Over the weekend, I was able to travel to Hamburg, Germany with my Holocaust & Genocide class to visit a few historical Holocaust sites in Hamburg.
*******I just want to give a warning that I will be including discussions my class had about the concentration camp and the surrounding memorials we visited while in Hamburg. I had a hard time determining what I thought was appropriate to include in a blog and ultimately I decided to include a lot of the misconceptions we have as Americans about the Holocaust as well as the some heavy material. So please read ahead if you are interested in learning more about this great learning experience I had with DIS, but I wanted to give some prior warning because I will be talking about events that occurred during the Holocaust.
The trip started off with a six hour bus/ferry ride to Hamburg, Germany! We left the bus station in Copenhagen at 8:30am, pulled onto the ferry around 11, and arrived in at our first site at around 2:15pm. Quite the journey.
Our first visit of the weekend was to the Bullenhauser Damm School, a former school that was converted into a killing site for twenty Jewish children involved in medical experiments at Neuengamme concentration camp. One of the main take aways from this weekend was that our professor said that:
- Concentration camps are not extermination camps and do not include gas chambers.
- Some concentration camps did not house Jews, but political enemies (like Neuengamme)
We were able to visit the Rose Garden behind the school that served as a memorial for the twenty kids that were killed at the site–most of their families have been found, but there are still some children whose identities are still unknown. The efforts to find their families is still ongoing, a family of one boy was found two years ago.
The room where the children, as well as their caretakers and a number of Soviet soldiers, were hanged was converted into a memorial. There were twenty strings wrapped around the room that all headed toward hanging lights with pictures of the children. The reason for the installation was so when you thought of the children, you wouldn’t think of sadness or despair, but happiness and joy–they shouldn’t be remembered in only one way. Really beautiful and moving piece.
After visiting the memorial, we traveled into the center of Hamburg to go to our hotel and walk around the city before dinner. My friends and I were able to find some beautiful buildings and areas, but the city wasn’t really what we were expecting. The people were much more diverse, unlike Denmark, and the roads were just crowded with so many people. We did try to find pretzels at one point to taste, but we were never able to–one of my friends was able to find a Birkenstock store and buy some of their shoes more much less. I think they were 65 euros compared to the usual $120.
This morning we woke up and had breakfast in the hotel. We then traveled only a few minutes to a church in the middle of Hamburg: St. Nikolai Kirche. The church had been destroyed in a fire that swept Hamburg and later bombed during WWII, but the bell tower and some walls still remained. Our teacher discussed some of the history behind the church as well as some of the sculptures placed around the memorial. Then we were able to travel to the top of the tower to get a view of Hamburg. One of the most memorable statues we saw was Prüfung or The Ordeal. This is a German man sitting on a pile of bricks from the prisoners barracks at the concentration camp we would visit later in the day. The main message of the sculpture, explained by my teacher was: you reap was you sow. It expresses the guilt so many Germans continue to feel to this day.
Another interesting monument we visited, and many people can visit all throughout major cities in Europe are the stumbling stones or “Stolpersteine.” This is another way to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust. Each stone is engraved with the name of an individual and placed outside their last place of residence. Each stone has their name, place of birth, and their fate. My teacher explained this was his favorite memorial because it demands something of you. You have to look and if you do you are rewarded with some significant history. I am definitely going to look out for them in the future… we have some that were just placed in Copenhagen that I’ll have to find at one point.
After brunch, we got back on our bus and traveled further south to the country. Here is where the Neuengamme concentration camp was found. The camp has now been converted into a memorial, but much of the history can still be seen.
Our teacher took us on a tour of the site and explained the history. I think the reason this weekend has been so impactful and memorable is because of our teacher. He approaches the subject of the Holocaust as a historian. He doesn’t let emotion overwhelm the details and sticks to the facts, but he also understands the balance of being meaningful and truthful. I believe that this is important when teaching about such a heavy and well-known subject.
We learned that this camp was made previous to WWII, which is a common misconception behind concentration camps. Many had already been made all around Europe for political enemies and later integrated into the work of the Nazis. This camp housed political male prisoners and only housed about 4,000 Jews for a few months throughout the Holocaust. The main production at this camp was brick making.
My professor stressed that Americans have such a misconstrued vision of concentration camps because of pop culture. We envision rows of prisoner barracks, dark weather, and no nature/life around the camps. But this is such a misconception, but in actuality:
- Most of the barracks were burned down by the Nazis at the end of the war to hide evidence, so when you visit you will most likely not see them.
- If you visit concentration camps during the warm months, some do look beautiful. He did say something very interesting: “when there is a wound, nature will come to heal.” So in a place where there was so much darkness, nature can always come in and bring light back into it.
- Most don’t have that many visitors compared to Auschwitz. When we visited, there was maybe 10 other people there and my professor said this is very common at other camps.
Here are some pictures below that I took while walking around the camp. It’s kind of crazy that in some places that look so beautiful, like the picture of the water or the trees, that such acts of cruelty and hatred took place.
This visit was a great learning, cultural, and rewarding experience. At the end of the weekend, we all felt a sense of sadness and somber, but also appreciation. Our professor balanced the weekend well to help us have more perspective on what actually occurred in Germany and see what usually goes unheard about (many people don’t know about the killing at the Bullenhauser Damm School). He said we are very conscious of being Americans and we only have this perspective on other cultures, so he wanted us to learn about this weekend to help us gain different ways to perceive the Holocaust.
I predict this is going to be one of my best weekends while studying abroad at DIS. I really had an amazing education experience, while also being able to travel to a different city. I highly recommend this course–in 2020 this course will actually be turned into a core course, so I would definitely would sign up for this class or the core course while at DIS if you are interested. My professor for this course has been one of my best while studying abroad, possibly even the best including Bowdoin. If you have any more questions about what else we did on the weekend, shoot me a comment/email! I am so happy to answer 🙂