It was the first time either of us had visited a concentration camp. Most of the prisoners at Sachsenhausen at its outset were, interestingly, German academics; Hilter found them threatening. Later the majority of prisoners and murder victims were Soviet POWs. While a number of Jews were killed there as well, most were exported to Auschwitz or Dachau to be killed. In the end, 30,000 people were killed in the camp. Of course it was really powerful and saddening to read the stories of brutality, elderly professors being beaten, young men who became sick being drowned in basins for washing feet, and men being forced to execute one another.
What stands out most to me is the stories of prisoners helping one another. A bishop who saw an elderly Jewish man being beaten for going to slowly, who helped the man walk and took the beatings himself (and was later murdered); men who held up another too weak to stand during role call; professors holding secret lectures for hundreds of prisoners at a time.
The experience made me wonder a lot about the mentality of the soldiers who carried out these acts and how they could still think it was the right thing to do. I thought of Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment. I thought of modern day genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia. I thought of Abu Garibe. I thought about how the Nuremburg Code and the Institutional Review Board regulations that I follow as a public health researcher came out of it. I thought about how hard it is to determine what is ethical and how to be ethical in a war, but how important that is.
Many survivors moved to Israel after the war, emphasizing the significance of the country. Israel’s own struggles were apparent as news of its nuclear ties to apartheid South Africa broke while we were in Germany.