extraordinarily slick barbershop where photography and women are prohibited.  A guy in a heavy apron who simultaneously wore a beard, dreadlocks, a fade and a topknot crafted my coif for almost 45 minutes.  I went to a thing called the SPArty, where the oldest open-air thermal pool in Budapest hosts a weekly shindig where hundreds of people circulate in 100 degree water while colored lights flash everywhere and inflatables shaped like dogs and crowns loom over the pool.   I took a night cruise on the river.  PKM and I spent eight bucks on cheese and cured sausage and bread and Tokaj wine and climbed Gellert hill, which has sweeping views of the Danube and is the site of last Nazi bastion in Budapest as their forces crumbled before the advancing Soviets in 1945.

But for me the absolute highlight, the most memorable and special experience I had, was taking a bath.  The Gellert Bath House stands on the banks of the Danube, attached to an actual Grand Budapest Hotel built back in the days when architects didn’t mess around with tempered glass and instead focused on designing really big buildings so that they would have more space for statues and marble.  A traditional Hungarian bath experience takes hours, and I passed through massive pools of mineral water of varying temperatures, then through a three-chambered sauna that gets progressively hotter, then to a steam room with vapor so dense that I couldn’t see three feet in front of me, plunged into a tiny pool of water so cold that my jaw hurt and my muscles twitched, back into a lake of blood-warm water, and finally I stretched my pink and steaming self out on a chaise longue in a solarium under a terrace with  potted palm trees.  I could feel the filth of four nations and three plane rides washed away from me, and I sweated out all of the shawarma and fried food I had eaten in the past week.  It doesn’t do the Gellert bath justice to describe it as awe-inspiring.  The thermal pools are shallow and built on a massive scale.  The smallest pool is at least the size of a tennis court, and dwarfed by soaring ceilings painted with colorful frescoes supported by walls tiled in mosaic patterns decorated by the protruding faces of weeping kings and laughing jesters.  The scalding water tumbles into the pools from fountains that are encrusted with stalactites of sulfuric sediment that builds up from the rich mineral water.  When I came out of the bath I felt like the cleanest thing in the world.

I’m writing this blog post from a train that is snaking through the night across Slovakia, Austria and the Czech Republic and will terminate in Berlin tomorrow morning.   The trip takes 13 hours, but it’s nice to be able to move around a bit and see houses and field unspool out the window.  Goodnight, dear reader, and stay tuned for dispatches from Deutscheland.

Copenhagen: Biking with Vikings

Copenhagen may be the flipping hippest city I’ve ever visited.  It’s the kind of place that a 12 year old would design, and I mean that in the most complimentary way possible.  The Danish military parades through the streets wearing bearskin hats and white crossbelts, there are little hearts engraved on the coins, there are statues of polar bears on the roof of the city hall, people bike everywhere, and the language sounds like a dialect of Elvish.  The city is enamored with children’s author Hans Christian Anderson, and there are statues of him everywhere.  Bars and cafés are designed to be super cozy, and are filled with flickering candles and snug nooks and crannies.  To keep you from floating away into a fairytale wonderland, there are some reality checks that keep your boots tethered to the cobblestones.  Common goods are preposterously expensive: I spent close to six dollars to buy a kilo of uncooked rice, and PKM and I went to a café where a half pint of beer cost $12.  The beer was delicious and the place was suitably snug and nooky, but nevertheless there’s a reason that the typical Danish greeting upon entering a bar is “Welcome!  Give me all your kroner.”

One thing I really like about Copenhagen is how radically the city changes from one neighborhood to another.  We stayed in an apartment in Vesterbro, which is the red light and meat packing district.  The place is a little sketchy, with erotika and sexxx shops and ladies of the night, but I always felt totally safe and didn’t think it was very seedy at all.  Walk a quarter mile in another direction and you find yourself at the Stroget, the longest shopping street in the world.  If you cross the channel to an island in the Copenhagen harbor you arrive in the Free Town of Christiania, a neighborhood of 850 residents that has declared autonomy and is largely self-regulating.  The biggest industries there are selling cannabis and building bicycles, and it’s full of awesome graffiti, backpackers from all over the world, and cool little cafes.  We got to that part of the city by riding on Copenhagen City Bikes, a bike rental system with stations all over town.  These bikes are the most technologically advanced two-wheel vehicles I have ever ridden, and that includes my motorcycle.  The bikes feature a tablet mounted on the handlebars with detailed GPS maps of bike paths all over the city, and navigation to local attractions.  They have a battery that provides a power boost when you pedal, meaning that when you push gently on the pedals the bike whooshes you along the gorgeously paved bike paths.  It’s like riding on a cloud that you can steer.  We biked a lot.

For me the highlight of the city was probably the Tivoli Amusement Park, smack dab in the center of the city.   The prices are suitably Danish: it costs almost $15 just to get in, and then an additional $10 for every five minute ride you go on.  But it was worth it.  The park is an absolute fairytale wonderland.  The grass is beautifully manicured, there are scale replicas of the Taj Mahal and Chinese pagodas, and birds everywhere: I turned a corner and saw a peacock strutting down a path, and there are little clans of ducks of that range all over the park.  I’ve been to a few amusement parks in the US, and they often seem to be kind of seedy, low maintenance places with a lot of trash and little oversight.  Tivoli was a completely wholesome.  I saw a lot of kids and their parents there, but also people of my own age who came in small groups, seemed pretty sober, and didn’t step off the paths to cut across the grass.  The park is amazingly well maintained.  Once I started paying attention I didn’t see a single burned out light bulb or piece of trash on the ground, and there were no hoodlums or people making out in the dim areas of the park.  My favorite thing of all was that every single sign in the park was in Danish: English translations were either in tiny print or missing altogether.  86% of Danes speak English fluently, and there are only 5.5 million Danish speakers in the whole world, but this is a park in Denmark for Danish people and not designed for the convenience of tourists.

From the little I saw of it, Denmark is a small, clean, orderly, expensive, and friendly country.  I hope to go back.  Next stop Budapest; stay tuned.