I’ve never been to an extermination camp

June 28, 2019

I have never been to an extermination camp. Living in Germany for more than 6 years, I still cannot believe I never made it to one. It was something that I had always wanted to do, strangely enough. But I definitely did not want to experience it alone and, perhaps not strangely enough, I could not find a travel companion that wanted to spend their vacation time at Auschwitz or Treblinka or Dachau or Mauthausen.

The closest I got was Ladelund, a satellite camp of Neuengamme, a larger concentration camp in Hamburg. And that was only this past Christmas when my husband and I visited his family in Germany. The camp was intended and used for Dutch resistance and other political prisoners (only a handful of Jews were known to have been imprisoned here), in the north of Germany. My in-laws (who are German, by the way) wanted to show me these places, knowing I entered a career in Holocaust education since moving back to the United States (taking their son with me). There was nothing left of Ladelund. There is a small research center and signs telling you what was where and how to get to the next ‘landmark.’ Just next to the center is memorial garden which was barren in the January cold of Northern Germany. There are wreaths commemorating various groups of people who were imprisoned here with a book secured in a metal box listing all of the names of the people who died there.

We walked from the research center, to the garden and then down the road to where prisoners had dug ditches intended to stop Russian tanks. There are a few steps down into the ditch so I went down and I just stood there. Eerie to the bone. The sign showed a drawing that a prisoner had drawn of workers in the ditch as guards monitored them closely. Standing in the ditch itself I imagined the guards standing there, armed and ready.

One last area to see before going back. We walked about 3/4 of a mile further down the dirt road. There was a small house and farm on the right, a huge field on the left. I was walking with my husband and it was quiet and sunny and freezing. I thought about that last word: freezing. I was wearing pants, a sweater, a winter coat, boots on my feet. I turned to my husband as said, “I was just thinking; people who were forced to be here were probably walking on this very road to and from that ditch every day, in weather like this, with no proper clothing, not enough food, and probably being worked to death.” He replied simply, “Yes.” I know he said more than that after, but I cannot recall what it was.

We ended up crossing the main road to the last sign. We were standing in front of where the barracks would have been. We learned that nearly 2000 people were crammed into a space built for 200. There was nothing there but a field that had been harvested months before. A house in the distance but there was just nothing. And it hurt. Sure, the large boulder there with a wreathe and stones at its base.

Needless to say, even a place like this creates emotions of helplessness, a reminder of man’s inhumanity to man. If Ladelund, a camp that was in operation for only 2 months, still a terrible, frightful place, can evoke that sadness…what am I in for next month? This trip with Jewish Hartford will bring me to Vilna, Kovno, Bialystok, Treblinka, Warsaw, Lodz, Krakow and finally Auschwitz.

I am more than excited to be taking part on this trip. It is going to make me a better teacher and a better person in every way. It is a gift to be able to represent Voices of Hope in these places and to be there to remember the families and friends of the local survivors I’ve become so close with. I’m also terrified. Absolutely terrified. But I think that is okay. Because, really, should any person have any other reaction to the prospect of visiting what was once Hell on Earth?