Chapter 21: Broken
Arbeit Macht Frei was the first thing Kristian saw upon his arrival at the camp. Work Makes You Free, the slogan was etched on the front gates. A half hour ride away from Berlin, his new home wasn’t far away from his old. He would be living inside the camp, although he had had a choice of living accommodations in the nearby town of Oranienburg.
An officer greeted him. “Welcome to Sachsenhausen, Officer Köhler. I am Senior Officer Carver, one of the camp administrators. I have heard great things about you.”
“Pleased to meet you,” said Kristian. “Come, let me show you around, give you a little tour.” Carver told him.
They went inside the camp, which was surrounded by a scattered forest. The campgrounds were vast, it was all much larger than Kristian had imagined.
“This here is the courtyard,” Carver said as they walked outside the camp’s buildings. “The camp is shaped like a triangle, so that the guards in any of the three corner towers have a perfect view of the campgrounds.”
As they walked further in, Kristian began to see the prisoners. Men of all ages who were cutting and carrying tree trunks around. They would walk by Kristian and Carver without looking at eye level. “These buildings over here are the prisoners’ dormitories, and that large one over there is their eatery and toilet. Ours is over there, in the camp administration building. It’s also known as ‘guard tower A’ and it’s the most heavily guarded tower. Your dormitory is in there as well, I’ll show you later, and don’t worry, yours is much nicer.” Carver said upon seeing the look on Kristian’s face after peeking into one of the barracks. They walked onward.
Guards kept surveillance from the watchtowers with rifles and machine guns. There was an outer brick fence, an inner barbed wire fence which ran through tall, lit posts, and there was one final inner fence which was curled up, electrical barbed wire. An escape from there seemed impossible. As Carver explained the many protocols, Kristian noticed blood splattered everywhere on the edge. “What happened there?” he asked.
“Oh yeah, we used to throw more gravel over that, but there’s no point anymore. This gravel strip you see all around the fence, we call it ‘the death strip’. Thing is, prisoners who got this close to the fence were shot to death. They knew not to step out of the grass and onto the gravel. But soon enough, some started doing it on purpose, you know, to commit suicide. So now we don’t shoot them to kill, we shoot them below the torso, to maim. Once they recover, they’re back to work.
See, Köhler, here, those who want to die are forced to live. And those who want to live… well, if they put up a fight, they are the ones who end up dying,” Carver said loud enough that some prisoners nearby heard. How motivational… Kristian thought.
“What kind of work do the prisoners do?” he asked.
“All kinds of work. Right now, they’re working on supplying Berlin with wood. They’ll go out into the forest, supervised of course, and cut down the trees, bring them back here, cut the wood, stuff like that. They’re also working on an expansion for the camp.”
The camp even had an infirmary, a kitchen, and a laundry. Kristian also saw the extension Carver told him about. They soon arrived at the administrative building. A group of officers sat outside playing cards and smoking. “Good afternoon, officers. This is our newcomer, Officer Köhler,” Carver introduced him.
“Welcome, rookie,” one of the men smiled.
“Look at him, he’s got that frightened, first-time look on his face. It’s kind of cute,” one of them said and the others laughed.
“Let me guess, you just came from an office job for the Schutzstaffel in the capital?” one of the officers asked.
How does he know? ”Yes,” Kristian answered.
“Well, welcome to the real men’s league. This here is no office job. Your days babysitting the Führer and being his errand boy are over.”
“Seriously though, make yourself at home, Officer. Anything you need or any questions you have, just come to one of us,” a more serious-looking officer said.
They went inside the administrative building and Carver told him where to find his dormitory and office. He gave him the keys to that building and to his room. Kristian’s job was to serve as a labour supervisor and to train as a future camp administrator.
“Alright, settle in. You’ve got a long day ahead tomorrow, Officer. Dinner is at 7:00. Oh, and one last thing before I go.
I’m sure you were told this before coming here, but I must repeat it nonetheless. Your life here, your experiences here, anything you do and see here, stays here.
You do not tell anyone from the outside what goes on in here. The townspeople nearby know, they’ve heard the shots. They’re indifferent, some even profit from the camp. Either way, they’ve been warned about spreading word, and we keep them in check. But most Germans would not understand the kind of work we’re doing here...
I guess what I’m trying to say is, you can’t discuss what you do here, not even with your closest family, because we will know. It would be a shame to see Papa Peter, Mama Simone, or pretty Yvonne end up in here, wouldn’t it?” Carver patted Kristian on the back and walked away.
Kristian stood in place, frozen. That was the most casual threat anyone had ever made to him. Carver knew their names. What have I gotten myself into?
“He’s fired another general?” Peter asked.
“Not fired, replaced. He replaces brains and experience with obedience and blind loyalty… or whatever the fuck you want to call it…” General Halder said.
“Who was it this time?” Karl Von Schäffer asked
“Zimmermann. His wife is pregnant with their fourth child.” Halder replied
“Poor man. Should have known better than to disagree with Adolf.” Peter said.
“Everything continues to unfold the way Hitler wants, I feel so helpless not being able to do a single thing!” Von Schäffer slammed his empty scotch glass on the table.
“Calm down, Karl. It’s not our fault we had to discard the plan. The best we can do now is follow him and advise him in the best possible way, for Germany’s sake.”
“If another war breaks out, Britain and France will have been warned,” Halder sighed.
Uli, following Ben’s advice and Ivy’s wishes, decided to move to Berlin. Ben had plans to move to the big city himself, in the new year. Luckily, Uli didn’t need to look for a place to stay. Kristian’s apartment proved to be very roomy and comfortable.
He attended the Luftwaffe’s academy while Simone happily took care of the twins at the Köhler house. She had fiercely rejected accepting any money from Uli to do so, stating that she “had become nothing more than a bored housewife, and taking care of these gorgeous baby girls was enough compensation for her.” Women in the Third Reich had only one role: to stay at home, being good wives and mothers.
Ivy, of course, still went ahead and enrolled herself in the teaching program at Berlin’s university. Most other pupils were men. Every day she was met with frowns and indiscreet questions such as “Why aren’t you married yet?”
By the time windy and cold November came around, she was starting to dread going to class.
“I should just quit. I’m not enjoying it! I thought I would be, but I’m not. Look at you. You enjoy what you’re doing, and I’m just miserable,” Ivy complained. “Even our apple tree is miserable, look at it, it’s dying.”
“I bet it hates having to be a tree every day,” Uli teased her, bringing a smile to her face.
Uli had come to take the twins home. Heidi and Trudi were three and a half years old. They had excellent manners and behaved very well, but they were picking up every word they heard and repeating it with perfect pronunciation, so Uli and Peter had to watch their language around them.
Simone had asked Uli to stay for dinner, as usual, and he had accepted. He always accepted, after a while, because not only was the food delicious, but because the alternative was to disappoint her, Ivy, and Peter. Even when he politely turned down the invitations, so that the family could have some time on their own, Simone would still give him warm food to take home. She reminded him so much of his mother, so caring and loving. In turn, that reminded him of how much he missed her. Peter was also very kind to him, nothing like his father, a man he would never miss.
Simone was in the kitchen, washing dishes, while Peter sat at the table reading the evening news. There was nothing he didn’t already know from work, but he always found it useful to see the news from a civilian’s point of view.
Two days prior, a Jewish young man had shot an innocent German embassy official in Paris. The newspapers didn’t state his reason for such a heinous act, but Peter knew it was revenge for his and his family’s expulsion from Germany along with 17,000 other Polish Jews. On November 9th, after two days in the hospital, the embassy official died despite having been treated by the Führer’s own private doctor.
Ivy had asked her father what happened to the filthy Jew, since the news was that he had been transferred from the Parisian police to the Gestapo. Peter told her he was being held prisoner, awaiting trial for his crime. He couldn’t tell her the truth, that the Gestapo was probably torturing him to death or that he was in a camp, suffering the same fate.
All the public knew was that the Jewish criminal had taken the life of a young, hard-working, good German man. An innocent man. Because that’s what Jews were good at. This story was turned into a national drama by Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda. Peter knew that Goebbels wasn’t going to stand by and do nothing after that incident. His hatred for Jews rivaled that of the Führer himself. He knew he was going to make an example of the Jews left in Germany, including Austria, he just didn’t know what it would be.
Ivy accompanied Uli and the girls home as she would sometimes do. They’d all go on the bus or by foot, when the weather was nice, since he couldn’t take the twins with him on his bike. Once the twins were asleep, he would take Ivy back home on his bike before night fell. That day was windy, but not too cold, so they decided to walk.
When they went outside, they heard loud noises in the distance. Louder than was usual for the massive city. Sirens wailing and cars honking. They also saw smoke in the distance. “What’s going on?” Ivy asked Uli. “No idea,” he replied.
Eventually, they turned a street and saw the kind of chaos that was only ever seen in movies. SA brownshirts, storm troopers, and civilians had gone into a frenzy. Smashing windows from shops and homes, dragging people one could only assume were Jews outside, beating them, shooting them, setting their things on fire. Uli picked up Trudi and Ivy picked up Heidi, and they tried to get away from the smoke and the chaos, but the crowd grew around them, enclosing them in the core of it all.
They tried to make their way through, stepping on pieces of glass that crunched beneath their feet, walking over Torahs and Jewish religious artifacts that lay broken on the street. Cars were honking, trying to get through the masses on the street, but they weren’t making way. They had to remove their jackets and cover the girls with them, to avoid any glass from hurting them and to cover them from the smoke and dust. Kids were throwing rocks into windows. Men were using axes and sledgehammers to cause the real damage.
A woman lay on the curb, screaming, crying, with a bleeding man in her arms. The screams, the noises, it was all so loud, so overwhelming. A police officer noticed Uli’s uniform and shouted “Soldier, get your family out of here, things are going to get uglier!”
“Ivy, we’re going to have to go back to your house, my apartment is in the heart of this madness!” Uli shouted. But Ivy stood in shock, staring at a little Jewish boy who strangely enough reminded her of Kristian. The boy was shaking an unconscious girl of about Ivy’s age. “Mama! Mama, wake up!” he cried.
“Ivy!” Uli shook her. She felt nauseous. Her head was spinning. The twins were crying. “Ivy!” “What?” she asked him. “Snap out of it! Do you remember what they taught us in Hitlerjugend?” he shouted.
“Be strong?” she asked, holding back the vomit. “Be strong! Feel no pity for these animals, now let’s get out of here!”
A newspaper stand flew past them and smashed the doors of a Jewish jewelry shop. People ran inside, stuffing their pockets with everything they could grab. The shop owner stood on the sidewalk, helplessly watching.
Any place that had been marked or that was known to be a Jewish business or dwelling, was targeted. The people who weren’t joining in the destruction, or the beatings, were standing by, watching in horror. They saw some people picking up Jews, rushing them into their homes. But most had locked themselves in and looked out their windows. Some were in tears.
On their way back, they passed by a large synagogue. It was the source of the smoke seen from a distance. Spectators stood on the street, silently watching the sacred building become swallowed by angry flames. There were firefighters at the scene, but they weren’t attempting to save it. Instead, they were preventing the fire from spreading to the buildings around it.
They finally reached the Köhler house. Peter and Simone stood outside, as did many of their neighbours. When they saw Ivy and Uli carrying the twins and covered in soot, they ran to them and hugged them in relief. They soon joined those who were locking themselves in. The chaotic noises continued late into the night.
Ivy was angry with herself for once again feeling pity for a Jew. The next day, after Uli went home with the twins, Liesel and Ivy took a walk around the city to assess the damage. Ivy reveled in joy, but Liesel, who was often loud-spoken, remained eerily quiet.
“The swing club was destroyed. It was burned and trashed along with the library up top,” Liesel told Ivy. “Good! We shouldn’t have kept going to that horrid place anyway, it was so wrong,” she replied.
Herschel Gryszpan was the young Jewish boy who shot the embassy official, Ernst Vom Rath. His final fate is unknown, but after his arrest, he was a prisoner at Sachsenhausen at one point. He really did await trial for his crime, but disappeared before a trial ever happened. His story, along with the theory on why he really shot Vom Rath, are truly fascinating.
Adolf Hitler gave a speech shortly after Kristallnacht, but not a word about it was spoken. The newscasts were ordered to downplay the country-wide event. In Vienna alone, nearly a hundred synagogues were destroyed or vandalized. But even Hitler knew how this horrible event had upset Germans, and he disliked the way Goebbels had carried it out. The overall reaction was to keep things hushed and, in a way, pretend nothing had happened.
Most members of the Nazi Party had, at this point, joined for practical reasons, not because of ideology or anti-Semitism. There are several reports of Nazis who actually helped Jews during Kristallnacht.