As we woke and left Munich the gray misty morning greeted us once again. It certainly set the mood considering where we were headed. Yet this gloom pales in comparison to anything we were about to see or hear. Many of us read Bonhoeffer’s letters surrounding the July 20th assassination attempt. I had no idea what to expect from myself. Have I been desensitized to these horrors at the hands of Hollywood and America’s glorification of violence? The movies, the video games, the music, and all the other threads used to weave this horrid mask. Would I be numb? Would it cut me down to my core as it should?
Jessica Tannebaum would be our guide. Her heart was sincere, this we could all tell. At times her voice seemed to give and the way she clenched her jaw appeared to be her fighting back emotions that she felt so strongly. Her introduction taught us that Flossenbürg was a work camp only in the sense that there was forced labor. The fact that the forced labor was quarry work without any kind of protective gear or even a simple first aid kit meant one was lucky to last 6 weeks before dying from an array of causes. Becoming deaf from the explosions was a death sentence as you could not hear when your number was called resulting in brutal beatings. Blindness from flying debris was a death sentence. A broken bone, not set or cast. (nor was it accompanied by pain killers) was a death sentence because the guards would not put up with “laziness.” Open wounds quickly becoming infected and diseased were death sentences when even a simple bar of soap was no where to be found. If someone could not extract the precious granite out of the quarry, what good were they to the SS and what mercy did the SS have for these poor souls when hatred and violence coursed through their veins? The lucky ones seemed to be those that were crushed to death by the falling rock. Those who lasted the longest died having worked harder than any of us would be able to fathom, receiving little to nothing as sustenance while living and working in conditions incomprehensible to our minds. Surely a twisted recipe for death at a “work camp”.
The whole “camp” was laced with psychological torture. A sign on the front gate that read “Work renders free.” A hospital that saved no one. Food that brought forth life, yet in portions so little and rotten that it could barely even sustain life. A laundry barracks for hygiene yet there was no soap, towel, or toilet paper. Fear of the SS guards and the regime that deemed them so unworthy of life was eclipsed by fellow inmates given the power and meager rewards to beat and torment their fellow inmates. Many feared these, the Kapos, more than the SS guards for their cruelty surpassed that of the SS guards. To hear what these people went through in a single day was awful, but knowing that that was a base routine and that additional tortures were often dealt that we know nothing about was unthinkable. These poor souls had to rise each morning with full knowledge of the horrors that awaited them.
Even the dreadful thought of suicide, this morbid escape from life’s horrors would be shoved out of their grasp. Dehumanised from the beginning and treated like animals. Worse than animals though. It didn’t take long before they began to believe what the Nazis were saying about them. They are unclean, they smelled, undeserving of the fulfillment of even the most basic needs. They were like unwanted diseased animals. Life gave way to survival and thus many began to act as animals. A survival instinct replaced all the needs and wants that drive human beings. The sad thought of throwing oneself into the electric fence towards a quick death became less important and doing whatever they could to survive and live whatever life this was drove them day to day. Maybe that was hope in it’s most primitive form. It’s amazing that anyone made it out of there with any sliver of emotional and psychological stability.
Entering the camp through the tunnel of the Commander’s station was surreal. The sound of our feet on that pavement, 16 of us, made a considerable sound that echoed through that tunnel. The sounds of hundreds , thousands of people at a time forced through there must have been horrifying. A crowd that far outnumbered the guards yet completely helpless and terrified to do anything. Once through we stood where the original gate that separated the grounds around the commander’s station and the camp itself. On one of the stone columns making up the gate it read, “Work renders free.” We were told a story of one prisoner who asked an SS guard what it meant and he told him “Yes, you work in the quarry over there for 6 weeks and you will be dead. Then we will take your body down to the crematorium and as the smoke from your burning body exits the chimney in to the sky, then you will be free.”
Soon we found ourselves standing on the Roll Call grounds. It was cold and wet; I hunkered over trying to cover any bare skin from the top of my head to the bottom of my toes. I was still cold. It was no where near the coldest time of year and I was shivering. I had a hat on and I was shivering. I had a coat and I was shivering. I had gloves and I was shivering. Yet this was a cold that no layer of fabric was going to remedy. There in that place I saw flashes of people. They lacked anything of color. They all looked the same. Every one of them a child of God, stripped of all their dignity and security. Out there in a cold and wet winter night fully exposed to these harsh elements without any power to do anything about it. I don’t know if these were images from one of the many movies I have seen or genuine experience of some sort. But at times during the tour they were there.
Walking through the barber and shower room was enough to make me tremble when the stories created all too vivid of an image for me. Those who survived the long, over-crowded, inhumane, filthy, painful trip to this work camp were then stripped of their clothes and any possessions they had on them. They were forced to stand at attention to be counted for hours. “Not only did we lose our clothing here, but our souls.” (will properly site once I have a name A book or what? ) Those who did not die here were lead into the barber room. Razors hung from the ceiling. They were neither sharp nor dull. One or the other may have been better, but instead these were one of the first tools of torture used on people at the camp. A full body shave with semi-sharp razors guided by hurried and careless hands. Often it would gnaw away flesh as they were shaved. If it had been the SS that did this, that would be one thing, but this was performed by the Kapos, fellow prisoners. Then they were forced into the showers. Five minutes or five hours crammed in that overcrowded room naked, bleeding, terrified, and waiting for either the ice cold or boiling hot water and if not that, then the fire hose. Without a hair on their body nor a thread of clothing they were marched into the Roll Call area once again to be counted. There they would wait for clothes according to the SS’s watch. That wait would commonly last a whole night. Not all of them would live past this. The process of turning that person into a number and nothing more was quick and effective. Suddenly all of my shivering seemed extremely trivial and the evil that had manifested itself in that place seemed very real.
The building had been torn down, but the account of the children’s barrack was more than enough for me to tear up. Toddlers, children the age of both my daughters, up to young adults. The thought of my own children being ripped away from me shakes me to my core, but to shove them into those conditions is unfathomable. Young children, like both of my daughters. Like the child who gave me communion on Epiphany Sunday the day before in Munich. A young child like the one who clung to Shannon Johnson and laid his head down in her lap at church when she offered him a hand to give her “five.” Young children whom Christ declared as a model of faith and warned us against leading astray.
We walked up the cobblestone road to the prison barracks where Bonhoeffer spent his last night on this earth. Looking back amidst the gloom of the weather and the work camp, there was a full rainbow arching over it. I don’t know what to do with that. Part of me wants to say that as a symbol of God’s promise, it was a way of telling us this evil is conquered. Part of me wants to leave it an obscure paradox for me to dwell on.
The prison barracks were mostly torn down but a portion of it was preserved. The outline of the walls of the small cells were visible with two cells being in tact. These cells had the ability to block out sunlight creating one more level of psychological torture to its victims. That was the type of cell Bonhoeffer spent his last night in. He would then go to a trial where the verdict and sentence had already been decided. He was quickly sentenced to death by hanging and in that courtyard outside the prison barracks Dietrich Bonhoeffer gasped for his last breath. On the cross in the courtyard was an inscription that read 2 Timothy 1:7. “for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline”.
As we began to move to another spot, our guide pointed out where a missing barracks once stood. This was the brothel barracks. Women were promised freedom after 6 months if they volunteered but were returned to the camps they came from after a year. There was no torture, humiliation, degradation, or unjust act that was deemed too vile towards these people. To say that they were not treated as humans is an understatement of mammoth proportions. The imagination can paint a vivid experience when a free person walks these grounds, but that surely does not even break the surface of this abyss.
Walking on the cobblestone paths, made from the granite in the quarry, caused the plantar fasciitis that I have been battling in my left foot to flare up. I thank God for that. In some small, insignificant, self-centered way I was grateful to feel some sort of physical pain in that place. Again, I am struck by the realization that I had a nice pair of shoes on my feet. A luxury one of these people would not dare to dream of.
Entering the valley of death we took the stairs. For many, their entrance into this valley was to be dropped down a hole onto rail cars which carried their corpse down to the crematorium in the name of efficiency. Along these stairs were the support poles of the 20,000 volt electric fence that surrounded the camp. Some of the ceramic spindles had burn or more so melted marks on them, signs of them having been activated causing instant death. The doors to the crematorium were locked, so we did not go inside, but Jessica showed us pictures of the “dissection” table and the crematory that burned to ash some 13,000 or more people. Even in doing this the Nazis found a way to torture the deceased once more. For the Jews and Muslims, the burning of their bodies means that there is no hope for them entering the afterlife. Even in their death these people were not free.
In the valley we encountered the outline of an execution yard used to shoot prisoners of war from Poland and Russia. The guards were rewarded for their deadly aim with 3 days vacation, a bottle of expensive liquor, and a package of smokes for each shot.
Immediately after that was a pyramid shaped mound, which was the gathering place of all the ashes that they were able to find in the area. The size of the mound divided by what a single urn of ashes holds is an equation too horrible to think about rationally. This was the result of the crematorium unable to keep up with the atrocities. So they piled the bodies and doused it with gasoline then lit it. Once more a psychological torment swept through as the smell smothered the camp.
As we passed these we came to the Square of the Nations. Memorials for the nationalities of those that had been killed there. Each nationality had a number representing those who were killed from that country. The numbers, startling as they were, were less than the actual numbers as they learned in the years after it’s construction.
If you raise your eyes from the Valley of Death you will find on a hill a small chapel built from those watchtowers that were torn down. The chapel is named Jesus in the Dungeon. How appropriate that name is. So where do we find Christ in something such as this? I don’t even know how to answer that and maybe I never truly will. But I think that Christ is right there in the midst of it all, weeping. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer saw it, “We are summoned to share in God’s sufferings at the hands of a godless world”