I was visiting Berlin on a five-day school trip. On perhaps our third day there, we took a coach out to Sachsenhausen. The others were loud, but they soon quietened down once we'd driven into the car-park and it hit us, really slapped us in the face, exactly where we were.
We split up into groups. I don't remember who I was with; I suspect I spent most of it alone. I certainly remember wandering around the concentration camp in a sort of sick trance. It was the sunlight that got to me the most. It didn't seem right. It was October, and the light was that sort of honey-soakedglaze that one often sees in Europe in the autumn. I couldn't tell you, now, any of the facts I learnt while I was there; I couldn't describe any of the photos of exhibits I saw. It's not something I've thought about a lot. What I can tell you about is the sunlight, and the dank smell of the chambers where they shot human beings, and, finally, the one sight that made me want to vomit and scream and cry, one broken quivering human mass in the middle of the camp.
It was huge. Like the grounds of some stately home, there were miles between buildings, and around every corner there was some new sight. I think what I remember best are the ovens. They were in a sort of low, new-looking building, which served to cover over the remains of the cremation ovens. They were foul. No smell, of course, or no more than a damp odour that was in any case perfectly natural; but you could feel it in the air, and in the way people were silent and refused to meet each other's eyes. This, this is where the bodies were burnt, and we knew it. Oh, we knew it. There were other sights, too. The pit where people were shot, flowers and ribbons pinned up on the wooden slats that served for walls. The gas chamber. Disguised as a shower room. Tiny. Monstrous.
But I am a resiliant person, and while these took the wind out of my sails for a time, it was the final experience at Sachsenhausen that made me feel sick for a long time afterwards- and even now, writing about it more than a year on, I am still shocked. I shouldn't be. It was to be expected. It was a natural reaction, to all that dulled horror: a natural reaction, to try and expunge the ghosts of the all-too-present past.
I came out of one of the guard towers and crossed the pristine lawns to the centre, where a memorial rises from the ground, a huge, curved wooden block with red triangles dripping down from the pinnacle. In honour of the political prisoners who resided there. In front of this was a sort of- three-sided wall, I suppose, is the best way of describing it. My classmates thronged the walls. They were talking. Laughing. Singing.
Now that I come to write it, it doesn't disgust me quite so much. Perhaps it is better that the dead should be remembered with all the vibrancy of life, and not the quiet reverance displayed by so many. But with these girls, I didn't quite get the impression that they were in any way honouring the dead. Poetry, hymns, a show of sombre beauty lighting up the air with emotion- yes! a thousand times yes; pop songs, little dizzy tunes about lust and breaking up and matters that seemed trivial in the face of Sachsenhausen- no. No, never. I couldn't stand it. I sat among them and said nothing for a time. I spoke up, eventually, a gentle reminder of where we were, and they stopped- but the damage was done. Their thin songs and the endless, endless sunlight had affected something deep inside of me, so that even now, a year on, I remember the image with clarity and resentment.