The Geometry of Genocide: Triangles and Tales from a Concentration Camp

While I was trying my best to avoid the typical tourist scenes and experience the more authentic culture of Berlin, there is one historical aspect of the city that is simply impossible to ignore. So on Wednesday I set off on the S-Bahn heading north to the Sachsenhausen Memorial Museum, located on the site of one of the “model” concentration camps where prisoners were taken in WWII. It was located approximately an hour north of central Berlin, and it took me even longer after getting lost in the surrounding suburban streets, but the trip was worth it – ‘enjoyable’ isn’t exactly a word use can use to describe a visit to an old concentration camp, but it’s definitely a moving experience that you come away from with more of an appreciation of your life, and of life in general.

The cute little suburban German streets I wandered through while getting lost on my way to the museum.

The cute little suburban German streets I wandered through while getting lost on my way to the museum.

***

The entrance to the Sachsenhausen Memorial Museum.

The entrance to the Sachsenhausen Memorial Museum.

When I visited the Killing Fields near Phnom Penh in Cambodia, Laura had described the place as “harrowing”. I still feel like it’s the best fitting adjective to describe a visit to a location tainted with a grim history of mass genocide. While the Killing Fields were particularly morbid, with broken skulls and bones depicting the barbarity of the Khmer Rouge clearly visible in their monuments, Sachsenhausen Memorial Museum was a little more refined as a tourist attraction. After passing through the main entrance and picking up an audio guide, and listened to the history of the camp as I wandered down the same path that hundreds of thousands of prisoners were brought down during the Second World War. As I waled through the wrought iron gates, I noticed there were words – a slogan, or a motto – worked into the metal: Arbeit Macht Frei. Translated into English it reads ‘work will set you free’, something that is hard to mistake as anything other than cruel irony given how things ended up for most of the prisoners who walked through these gates. In the courtyard I sat and listened on the audio guide to testimonies of people who had been hit, kicked and beaten when they were down, right at this very spot. It was almost too overwhelming to listen to, and I moved on before hearing them all, already feeling a little depressed as the scenes were visualised by my imagination.

Main gate through which prisoners were escorted.

Main gate through which prisoners were escorted.

Metal inscription on the main gate.

Metal inscription on the main gate.

This concentration camp was opened in 1936 as a model design for other camps, although it ended up being much more than just an example – Sachsenhausen become a fully functioning concentration camp and prison. The architecture was designed to symbolise the subjugation of prisoners and the absolute power of the Nazi regime – the triangular design was built in a way that meant while in the grounds, prisoners were unable to escape the gaze of the guards in the watchtowers. Most of the barracks that were the prisoners quarters have been levelled, so now the area has an even eerier feeling, with so much open space between yourself and the watchtowers. There’s obviously no armed guards in there these days, but it still managed to recreate that sense of vulnerability the prisoners must have felt. Other features of the camps design included a security system which included a ‘death strip’: an electrified pathway and fence that took the lives of prisoners who made fleeting attempts to escape. Some of the barracks remain standing and have been converted into museums, showing the daily lives and conditions of the camps prisoners with a little more tangible depth, and you could also see the site of the gallows in the middle of the main triangle, where troublesome prisoners were routinely executed in front of large assemblies in order to create and example for the remaining prisoners.

The grounds of the camp are now vast and desolate.

The grounds of the camp are now vast and desolate.

Part of the security system at Sachsenhausen.

Part of the security system at Sachsenhausen.

The barracks that do remain have been transformed into smaller museums.

The barracks that do remain have been transformed into smaller museums.

Barracks 38 is one of the few that remain standing.

Barracks 38 is one of the few that remain standing.

The Execution Trench - the morbid name is self-explanatory.

The Execution Trench – the morbid name is self-explanatory.

In a building that used to be a garage for Nazi vehicles, there was now a museum that showed the history of the camp, and had numerous artefacts on display. Included in these was one of the uniforms that the prisoners were required to wear – the pink triangle sewn into the shoulder indicating that this particular prisoners crime was being a homosexual. The Nazis imprisoned anyone who disturbed their regime, whether they were political opponents, or those who were deemed by the National Socialist ideology as racially or biologically inferior, and were later joined in 1939 by captives from countries which Nazi Germany moved to occupy, such as Austria and Poland. Though historically famous for the persecution of people who were Jewish, the Nazi regime would happily have beaten me senseless and locked me up to starve simply because of my homosexuality – this uniform, now sitting behind a glass cabinet looking as innocent as a pair of striped pyjamas, was a chilling reminder of that. More than 200,000 people were imprisoned in the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp between 1936 and 1945, with tens of thousands of them dying from starvation, disease, forced labour, malnutrition, and brutal, systematic murders. It’s a lot to take in as you stand upon the scene of these crimes, especially considering this is just one camp, where only a fraction of the atrocities committed during the war were committed.

The memorial obelisk.

The memorial obelisk.

The pink triangle resonated with me strongly during the time I was at the Sachsenhausen Memorial Museum, but weeks later, at the time of writing, it’s truly terrible to realise that some parts of the world are still stuck in some of these barbaric ideologies. I’m referring, of course, to the horrific state of affairs for LGBT people in Russia. The newer, even harsher homophobic anti-propaganda laws came into place after I left Germany, but right now it’s something that I can’t just ignore. Having been to Russia and met a couple of very lovely gay men, it absolutely breaks my heart to see what is going on over there, to think that they might be suffering.
In the middle of then main triangle at Sachsenhausen, there now stands a forty metre high obelisk adorned with 18 red triangles – the symbol the Nazis gave to political prisoners – on each side, the number representing each of the European nations where prisoners at the camp came from. It’s a monument of memorial, but right now all it makes me think of is the European nations that are in such close proximity with Russia, and hoping that something might be able to be done before the persecution reaches a level of homosexual Holocaust. I never had the intention of using this blog to voice political opinions, but that was just one thing that I couldn’t let slide.

***

It had been a long hot day wandering around Sachsenhausen, and I was sweating profusely by the time I’d walked back to the station in the afternoon heat. “It’s not a heat wave”, Ruth would later tell me, fending off the claims of some other Berliners. “Thirty degrees is a normal summer day for Berlin – winter just lasted so long that most people forget about it, and are just shocked when it’s actually hot!” Nevertheless, even for an Australian I was feeling the heat. On the train home, I messaged Eva to find out what she was up to – the two of us had been sharing a key, since there weren’t enough for both of us to have one. She would be going out before I got home, but Simon would be around for a little while longer. When I was back into the heart if Berlin, I got a phone call from Simon.
“Hey, where are you?”
“I’m nearly home… Do you need to leave now?”
“Well, sort of… I’m going to the pool to meet Ruth, I was gonna ask if you wanted to come?”
Swimming sounded exactly like what I needed. Donatella had had to head out of town today for some work commitments in Munich, so she wouldn’t be joining us, but Simon said he’d grab my swim shorts and towel and pick me up from the U-Bahn station I was at.

What I didn’t realise – either because he didn’t say so or I didn’t listen – was that he was not picking me up in his car, but on his motorbike. A surge of panic ran through me – I hadn’t been on a motorbike since the horrific afternoon in Phnom Penh, and I still bore the mental and physical scars. However, I had to reassure myself that I’d since ridden quad bikes in Siberia and navigated the bicycle traffic of Copenhagen, and had come out unscathed, and I also wouldn’t even be driving this time. It would be just like catching the motorbike taxis in Bangkok, and so I put on the spare helmet, climbed on behind Simon, and we took off onto the roads of Berlin. We passed a few other bikies done up in their full leather gear, which I guess was to be expected in Berlin, and whizzed our way through the traffic until we finally reached the pool.

The place rented deck chairs from Simons vodka company, so we got to skip the queue and also got in for free. The place was really cool – the water in the Spree River and the adjoining canals is not something you’d ever want to go swimming in, so this place had designed a way around the problem. There was a large pool that was built on the river. The ground all around the edge was covered in sand so it felt as though you were really at a beach, and then off the wooden jetty the swimming pool itself sat just off the edge of the river. Of course, given that today was an extremely hot day for Germany, there was a long line to actually get in the pool. After finishing a beer from the beach cafes inside the complex, Simon and I joined the queue to go for a swim. After the long day I’d had walking around the old concentration camp in the hot sun and learning about all the horrors of history, it was definitely worth the wait – the swim was exactly what I needed. And so the end to an otherwise slightly depressing day was spent cooling off, kicking back and putting my feet up with my new Berliner friends.

The riverside pool where I ended my day.

The riverside pool where I ended my day.

First Impressions: Phnom Penh

I was a little nervous as I climbed off the boat and onto the dock at Phnom Penh. I wasn’t sure what to expect from Cambodia. I was under the impression that it was a relatively poor country, but so far on my tour through South East Asian countries I’d been surprised by the diversity of living conditions and levels of development within single cities, let alone entire nations. Phnom Penh is the capital city of Cambodia, but in the back of my mind I was quite certain it wasn’t going to be anything like Bangkok or Ho Chi Minh City, and most definitely not like Singapore. And I wasn’t wrong.

It’s hard to describe. It wasn’t a city in the way that Bangkok was a city, it with networks of public transport and numerous towering skyscrapers.There was certainly some parts of the city that were more built up and developed, with busy roads and crazy traffic, but there were also smaller streets with a slightly suburban feeling, though not without busy roads and crazy traffic. As I would later learn during my stay in Phnom Penn, while most of the time the locals make it seem like a fine tuned art from, driving in pretty much any major South East Asian city is a perilous affair.

View of the street from my tuk tuk to the hostel.

View of the street from my tuk tuk to the hostel.

Ultimately, what made Phnom Penh different was the not-so-seamless integration of tourist attractions, middle class living, and extreme street poverty. In Bangkok, the city is almost separated into layers like a rainforest, with the wealth in the canopy descending down to the poverty on the forest floor, and Saigon has a tourist-focused centre which sprawls outward to the more authentic and local experience. From what I could gather, there was no method to the madness with was the design of Phnom Penh. The official currency is the Khmer riel, although US dollars are so widely accepted that menus and price lists of everything are shown in dollars, and even the ATM machines dispense dollars rather than riel. The use of the dollar, however, meant that I found Cambodia a little more expensive than Vietnam. I’m no economist so I can’t even try to explain the way it works, but that’s just a little something that did surprise me.

***

I decided to spend my first day in Phnom Penh seeing all the major tourist attractions, so I enlisted the help of a tuk tuk driver who would take me from place to place and wait for me while I visited each destination. We came to an agreement, though only after several minutes of myself insisting that I did not want to visit the shooting range and fire a bazooka. The driver seemed disappointed, but nevertheless took me around for my day tour of the city. The first stop was the Grand Palace, the home of the current king of Cambodia which doubles as a beautiful tourist attraction. As I wandered through the various temples and buildings that the public was allowed to visit, I noticed that a lot of the architecture was similar to the Grand Palace in Bangkok. They even had murals on the inner surface of the walls that surrounded the silver pagoda – named for its floors of solid silver – which depicted the same epic poem from Hindu religion. However, unlike the murals in Bangkok, these ones were not so maintained, and there was fadedpaints and cracks in the walls, and the whole thing had more of an ancient wonder appeal to it, rather than the glittering magnificence of the palace in Bangkok. There was also an Emerald Buddha in the silver pagoda, and like the one in Bangkok, it was actually made of jade, and I wondered how many more trends there could have been between two such temples in completely different countries.

The silver pagoda.

The silver pagoda.

Elephant statue near the old elephant stables.

Elephant statue near the old elephant stables.

Nagas are mythical serpents that frequently appear in this holy South East Asian architecture.

Nagas are mythical serpents that frequently appear in this holy South East Asian architecture.

In front of the main temple.

In front of the main temple.

After the palace was the Killing Fields, which was about a half an hour drive out of town. The trip there was an experience in itself, as it had rained heavily the night before, and some of the dirt roads had turned to mud and were littered with puddles and pot holes. We had definitely reached the outer limits of the city, and there were no pubs, hostels our other tourist attractions. “Definitely not in Kansas anymore”, I muttered to myself, watching the mud fly and cursing myself for not wearing ruby slippers – or at least more appropriate footwear.

The muddy trek out to the Killing Fields.

The muddy trek out to the Killing Fields.

The fields themselves weren’t so muddy though, so my canvas slip-ons would live to see another day. The 3 million Cambodians who were brought here by the Khmer Rouge during the rise of Communism, however, did not. As I entered the complex and purchased my ticket, I found myself surrounded by the group of Americans who I had met the day before on the boat from Chau Doc to Phnom Penh. I had a quick chat with Mike, one of the guys I’d spoken to at length during the boat ride, discussing how our first nights in the city had gone down. They were just on their way out as I was arriving, so when it came time for us to part ways again, Mike looked around gloomily and said, “Well, I’d tell you to enjoy… but that’s not really the right word for this place. But go and soak it in, it’s pretty intense.” He bid me farewell, along with the rest of the group, and I set off to see the fields.

Mike has been spot on when he had described the place as intense. It was such a harrowing experience, to walk through the site and learn of the atrocious acts of genocide that occurred here, all because the victims didn’t want to subscribe to the Khmer Rouge Communist regime. It’s a little frightening to realise how unknown these tragic events are on an international level, with I myself only truly learning about the history of this genocide for the first time. Even worse is that it happened just over 30 years ago – worse that we still don’t know more about it, and even worse that these kind of things were still happening in such recent history. There is a real emphasis in this place on remembering the tragedies and the stories, so that future generations will learn, and not make the same mistakes of the past.

Depressions in the earth that used to be mass graves for the genocide victims.

Depressions in the earth that used to be mass graves for the genocide victims.

Broken and shattered skulls of victims, now housed in a memorial shrine.

Broken and shattered skulls of victims, now housed in a memorial shrine.

The monument that holds layer upon layer of the skulls and bones of the genocide victims.

The monument that holds layer upon layer of the skulls and bones of the genocide victims.

There is also a torture museum back in the city of Phnom Penh, but after spending so long at the Killing Fields I was feeling quite exhausted, both emotionally and physically, so I spent a short while looking around the school-turned-prison and house of torture. It was the place where many people were tortured, interrogated, and made to sign false confessions before being sent to the Killing Fields to be thrown into a mass grave. In the end it was too much for me, and I ended up heading back to the hostel to debrief myself.

***

My time in Phnom Penh provided me with a handful of peculiar tales that deserve posts of their own, but one thing that defined my time in the city in general was the acquisition of a new friend, Laura. On my second night in the Phnom Penh hostel, I stumbled into the dorm after a few beers – in order to change my outfit before going out again – to discover that someone new had checked into the hostel. She was sitting down on the bunk next to mine, unpacking her things, so I said hello and gave her a smile as I rummaged through my bag. Rather than the passing “Hey” mumbled under herbreath before returning to what she was doing, something not uncommon in these situations, this woman was very receptive to my greeting. We briefly introduced ourselves and had a quick chat before I had to head out again. It was nice to have met and got along with someone so quickly and so easily, though the fact that I had been drunk, and thus prone to random babbling at strangers, wasn’t lost on me.

I saw Laura again the next day, and we properly introduced ourselves and had a bit of a chat. She was a backpacker from Newcastle in England, and had been travelling around South East Asia for a few months now, in the similar unplanned method that I had been employing. She was also travelling alone, and so while we spent our days separately, doing our own sight seeing at our own paces, each night we would catch up for a few drinks, sharing our stories and experiences of both Cambodia and the greater region of South East Asia, and one night we even hit up the night club across the road from the hostel, which had been surprisingly busy for a Wednesday night.

Laura and I sharing a drink.

Laura and I sharing a drink.

On my last night in Phnom Penh, we had gone to a nearby restaurant that was run by disadvantaged youth and street children who were receiving training in hospitality, and was also known for serving some interesting foods that were considered Cambodian specialities. I have to admit, I was a little nervous at first, but I found the crispy fried tarantulas to be delicious! The legs were my favourite bit, tasting like crispy fries with chicken salt. The thorax was also nice and crunchy, but the abdomen was a little chewy for my liking, though still tasted fine.

Fried tarantulas are actually quite tasty!

Fried tarantulas are actually quite tasty!

***

Further into my travels through Cambodia, I met people who had not spent any time in Phnom Penh. After a girl had insisted that she couldn’t visit the Killing Fields because she knew she could not handle it emotionally, I had to agree with her assertion that she hasn’t missed much by simply passing through. Yet I feel as though I definitely grew as a person during my time in Phnom Penh. I was faced with quite a few challenges that I doubt I would have come across many other places in the world (which will appear in forthcoming blogs). So in the end I’m glad I made it a destination on my travels – it definitely ranks up high with the rest of my memorable cities.