Journals / June 24, 1999 - Day Five

Sachsenhausen Memorial - "Visit to Sachsenhausen Memorial"
Donna Butler, Hanover County Public Schools

Today we walked down a tree-lined cinder path to the entrance of the Sachsenhausen Memorial. The mood became more somber and reflective as we approached, because we knew what had happened at this place. We remembered those from another time in history who had walked this same path, also knowing what would happen in this place. Unlike them, we would be able to walk away. In the beginning, German citizens generally approved of the idea of the work camps; unproductive people, such as the homeless, tramps, or just lazy, would be educated and trained to become good citizens and to pursue fruitful labor. Work camps seemed to offer a realistic plan to achieve a worthy goal; however, under the administration of the SS, work camps fulfilled a different purpose. Early on the existence of concentration camps was used as a means of intimidating opponents to the Nazis in the German population. On the other hand the mass killings carried out in the death camps located largely outside of German territory were concealed to a large degree from the German population.

Sachsenhausen was constructed as a work camp in 1936. It was enlarged several times over the years, losing its symmetry. Today only part of the camp remains intact. The original design was based on a triangle layout in order to provide the machine gun-armed guards with maximum coverage of the grounds. As the population of the camp increased, other buildings were added, such as a medical building, laboratory, prison, crematorium, and additional barracks. All of the prisoner areas were enclosed by a brick wall and encircled by electrified barbed wire. Eventually the complex swelled to include offices and housing for the SS and their families. Higher ranking officers could choose villas outside the camp. Over the years of its infamous operation, a diverse group of individuals was incarcerated at Sachsenhausen. To the original population were added political prisoners, homosexuals, Jews, Jehovah's Witnesses, and resistance fighters. All prisoners here were male and about 90% foreign. The SS had the power to make anyone a prisoner.

A mere recitation of numbers of victims does not begin to tell the story of misery, suffering, and cruelty at Sachsenhausen and other camps like it. Typically, prisoners arrived by train and were marched through the village. Coarse wool uniforms bore an insignia to denote the purported reasons for detainment. Men were assigned to construct rough barracks. Conditions were deplorable, over-crowded, and unsanitary. Meals were little more than gruel prepared for masses and could be reduced to bread and water, if the authorities deemed necessary. Companies could "hire" workers from the camps for example to test boot construction and materials. The "testers" were forced to march on paths of differing ground surfaces carrying heavy backpacks for eight to ten hours per day. Another prisoner duty was the burning of dead bodies at the camp crematorium.

For a prisoner at Sachsenhausen, death was a constant companion. Starvation, exhaustion, and disease took the lives of many. Punishment and torture could be administered at the whim of the captors. A gas chamber was installed in 1943. Prisoners were hung on poles, shot by firing squad, or shot in the head from behind. Men were lined up along a wall to measure heights. From the other side of this wall soldiers, some as young as eighteen, fired bullets into the necks of the prisoners. Man's inhumanity reached astounding proportions in these camps; each experience more ghastly than the next. Guards might literally trample prisoners to death or spray them with water in the frigid weather, freezing them to death, or force prisoners to run into the electric fence outside the camp.

A soldier or SS official assigned to Sachsenhausen might have behaved as a fine citizen, helpful neighbor, loving husband, and devoted father. He might have attended church. Inside the camp his job was to administer cruelty. He was rewarded with holidays or medals for doing this job well. He was encouraged not to examine his actions too closely. The people of the local village saw the lines of prisoners marched into camp, heard the gunshots, smelled the smoke from the crematorium, perhaps touched a prisoner allowed to work outside the camp.

In 1945 Sachsenhausen was liberated by Russian troops, and ironically, used as a prison again, this time for those whom the Russians believed were a threat. Today parts of the site have been preserved, and a memorial building with stained glass panels stands beside the guard tower. The message of the windows is a plea for peace and for freedom.

Berlin - "The Teachers Meet Mr. Peter Schneider, A Conversation With An Author"

Mr. Peter Schneider followed a girlfriend to Berlin to avoid military service in West Germany more than 30 years ago, and in doing so found his home. In 1968 he was active in student protests. He filed and won a lawsuit against the government concerning loyalty tests and employment rights. He became an author and published "The Wall Jumper", "The Wall In The Mind", "Couplings" and other works.

Many of his writings explore the relationship of Germans, especially the people of Berlin, to the concrete and barbed-wire Wall that marked the Iron Curtain. He asserts that the Wall had not only a physical effect, but mental and emotional ones as well. In his view, reunification of Germany has provided one political system for its citizens, but certainly not one culture or mind set.

To illustrate his points, Mr. Schneider read one of his stories, "The Wall Dogs," published in "The Germany Comedy". Wall dogs were the German shepherds assigned to guard the Berlin wall and were without purpose when the Wall fell. With satire and humor, the story describes the plight and lists the possible solutions of the newly unemployed wall dogs while really identifying the thoughts, feelings, and fears of East Germans and West Germans concerning unification. The story also sheds light on the prejudices held by the two groups of people.

Mr. Schneider graciously accepted and answered questions from the group. He noted that the reality of the Wall may be gone, but that the Wall will exist in the people's minds for many more years. He contended that reunification has affected each generation in a unique way. He echoed Mr. Longolius' (Day Two) view that a German who is not confused is not a good German. He mentioned a variety of issues that Germans must resolve. Among those are Germans' guilt over World War II and the Holocaust and the resulting lack of pride or patriotism for Germany. He stressed again the tremendous adjustments that must be made by East Germans, everything from supermarkets and other trappings of Western culture to the general feelings of insecurity. Mr. Schneider applauds moving the German capital to Berlin, believing that this action will put the government closer to the problems of East Germany. He approves of Germany's involvement in the European Union. He hopes that Germany will take a leadership role in the European Union and thereby ease some of the pain of Germany's past. Mr. Schneider closed by expressing his hope that the future of Germany will be bright and that he, his family, and all Germans can learn to be relaxed about being German.

Mr. Peter Schneider "The Wall Dogs," published in "The German Comedy"

When God created the German, He gave him the German shepherd as a companion, And I for one will not be swayed by any claim that the dog was originally Scottish or Irish, for if the German shepherd wasn't German by birth, it has certainly proven itself German by choice. At every turning point in modern German history, the shepherd has stuck to its post with steadfast determination. When Adolf Hitler was so disappointed with his Germans that he shot himself inside his bunker, he not only left his people without their Führer, but a German shepherd without its master -an event that inspired Günther Grass to write a 700-page novel entitled Dog Years. And when the Berlin Wall fell and Erich Honecker fled to the Soviet Union, he was not only abandoning seventeen million Germans, but thousands of German shepherds as well.

Of course, it's safe to presume that Honecker had no personal relationship with his many loyal four-legged sentries; after all, they guarded not just his house in Wandlitz, but the entire East German state. Nevertheless, these animals so closely connected with the Germans were the first to feel the wounds left by the cutting edge of history on November 9. Overnight they lost their jobs as well as their homes in the kennels along the border.

The true dimensions of their service didn't become known until after the Wall came down. All told, the East Germans kept over 5,000 dogs along the border, including approximately 2,500 watchdogs and 2,700 so-called horse dogs. They weren't all Germans shepherds, for in the egalitarian workers' state, these aristocrats had no choice but to share space with Rottweilers, Schnauzers, and all types of mixed breeds.

Germans on both sides of the Wall were moved by the news that thousands of their favorite dogs had lost their masters during the night of November 9. They feared the worst. In the collective imagination, the desperate, forlorn dogs gathered along desolate stretches of border to howl at their one remaining employer, the moon. People even expected to see wild and dangerous packs of homeless animals prowling the suddenly accessible streets of West Berlin.

But nothing of the kind happened. Immediately after the Wall opened, the West German Tierschutzverein (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) began negotiating with the East German Ministry for National Defense. After many tortuous special sessions, the Society finally announced, in January 1990, that 2,500 Walldogs would settle in West Germany within the following eight weeks. Hundreds of sympathetic single households along with dozens of families with children spontaneously expressed their willingness to adopt the dogs. But a shadow soon darkened this bright moment of East-West accord as the dogs became the occasion for a typically German dispute-this time between Western and Eastern shepherd experts.

The news of the impending transfer unleashed the wrath of the West German Shepherd Association, which accused the Society of insufficient expertise and carelessness. The Association claimed that the border dogs were much too "dangerous" for inexperienced animal lovers. They had been kept "without social contact with humans," they would become more and more "difficult to integrate into families" as they grew older, and they were "scarcely capable of being reeducated for normal daily life." Moreover, dogs that were "too heavily predispositioned" would be far better off staying "over there."

The West German mass media immediately cashed in on the excitement. Front-page articles spoke of "blood-hounds" and "killer beasts"; the dogs were described as special and psychologically unstable many had even had their incisors sharpened to a fine point with a special file. One thousand were so dangerous they needed to be put to sleep. Dogs that had been raised under Stalinism were too "influenced by their environment" to be suited for house pets.

These allegations cut the East German dogkeepers to the quick, and for perhaps the first time in history, friends and foes of dogs joined hands in common protest. Experts from East German animal shelters spoke of Western smear campaigns reminiscent of the Cold War. From two pathological biters (that really did have to be put to sleep) the West German press had made 1,000 -and the reasons were obvious. For if 2,500 East German dogs suddenly flooded the market-where they currently sold for about $60 apiece-the overall price would be sure to drop. In order to protect the Western purebloods from this devaluation, their Eastern brothers and sisters were being systematically defamed. Whereas in fact, the East Germans claimed, the poor border dogs were really the "last victims of Stalinism," and as such deserved special care and understanding. Far from being misanthropic, the dogs who had served with the border patrols were actually "very much in need of love" and eager for affection: since they had worked in shifts, always serving at least four different masters, they had been deprived of the special master-dog relationship. What's more, the dogs were uneducated and completely incompetent; they couldn't even bite on command. Really, they had just been "dummy dogs" running back and forth along the Wall, the harmless embodiments of their own myth-living scarecrows for humans. Not a single refugee had ever even been nipped by one of these dogs. On the contrary, every Wall-jumper who had given them a friendly click of the tongue was welcome to pet and scratch them behind the ears. These purported descendants of the Baskerville hound had only two things on their minds: a humble meal and a little tenderness. In fact, one West German buyer even returned a particularly majestic specimen, indignant that the animal hadn't uttered a peep when burglars broke into his house.

The East German defenders of the homeless border dogs grew downright alarmed when they realized that the negative propaganda had actually enticed whole flocks of undesirable buyers. Pimps looking for a "killer beast" strolled up and down in front of the East Berlin kennels; dog maniacs suffering from Napoleonic complexes saw the opportunity to compensate for their small stature by acquiring a gigantic German shepherd. Nor were prospective buyers from abroad lacking. Stories circulated about rich New Yorkers who flew Pan Am to Berlin for one day just to purchase a Wall-dog for their Fifth Avenue apartments. The head of the East Berlin Border Patrol's Canine Service told of a Spaniard who tried to acquire several dogs at once for medical experiments, of Koreans and Chinese who were eyeing the animals as major ingredients for tasty culinary specialties from down home. The orphaned dogs' East German wardens grew more suspicious with every passing day. They began to subject Western clients to oral and even written tests designed to separate "serious" dog lovers from "dubious" ones. Unfortunately only a small number of the German shepherds could be placed in East German homes, due to the well-known shortage of living space. Moreover, forty years of anti-Fascist training had evidently affected the taste of the East German populace, who now preferred house pets that could not possibly be identified as symbols of power, aggression, or domination: parakeets, cats, and miniature rabbits.

The dispute has now died down. Almost all the border dogs have been successfully adopted, and there's little talk of problem of integration. Many of the new arrivals who first reacted to canned food in all its Western variety with upturned noses or even diarrhea have successfully adjusted. Most have overcome their fear of elevators and escalators. They are no longer afraid of unknown canine species and have stopped running away at the sight of miniature poodles wearing knitted caps and leather jackets. Almost all are proving themselves willing to learn, even to the point of understanding commands in dialects other than Saxon.

But whenever they accompany their new Western masters on walls near where the Wall once stood, they are suddenly deaf to every call and run their programmed beat without veering right or left. The Wall itself has disappeared so completely that even native Berliners
can't always say exactly where it used to stand. Only the Wall-dogs move as if tethered by an unseen leash, with absolute certainty, following the old border along its wild zigzags through the city-just as though they were looking for, or maybe missing, something . . .

But perhaps this story is only a legend-like the Wall itself.


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