Dark history: A visit to Grunewald Gleis 17 and Wannsee

History is everywhere in Berlin, sometimes a testament to the heights to which mankind can attain and equally the depths of cruelty and horror. Today, more of the latter and the impossibility of understanding man’s seemingly endless inhumanity. Gleis 17 is the railroad platform at Grunewald station in Grunewald where Berlin’s Jews were transported to their death in the camps. Located to the southwest of Berlin in a sleepy, almost picture perfect little town is a memorial that in its subtle simplicity rends the heart and fills the soul with despair and fear.

After disembarking from the S1, steps lead down to a passageway under the railroad tracks to the town.

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Just before the end is a sign that says Gleis 17, to the left are stairs leading out onto a shuttered railroad platform.

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A little further, a few steps on the right lead down to another platform.

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On both, at their edge are weathered iron plates. Starting in October 1941 and ending in February 1945, each plate shows the day, month and year, the number of persons and their final destination.

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Destinations that ring of unspeakable horrors through the decades: At first Theresienstadt and then as the concentration camp system developed following the Wannsee Conference in January 1942, the other infamous destinations of Auschwitz and Riga. peaking somewhere around 1944, is the depressing inventory of those murdered by the Nazi regime. Throughout the war, even when it was clear they were losing, the search for Jews, along with Roma and political prisoners, continued relentlessly. There is madness in man.

To its credit, the German government has not stinted in its acknowledgement of the past, either through the number of museums, memorials and exhibitions that, with great detail, document this horrific period. Nor through the directness of the exhibition text that doesn’t try to sugarcoat anything. The trip to Wannsee was the logical next step.

This beautiful villa, with its stunning IMG_8621grounds and view of the lake, became theIMG_8653

the headquarters for SS planning and implementation of the mass killings.

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I wanted to see the location, the very room, where senior executives of the Nazi leadership met to develop the bureaucracy for the ‘final solution’, one whose written goal was to kill 11,000,000. The number of men with advanced university degrees, particularly in law, who participated at this meeting, who planned the killings who developed the most sophisticated logistical and operational procedures, defies comprehension and, if it were not shown in images and words, almost too fantastical to be real. In spite of all the words and attempts to understand, to explain, in this exhibition and the Topography of Terror, I am not sure that insanity can ever be understood.

And yet, it is equally clear that great organizational skill is required to plan, harness the resources and implement corporate (public and private) programs, for good or evil. If ideological ends redefine morality and ethics and thus the laws that spring from them, any society can be reconstructed. A new religion is born. Democracy is a fragile thing and easily usurped if taken too much for granted. The power of the state rests on the belief by the individuals in it that no single person has the means to challenge it. And a system of coercion and spying ensure that the individual is isolated unless willing to become part of a new community.

Individuals whose primary desire is to make laws to suit ideological ends, for whom career and ambition trump consequences, is there a difference between then and now? Tragically, it is easy to make a seemingly endless list of contemporary examples. The grotesqueness of the Nazi regime is significant because of the civilization that lay behind it, in particular the number of lawyers at the most senior levels. After all, one must have the law on one’s side and who better to ensure that than a lawyer. But that is as far as it goes. Man’s capacity for cruelty and self-justification continues unabated, from messy divorces to religious beheadings. The differences are merely ones of scale and savagery.

The exhibition includes many, many official documents and an exhaustive chronology of events. The drawings made by artists in the camps, at great risk of torture and death moved me deeply. And in combination with some of the photographs documenting the savagery, I could no longer stay in that place. The perversion I was exposed to was too much. I left very much with the feeling, now more reinforced than ever, that Man will never change.

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