My First Visit to a Concentration Camp
This summer, I went to Berlin, Germany. From seeing the Brandenburg Gate where the Nazis held their parades, to seeing the Holocaust Memorial erected by Germany to remember the atrocities of the Shoah, it was all incredibly moving.
But the most impactful experience was visiting the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Oranienburg, a short train ride from Berlin.
Arriving in a train made me think of the horrors of the Holocaust, and I mentioned that to my dad. He agreed that the fact that we came on a train was very conflicting. The camp was surrounded by a tall concrete wall. In the front, stood a big white building with a gate. On the gate, the words “Arbeit Macht Frei” were written. This slogan, emblazoned by the Nazis on the doors of many of the concentration camps they created to massacre millions, is a chilling reminder of the tragedy that awaited the victims inside.
As I entered, I got chills. The air felt strange. It was a regular chilly German summer day, with a light breeze and a bright sun. But the sun could not hide the sheer horror of the place. Beaten down buildings converted to museums (and a bathroom in one case) were the only things in the open field, save for a memorial for the victims. After a few minutes of visiting the buildings, I made my way to the center of the camp. I pulled out my phone and located the direction to face Jerusalem.
I put on my Tallit and wrapped my Tefillin, doing so while onlookers, primarily German high school students my age, watched. I began praying Shacharit. While most prayers were said by me in a hushed quasi-whisper, when the Shma came along, something in me felt the need to project.
I covered my eyes and sang at the highest volume I could, “Shma Yisrael Hashem Eloheinu Hashem Ehad.” Once finished with Shacharit, I felt the chills increase, and then slowly decrease as I unwrapped my Tefillin and took off my Tallit.
I continued visiting various buildings until I reached the last one. Inside, there was a German class presenting speeches on the Holocaust. I exited the building and reached another open field. I noticed the tall grass swaying in the wind. I pointed out to my dad that it looked like something was walking over the grass, as if created by the wind.
I suddenly felt something weird inside me and felt compelled to sit down. As if the souls of all those lost here were with me, I began breaking into song. I sang psalms like “Im Hashem Lo Yivneh Bait” and songs like “B’shem Hashem”; I also sang “Yedid Nefesh” and “Tov Lehodot.” After “Hamallach Hagoel,” I finished off with the Shma, once again projecting my voice as I said the words. While I may have been singing by myself, it felt as if I was not alone, and the memory of those souls murdered in that camp were there with me, joining me in song.
My spiritual experience was perhaps the most powerful part of my visit, but what I learned from the camp and the museum historically was also very impactful.
Sachsenhausen housed 200,000 inmates in total, 100,000 of which were murdered. Along with a large amount of Jews, Sachsenhausen also housed countless political prisoners and prisoners of war. Sachsenhausen was known for being one of the experimental camps where the Nazis tried out different tactics and trained future SS officers to enhance their mass murder machine.
Liberated by the Polish, the camp was later used by the Soviet Union for their own prisoners, before eventually, many years later, turning it into a museum.
Overall, it was a sad and difficult visit, but it was important. Seeing German teens my age learning was also incredible, and a stark reflection of Germany’s improved attitude towards the Shoah and Holocaust education, an attitude much needed with the growing antisemitism in today’s world. That visit was incredibly important to my growth as a Jew, and it will stay with me forever.
Luiz Gandelman is a 16 year-old student originally from São Paulo, Brazil, who lives in Miami, Florida. He is involved with multiple Jewish and secular youth groups and political organizations.