I can't get the images out of my head

Jette Lorenz

Bergen-Belsen was the site of a 55-hectare concentration camp from 1940 to 1945, where 52,000 prisoners of war, people of the Jewish faith, homosexuals as well as Sinti and Roma died due to overwork, cold, malnutrition, disease and murder.

We spent about three hours in the grounds. We visited the documentation centre, where numerous documents, original photos, eyewitness accounts and historical background knowledge have been worked up. Afterwards we visited the grounds of the memorial site in groups, where there are still some mass graves and monuments that remind us of the suffering of that time. We also stopped in front of a memorial to Anne Frank, who died here. I will never forget this visit.

I feel sick as I leave the high, grey walls of the documentation centre. 

The view of the wide open space, yellowed by the dried grass, seems surreal. 

The site seems huge, but given the many thousands of people who lived here and the many thousands of people who died here, it is tiny. Only the hollows in the ground suggest that something once stood here. Hollows on one side, mounds on the other, in which, according to the inscription on the stones in front of them, so many dead people lie "at rest" that I could not count them with the naked eye. I can't get the images out of my head of the naked, collapsed bodies in this last stage of human existence robbed of its dignity.

Those photos earlier were harder than any horror film I have ever seen. I have begun to wonder meanwhile why people actually voluntarily subject themselves such horror in a film. The faces of the people, black and white on yellow paper, who knew full well that in a few days they could be lying in that pit, make me doubt whether I have ever seen true suffering so truthfully in facial expressions before.

The stories I have just heard are beyond my imagination. No shower for three years. At most, washing with the water from soup. And I go to the bathroom as a matter of course after going to the museum and wash my hands. With soap. I wash my hands, but I can't get rid of the sticky feeling that clings to me with all the impressions. I can't get rid of the questions I've already brought here – and I will take many more questions away with me. What does the past of our country, of our families, mean to us today? How do we deal with the knowledge of all the suffering that has happened? What can we do so that we never become responsible for such atrocities ourselves? The others call this past surreal – but for me, the impressions of today only make everything more real. The reality that people have done and are still doing cruel things. The fear that they will continue to do so. And the hope that we can change it. At home I will go out on the street and clean stumbling stones.

And then I am faced with the paradox: on one side of the fence, the memorial, while a loud bang on the other side jolts me out of my thoughts ... and I read the sign forbidding me to go any further because it is a restricted military area. I just can't get my head around it, that right next to a memorial where people used to be shot, other people are learning to shoot.

Now, as I walk through the oppressive silence, through the beautiful pine forests that seem so out of place, my stomach tells me it's hungry. But my head feels sick.


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