Work Sets You Free. Sacschenhausen, May 2014.

I grew up hearing rumours about the Jews. They were at once our puppet masters and minions of Shaytan; filthy beggars and degenerate elites; supporters of the Red Army and Balochi insurrectionists. I replayed the fairy tales in my head as I took the S1 train up to Sachsenhausen. I never believed them.

It seemed strange to me, as it still does, that we never challenged what we were told. My uncle had no proof when he told my older brother and I that every Jew working in the World Trade Center left on the morning of September 11th. That didn’t stop him from using it as proof that Jews “clearly knew that something was going to happen.”

Eventually, I came to reject such untruths, and paid a price. I still remember being venomously told that I’m “Western” for sympathizing with Jews. I have no regrets about it. Sometimes, a bit of isolation is better than bad community. As I finally arrived at the concentration camp, I thought to myself that I don’t want to settle with the kind of love that requires reminders like this, of our lack of empathy. Even if it is just apologizing for my family’s politics, in retrospect.

I step off the train. The early morning cold pierces my skin. Sachsenhausen won’t open until 8:30, so I decide to have some coffee. I hadn’t slept. I order a cup of coffee with milk and pull out my laptop. I read an article about “the Auschwitz Muslim.” Apparently, when camp inmates were so emaciated that they were unable to stand, fellow prisoners would refer to them derogatorily as Muslims. Their constant kneeling and shaking recalled the yogic patterns of namaz. Even in the concentration camps, there were still hierarchies, and casual forms of racism.

I find it disturbing. I resolve to deal with the agitation by playing science-fiction computer games. I open a space simulator called FTL: Faster than Light. I command a crew of humans and aliens as we escape the rebel fleet and attempt to save the Federation. I enjoy pretending that my cosmopolitan insect-human crew is talking to me as they improve our shielding and repair the engines. Some people say that games like this are an escape from the mundane. I disagree. They channel our desires and command us to meet them in a non-fictional setting. I find a community in FTL that I endeavor to help create outside of it.

After a couple of hours, I put my game away and walk towards Sachsenhausen. It is unnerving to find it in the middle of a suburban area. I often forget that despite post-war claims to the contrary, these places were part of civilian Germany’s everyday life. People may have ignored them, but they often lived their lives right next door to these abominations. As the SS beat those ‘Muslims’ for not standing upright, families picnicked together nearby. Sometimes in full view of camps like this, 22 miles north of Berlin.

Café Sachsenhausen. May 2014.

I walk past the barbed wire fences and silent watch towers to find the front entrance. I hold my breath and investigate my surroundings. There is now a tacky cafe about twenty meters from where the iron bars scream “WORK SETS YOU FREE.” I enter the Sachsenhausen and find myself alone, except for a few janitors entering a barracks in the distance. It opened five minutes ago, and I am the first visitor of the day. I shuffle past the gravel enclosures where row after row of prisoner quarters once stood. It is sunny now. I regret wearing a jacket.

I walk into the first barracks and find myself overwhelmed by the sight of the latrine block. There is a sign that said the SS used to drown inmates in their excrement. Last weekend, I was at a party with a friend, and he told me that spontaneous acts of murder were a major part of how the camps functioned. It made sense to me. After all, if there was regularity to the suffering, then people might have gotten used to it and clung to their humanity. The prospect of unforeseeable murder probably recalled something more primal. It gave them a constant anxiety about impending doom. Just as the shower heads could be exhaling Zyklon B instead of spraying water, every bodily function could be grounds for extermination. There weren’t rules so much as there was powerlessness.

When I was a child, my mother taught me that we would lose our sense of time in the Hereafter. That is why we couldn’t get used to it, and why we would never get bored in Jannah. It made sense. After all, our notions of linear time cannot reconcile themselves with the prospect of eternity. While looking at the toilets, I recall Primo Levi talking about how the days blended into each other at Auschwitz. That made his time there less a defined period than a vague mix of death and decay. I begin wondering if that was on purpose. Did the Nazis explicitly set out to build hell at Sachsenhausen? Is that why it was designed to maximize the inmates’ sense of ephemeral suffering? To redefine their existence as eternal torment? Was that their only answer to the prospect of infinity, and the idea of civilization?

I walk outside for a moment. I stand in the sun to regain my composure. I spot a few security cameras on the wall: a bit surreal in a concentration camp, but made necessary by neo-Nazi attacks and general vandalism. I go into the second barracks, and see a broom closet. The sign tells me that the SS used to force inmates in there as a form of punishment. Sometimes, they allowed them to suffocate, depending on the whims of the guards. Nazism predicated itself on a deep yearning to transgress the imagined boundaries of evil. This impulse is also what led to the Nazis unearthing Jewish graves, as though to ensure that even death provided no respite.

I leave a small museum to Nazi propaganda and start walking towards the gate. I see a huge mass of schoolchildren approaching me from the other direction. I watch them walk through in an organized manner and wonder if I’m actually seeing ghosts. I take the train home and meet up with some friends to visit museums for an alternative Holocaust remembrance project meant to mark the 70th anniversary of its conclusion. I cry a bit at a Topography of Terror exhibit that talks about how the Nazis persecuted the disabled. Their doctors were enthusiastic about fascism, and letters were on display from their family members saying that they were a burden because they were physically and/or mentally ill. If they were orphans, they died completely alone, and the only people who were informed of their deaths were bureaucrats. All of them could have added so much to the world around them, but fascists only care about what can be calculated, manipulated, drained, and overpowered. The only thing I knew how to do was weep.

I ask my friend, who is a grandchild of four Holocaust survivors, how he can possibly return to Berlin. He laughs and tells me that only three hours of his day are devoted to soul-searching and activism, with the rest being absorbed by “boys, nothing but boys, it makes life easier.” We end the day by going to a memorial for Roma and Sinti. I talked to someone earlier in the week who said that it is unacceptable that it took the German government so long to build the memorial (“It is bad enough that the victims have different monuments!”) It is a fountain with a black triangle in the center. I find it peaceful. I sit down and recite Ayat al-Kursi to myself, with a purposeful Urdu accent to simulate my mother’s presence. I blow the words on the monument to protect it from the djinn.


Photographs courtesy of the author. Published under a Creative Commons License.