Courage In The Face Of Terror

Our time in Berlin as well as being together as Buckeyes touring Europe is at an end and I have been thankful not only to travel with my fellow students but also to travel with my friends. I have come to enjoy the company of so many who think and interpret history in a way that I do not. It has been refreshing to do “debriefs” after we tour a museum or see a sight and listen to one another. Here in Berlin, we have visited a host of museums and sites dedicated to remembering Nazi atrocities and how they had nearly the entire population swept up in hatred and contempt for anyone deemed “other.”  I have constantly been overwhelmed with emotion as we visited these areas, and mostly filled with a mixture of contempt for those who started this and to those who let it continue on. I have felt deep sadness and dread at the cost of human life and at seeing the cruelty that man can do to fellow man. Learning it firsthand at the actual locations of what took place made it powerful in ways I did not expect. I found this to be more moving than any text I have read, any movie or documentary I have watched or any photo I have seen. As I spoke about in my last blog, the weight of history is all around us and nowhere else has it been so potent and moving and all I could think of is how could anyone let this go on. I felt heavy with this on my shoulders, even though we are some eighty years removed from the Nazi era and even though my only connection to the war is that both of my grandfathers fought in the Army in the push through Europe.  

The Bendlerblock area is rather plain and unadorned; if you did not know where you were going you would stroll by and assume it was just another block of office buildings.  Yet inside, the truth of Germany’s past is laid out, the good and the evil from their time under the Nazi banner. Upon visiting the German Resistance Museum, you must pass through the courtyard where a statue and a plaque are dedicated to the memory of the officers executed here on the night of July 20, 1944 after their failed attempt to kill Hitler. When you walk into the first floor of the museum you are hit immediately with the staggering cost of Nazi ideology. In plain, bold text they have the sum total painted onto the wall, thirteen million men and women. Thirteen million souls snuffed out in the darkness that was the Nazi regime. Six million of them were Jewish, the other seven million composed of anyone the Nazi state decreed wasn’t fit to live, including political prisoners, Soviet POWs, homosexuals, church members and Roma and Sinti peoples, and many other subsets of people defined on ethnic lines. This staggering number–the weight of all those lives that never got to be lived out in full–is the cost of Nazi German ideology. 

Yet, in the blackness of Nazi oppression there was some light, as there were people from a host of different backgrounds who did not trade their moral standings for public conformity. I found each and every one of their stories deeply touching on a human level, as many of them had been willing to risk their lives in an effort to save just one person. Those who followed their moral compass did what they could, as they could in the face of darkness. My earlier feelings of contempt and anger softened, as I did not know the extent of this before visiting the German Resistance Museum, but became thankful to see the scattered accounts of light and to know that in times of great evil, some men and women will stand against it even at cost to themselves. I am glad that we made time to stop here, to read and reflect on the stories, because it  allowed me to grow past my first wave of feelings and develop empathy for those living in such conditions that I hope to never know.

While touring the sites of remembrance, these words, from Primo Levi, a Holocaust survivor, stuck with me: “We cannot understand, but we can and must understand from where it springs, and we must be on our guard…because what happened can happen again…For this reason, it is everyone’s duty to reflect on what happened.” It is now more important than ever to stand in solidarity with all peoples who face targeted attacks from hate groups, and to remain watchful of those who would attempt to unite the many against the few. I will carry with me from this experience a renewed sense of compassion and empathy, not only for the victims but for those who would risk all in order to help. This trip to Berlin has affirmed to me that even in the darkest of times, light will still shine through.

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