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 Holocaust, it was all incredibly moving.
But the most memorable experience was visiting the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Oranienburg, a short train ride from Berlin.
Arriving on a train made me think of the horrors of the Holocaust, and I told my father about it. He agreed that the fact that we came by train was very contradictory. The camp was surrounded by a high concrete wall. Ahead stood a large white building with a gate. On the door the words “Arbeit Macht Frei” were written. This slogan, inscribed by the Nazis on the gates of many of the concentration camps they created to slaughter millions, is a chilling reminder of the tragedy that awaited the victims inside.
As I walked in, I got chills. The air was strange. It was a cold, steady German summer day, with a light breeze and bright sunshine. But the sun couldn’t hide the sheer horror of the place. Knocked down buildings converted into museums (and a bathroom in one case) were the only things in the open field except for a memorial for the victims. After a few minutes of visiting the buildings, I head towards the center of the camp. I took out my phone and located the direction to face Jerusalem.
I put on my tallit and wrapped my tefillin, doing so in full view of onlookers, mostly German high school students my age. I started praying Shacharit. While most of the prayers were said by me in a near muffled whisper, when the Shma came, something inside me felt the need to project itself.
I covered my eyes and sang at the highest possible volume, “Shma Yisrael Hashem Eloheinu Hashem Ehad.” Once I was done with Shacharit, I felt the chills increase, then slowly decrease as I unwrapped my Tefillin and removed my Talit.
I kept visiting various buildings until I reached the last one. Inside, there was a class of Germans giving 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 father that it looked like something was walking on the grass, as if it had been created by the wind.
I suddenly felt something weird inside me and I felt compelled to sit down. As if the souls of all those lost here were with me, I began to sing. 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 with the Shma, again projecting my voice as I spoke the words. Although I may have sung by myself, I felt like I was not alone, and the memory of those souls murdered in that camp was there with me, joining me in the song.
My spiritual experience may have been the most powerful part of my visit, but what I learned from the camp and museum was also very impactful.
Sachsenhausen housed 200,000 inmates in total, 100,000 of whom were murdered. Besides a large number of Jews, Sachsenhausen was also home to countless political prisoners and prisoners of war. Sachsenhausen was known to be one of the experimental camps where the Nazis tried different tactics and trained future SS officers to improve their mass killing machine.
Liberated by the Poles, the camp was then used by the Soviet Union for its own prisoners, before finally, several years later, turning it into a museum.
All in all, it was a sad and difficult visit, but it was important. Seeing German teenagers my age learning was also amazing, and a striking reflection of Germany’s improved attitude towards teaching about the Shoah and Holocaust, a much needed attitude with growing anti-Semitism around the world. of today. This visit was extremely important for my growth as a Jew, and it will remain etched in my memory forever.
Luiz Gandelman is a 16-year-old college student from São Paulo, Brazil, who lives in Miami, Florida. He is involved in several Jewish and secular youth groups and political organizations.