How I Found Peace in a Former Nazi Concentration Camp

The bus drive felt like an eternity.  I gazed out the window to look at the Berlin scenery, a collage of modern homes and forests that could have been the source of inspiration for any popular fantasy derived from German folklore. I thought to myself, “Were atrocities committed in these very woods?  Or is this where so-called fugitives found sanctuary?”  I knew where we were heading, but as the bus continued on down the highway I wondered if the prisoners held the same knowledge.


This past August I was a member of the Muslim Jewish Conference in Berlin, a seven-day conference that consisted of over 150 Jews, Muslims, and non-affiliates, such as myself, from all over the world.  Part of our itinerary was a visit to the former Nazi concentration camp known as Sachsenhausen, a political prisoner camp that was in operation from 1936 until the destruction of the Third Reich in 1945.


As I stepped off the bus, the first thing I noticed was that the place was inconspicuous; lush trees and neighborhood homes surrounded it.  We entered the camp by our committees, which consisted of about 20-30 participants per committee. A young PhD student led the tour, beginning with being seated in what felt like a classroom – Powerpoint introduction and all. As we started the walking tour she described to us how the prisoners were treated upon entering, the short biography of some of the individuals was there, and how they were marked with identification badges by religion, nationality, sexual orientation, and political affiliation.  The tour felt strangely impersonal, as if we were simply being taken through the motions, as if were being communicated to us what the prisoners went through themselves. 


I continued to take pictures on my dated Nikon D60, because I found the area to be beautiful yet totally in opposition to what exactly happened over half of a century ago.  I felt like I was on a film set about a concentration camp, or as if we were part of a test group for a virtual reality simulation.  I’m not sure if it was shock or disbelief that made me feel this way, but it’s the only way I can explain my surreal feelings at the time. 


When we entered one of the barracks, a sickening fragrance hit my nose that I will never forget.  It was that musty scent you receive after something has been burned, and it wasn’t just me, everyone felt the oppressing stench that filled the room.  When we left the barracks, the weather, and my mood had changed.  I no longer felt that surreal sense of existence I had minutes before.  The fact of where I was standing finally began to sink in. I no longer felt the sun and humidity I had experienced in Berlin for the past five days.  Instead, I was cold.  Not a cold that one alleviates by putting on a winter jacket, but a bitterness that is felt in the bones. I felt like I had entered haunted grounds, a purgatorial abode of human atrocity and suffering with a sign that read, “Leave your soul at the door.”


We all walked toward the final memorial, and there on the rocky grounds were six pictures of victims.  Jack, my new friend and colleague from the conference, told me to turn and examined at my side profile.


“You look like him,” he said, and pointed to a picture one of the victims, a blonde hair, blue-eyed man who looked as if he had just witnessed an incomprehensible entity of evil. 


I thought to myself, “Could I have been him?  Or would I be the one pointing a loaded barrel at his face?”  Given my Catholic identity and German heritage, I’m not sure where my mind would have been under the Third Reich. 


We stepped down into a crematory below and saw a memorial on one end, and the ruins and description of the crematory on the other. 


That’s when the feeling of hopelessness bubbled up inside of me.  For a year and a half I told myself that if one wishes to bring peace to the world, one must find peace with the self first.  But at this moment I asked, “What does that matter when human beings continue to kill each other?”  I didn’t want to speak to anyone, nor did I want my thoughts to be distracted with music or writing.  I simply wanted to disappear into nothingness. 


As the tour ended, all of the members of the conference gathered round a small tombstone to say a prayer. 


I closed my eyes, still wishing I wasn’t there, and listened. 


The first prayer was a Jewish prayer known as the Mourner’s Kaddish, recited in Aramaic by my friend and fellow participant Schlomo.  His voice cracked, and upon receiving tearful response by the Jewish participants who knew the prayer, a tear to slid down my face from my right eye. 


Then Yunnus and Nassr, two Muslim participants of the conference, recited the first chapter of the Quran, verses from chapter 81, and a supplication from “Keys to Heavens.”  Unlike the Mourner’s Kaddish, these prayers were not call and response.  They were more solemn and personally oriented, and I later learned that the content of these verses were a blessing of victims and martyrs. This time a tear slid down from my left eye. 


They were not tears of sadness, nor tears of joy.  They were tears of release, a catharsis.  I could not understand a word what was being said, but the tone and anguish of these prayers went far beyond the language barrier. It struck something in me that I cannot explain, a feeling that that I have never felt before.


Afterwards people embraced one another, but I stood by myself and recited the Our Father, the Hail Mary, and the Glory Be – something I would recite every night in my childhood and early teenage years.  It was my personal way of saying sorry for humanity’s choice to look away from such a well oiled, impersonal, mechanized evil. 


I thought I knew what to expect.  I have visited Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Israel, the Armenian Genocide memorial in Yerevan, and the Museum of Genocides in Lithuania.  I thought I was well prepared.  I had been exposed before.  I was wrong. 


This time I didn’t feel melancholic.  I didn’t feel inspiration or the will to fight indifference.  I was simply at peace. 


Strangely, I think I found peace in the fact that human suffering is universal.  As terrible as the Holocaust was and the crimes that have followed it all over the world have been, we feel them, we sense them, and we mourn them.  I realized that not only does every man bleed, but that every man also cries. 


I found peace in the fact that every human being feels grief, loneliness, hatred and despair.  Just as much as I find solace in the fact that we feel love, community, happiness and hope. 


The human condition is imperfect, but in that imperfection we share a commonality.  And in that we are all united.