Blogging our way through Eastern Europe
Arriving at the former euthanasia center in Bernburg, I do not think that anyone could expect what we were going to experience (especially me, because I didn't read the itinerary!). Unlike many of the horrifying monuments that we will see in Eastern Europe, this one did not betray its sinister past with its unassuming facade.
We had learned about the Nazi's program to exterminate persons with disabilities prior to visiting the euthanasia center, so we were familiar with the material as we entered the building. And yet, we could not have anticipated the feelings with which we were confronted as we toured the space.
The euthanasia center is still intact from its original Nazi-era state, including a gas chamber in which disabled victims were murdered as well as a dissection room and a crematorium. Our guide assured us that if we did not feel comfortable entering these rooms, we could remain in the hallway. I was rather surprised by this--I assumed that there would be no reason to avoid these rooms. When we stepped into the gas chamber, however, which immediately conveyed a sense of restriction by way of the cramped doorway, I began to see reason for her warning. With its orderly grid pattern of white tiles, the chamber exuded a sense of sterilization and emptiness. Disturbing details included a one-way peephole enabling the euthanasia "doctors" to ensure that they murdered all of their victims and a convex mirror at the back of the room that allowed the doctors to see all angles of the chamber while in use. The cold and calculating nature of these technical elements provided us with an unsettling view of the Nazi mind, which dedicated so much energy and intelligence to the development of killing programs. Our guide also revealed to us that the Nazis often incinerated the bodies of three victims at once so as to conserve energy and that they compiled a list of legitimate causes of death with which to trick the families of the victims. Learning about these details in the very space from which they were born certainly contributed to the emotional turbulence that suddenly overwhelmed the group.
I found the fact that the Nazi doctors cared not even to separate the ashes of these victims when sending urns back to families particularly upsetting. It is indicative of the Nazi's belief that persons with disabilities were not individuals worthy of the respect allotted to human life.
Traveling to a foreign country is very much a return to innocence. We speak choppy German like children, knowing only a few phrases. We see every building and neighborhood as new and interesting, unaware of the negative perceptions that Berliners might have of them. We respond with intense emotion to what we see, as at the euthanasia center. I think that this naivety is what makes this trip valuable to us, and I expect that we will continue to uncover this importance as we venture to Poland and the Czech Republic.