Have you ever heard of Sachsenhausen? …If not, you’re not alone – because I sure hadn’t.
During my study tour to Berlin last week, our class took a visit to the Sachsenhausen memorial and museum – one of the several concentration camps used during the Nazi era. Located just 45 minutes north of Berlin, Sachsenhausen was one of very first “model” camps to hold prisoners as a way to enforce labor. In it were political enemies (socialists, communists, anarchists), “asocials” who were seen as work-shy (addicts, alcoholics, Gypsies, lesbians, and those with intellectual or physical disability), and lastly gay men, or anyone who would now be labeled as queer. Most prisoners there were German, with only a small section for imprisoned Jews.
Now, why on earth would we visit this camp? What positivity could there be in such a horrific place?
My class on Sex Education and Sexual Reform in Europe focuses on sexual education, analyzing the ways that cultural attitudes and practices in sex and sexuality have changed and evolved throughout the past century.
Before visiting Sachsenhausen, I had no real idea what to expect. For years I’ve had strong interests in learning all there is about the Holocaust. I’ve taken classes and have done research “for fun” on the subject, so I came into this knowing more than the average person. Despite this, Sachsenhausen was a camp that I had never heard of before. I had no idea that there were concentration camps specifically dedicated to physical labor, much less which imprisoned people who were exactly like me.
As I entered the front gate, I felt incredibly nervous. The atmosphere within the camp felt eerily peaceful, and it took awhile for me to be able to process that I was actually there. We were lead around the camp by a queer tour guide who had given us a walking tour the day before, as well as our three tour-leaders, so most of us felt reasonably comfortable in who we were with.
One of the first things I noticed was that the sun was hiding. Since most of the camp was destroyed by the Communists after WWII, the interior was mostly a bare field. A few stray trees were planted, and buildings were scarce, but other than that there wasn’t much too the camp. This made it feel so strange to have little sun – especially because it was one of the hottest days of the year. The emptiness, though, seemed appropriate. It was as if the sorrow and agony felt by the prisoners remained inside the barbed-wire fence surrounding us. Even the sun didn’t dare show itself.
One of the hardest parts was when we reached the area where the gas chamber, trenches, and crematorium once sat. All that was left of the buildings was their brick foundation, which made it a little easier to imagine what they looked like.
Directly across were signs in memory of the gay and lesbian prisoners who were murdered at the camp. It finally hit me that, if I had been alive and living in Germany at this time, I most likely would have murdered here.
The gut-wrenching feeling that brought on, though, soon turned into pride and resilience. Why? Simply because my presence in that moment was like a huge middle-finger to Nazi regime. My ability to walk along the same bricks and stones that other queer and disabled people once did was a solemn, yet reflective experience.
My visit to Sachsenhausen made me fully realize how important it is to be able to own mistakes and tragedies. Because out of pain, desolation and heartbreak in Berlin came new liberative freedom and visibility afterwards. The reformation of queer life in Germany – and all elsewhere in the world – is not possible without tragedies and corrupt systems. In no way do I condone the actions of the Nazi’s – but without the wars, Berlin today would not be nearly as “queer” as it is today.
I think it’s clear to say that going to Sachsenhausen changed my outlook on life for the better. Although the idea of mass murders of all sorts of people terrifies me to no end, I can now understand how important it is that my presence be heard and seen – and taken seriously.
For this reason, I’ve come to terms with how important it is for people like myself to not sit back and watch something like this happen again. I am privileged enough to be able to use this knowledge and societal position to support others like myself – which I am so, so grateful for.
To reflect this, I decided to get these two tattoos after I came back to Copenhagen:
The black triangle was used to identify prisoners who were “Asocials”, whereas the pink triangle is for those who were gay men. I got these tattoos as a way to reclaim my own identities as a physically disabled, queer, and transgender man. These triangles also serve as a personal reminder of how far I am come in life, and to remember to never give up no matter how hard it gets.
Thank you so much for reading, especially if you’ve made it this far! I appreciate all readers tremendously , and I hope you enjoyed reading this update. I know it’s been quite a while since my last update, so I wanted to make sure this one was extra-meaningful!
Take care. <3