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Danielle Sobkin

Echoes from the ashes

Amidst Sachsenhausen’s echoes, I walked over the ashes of history.

For years, I avoided visiting concentration camps, fearing that I was not emotionally equipped to face the visceral reality of such places. Learning about the Holocaust through books, visiting Yad Vashem, or walking through the solemn halls of Holocaust museums imparted knowledge and stirred emotions, but they were, I knew, a world away from standing on the actual ground where humanity’s darkest actions were carried out. The very thought of setting foot in a place where millions were systematically exterminated, where lives were not just ended but erased, filled me with a profound sense of dread and fear.

This trepidation lingered until a recent trip to Berlin which presented an opportunity that I felt, as a Jewish person, could not be missed. It was both a right and a duty to visit the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, just a 40-minute train ride from the vibrant life of Berlin. The decision was made in a moment of resolve, but as the day approached, my anxiety grew.

The train ride to Sachsenhausen was an eerie experience. Surrounded by friends, we chatted about life, shared laughter, and took silly photos, creating a veneer of normality. Yet beneath this facade, I was acutely aware of the stark contrast between my current freedom and the horrific journey millions had been forced to make. It struck me then, more powerfully than ever, how incredibly fortunate I was. Here I was, a Jewish person, traveling freely, while those before me had been stripped of all rights, herded to this place of unimaginable terror. I was going to a concentration camp as a visitor, free to leave at any time, a luxury unimaginably distant from the prisoners who once entered its gates.

Arriving at Sachsenhausen, a profound silence overtook me. Despite being amidst friends, I felt a compelling need to experience this place in isolation, wandering away from the group. We each had our own audio guides, but I found myself drawn to the narratives of the English-speaking tour groups that occasionally intersected our path. Their voices provided a semblance of companionship in a place that seemed to echo with a haunting solitude.

Upon entering the camp, a piercing cold enveloped me. It was more than the physical chill of the air; it was a cold that seeped into my soul, a shiver not from the temperature but from an inner fear and unease. I was walking the same paths, seeing the same trees, breathing the same air as those who had suffered unimaginably in this very place. Questions haunted me, echoing in my mind with each step: How did this happen? How could this happen? The sheer enormity of the horror that unfolded here was almost incomprehensible, and yet, here I was, standing in the midst of it.

Walking through the camp, each step felt heavy with history. The infamous words “Arbeit Macht Frei” loomed at the entrance, a cruel mockery that greeted the prisoners. These words, which translated to “Work Sets You Free,” resonated with a chilling irony. They were a deceitful promise, a lie as cold and hard as the metal upon which they were inscribed. As I walked under this gateway, I was painfully aware of the freedom of my movement, a stark contrast to the fate of those who had passed through these gates before me, trapped in a relentless cycle of despair, torture, and death.

The path through the camp was gravel, and the sound of it crunching underfoot was unnervingly distinct. I remember noticing the sound of my friend Hannah’s black boots, the noise they made on the small pebbles – a mundane detail, yet in that context, it was strangely grounding. Conversation among us was minimal, each lost in their own thoughts, trying to comprehend the scale of suffering that had unfolded in this very place.

As we moved through the barracks that once housed Jewish inmates, I was struck by the stark reality of their living conditions. Rows of wooden bunks, cramped and cold, spoke volumes of the inhumanity they endured. I paused at each exhibit, each poster, absorbing the words and images that attempted to convey the indescribable. The air felt heavy with the weight of untold stories, of lives cut short in the most brutal manner imaginable.

The most harrowing part of the visit was the execution area and the remnants of the gas chambers. Approaching this site, a knot tightened in my stomach, and a profound sadness overwhelmed me. Tears welled up as I listened to the audio guide narrate the horrors that had transpired in these very spots. It was a stark, visceral reminder that the Holocaust was not a distant event in our history but a relatively recent manifestation.

Walking back from the execution site, I felt an overwhelming connection to my Jewish heritage. This was the path that many of my ancestors, my mishpacha, had walked, yet unlike them, I had the privilege to walk away. This realization brought a sense of responsibility, a duty to honor their memory, to be proudly Jewish, and to educate future generations about the horrors of the Holocaust and the resilience of our people.

As we neared the end of our visit, my friend Emma spoke about residential schools in Canada, but my thoughts were still entrenched in the camp, with the souls of the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust. Exiting from the same gate that once falsely promised freedom, I contemplated the true essence of liberation. Work, routine, daily life – these could occupy the mind, pass the time, but they could never erase one’s identity, one’s history.

As I left the camp, my thoughts turned to the broader implications of this experience. This visit was a testament to the fact that all people, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, have a duty and responsibility to learn about and educate themselves on these chapters of our history. For those who, like me, feel scared and uneasy about visiting a place like this, know that such a journey can only fortify your spirit. It instills a strength, resilience, and a fierce resolve to ensure that such atrocities are never repeated.

The message of “never again” resonates more strongly now than ever before. It is a vow, a commitment that transcends religion, nationality, and time. As I walked away from Sachsenhausen, the cold still lingering in my soul, I carried with me not just the weight of history, but the determination to be a part of a world where such horrors are relegated to the past, never to be revisited. Never again, indeed. Never again.

About the Author
Danielle Sobkin is a student at the University of California, Berkeley pursuing a double major in Data Science and Economics. With a deep connection to the global Jewish community, she has served on the Hillel International Student Cabinet (HISC) and works as a Data Scientist with Jewish on Campus (JOC). As the daughter of Soviet refugees and a first-generation student, Danielle draws inspiration from her unique background and aims to connect with others through her writing. She is passionate about conveying the importance of Jewish Joy in everyday life and creating a more inclusive and understanding community.
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