The rain contrasting our readiness to learn set the tone for our visit to Sachsenhausen in Oranienburg. The houses to both our left and right looked dreary as we wound down the residential streets to the former concentration camp. I could almost place myself back in the 1930’s when these people lived under an oppressive government in which they could not safely show any open compassion towards those who suffered just a matter of blocks away. As our tour guide was talking to us, she mentioned that society within the camp was just the same as society outside but with more pressure. There were many diverse and intersectional groups in the concentration camps (from political dissidents to eventually many more groups), and as in the society of the time, there were conflicts between the groups. It was not always everyone in the camp versus the Nazis. I think this idea of society’s consistency holds a lot of truth and can speak to how histories can be mythologized to follow the mainstream narrative. Similar to seeing the Third Reich as the worst times of Germany and shifting emphasis away from other genocides like those during colonialization as we saw in Kristina’s lecture, memorials in art and culture have often focused on the victimization of Jewish people and left out other groups such as homosexuals and Romani people. Perhaps a simplified story is easier to disseminate, so then the few most popular elements of the historical narratives are told. In Germany up to the present, these have primarily come from the dominant, sometimes oppressive white German narrative presented by Dr. El-Tayeb. I felt that our tour guide understood many of these complexities having worked at the memorial for over six years. When asked why the SS soldiers committed such acts of violence, she never gave a definitive answer and insisted that we must look at the facts and then perhaps come to a personal opinion. As one of our instructors told me tonight, we cannot always come to a conclusion and simplify all the facts down to a statement. It is tempting, but embracing the complexities often comes with inclusion, acceptance, and accuracy. We got to hear stories of medical experiments, the construction of the camp, and the first Oranienburg KZ as well, so there is much more to reflect on from what she said. There is even more to find at the museum which presented much information that we didn’t even see. The information at the Sachsenhausen memorial seemed to give a well-researched version of the former camp, and is worth another trip and more reflection in the future.
Not only was the narrative of Dachsenhausen hard to simplify into one interpretation. So is this picture of it.
Tonight’s performance of Winterreise spoke out against a similar theme to the one I bring up from Sachsenhausen. The show revealed so many normal aspects of human life while still being primarily about refugees. It included things we all experience to one degree. Sports. Romance. Sex. Busses. We continued on a journey with the cast not seeing them as victims, but feeling the full spectrum of emotion with them. The moments when the heartbreak, tough choices, and discrimination came through hit me particularly strongly because we got many glimpses of how they wanted to live and the reality of the dreams sometimes not coming true. One example of this for me was the scene where the woman leaves her fiancé with all the complications of him coming to Germany first come together. Each person in the show starts with hopes and goals, and we see the outside problems seeping into their lives. Though plays focusing on a particular group can do their share of “othering” themselves, I felt like I got to know the people onstage tonight through the performance. It bridged some gaps between what I see in the news about refugees and how it all connects to individual human stories. As Sharon Otoo might say, these artists are working with another toothbrush to address a mountain of issues that the piece touches on. Like a complete narrative often is, the show doesn’t try to come to conclusions or nail a specific idea into our minds. Its writers simply end with a hug, the group onstage together, and the sense that each story continues on. It made me want to reach out to more people and learn their story, instead of feeling like I had the answer from the show, and I think that is an insightful choice on the artists’ behalf. They are hopefully starting conversations, connections, and community by trying to present lives realistically and holistically.