November 01, 2013
By Manya Friedman
Some time ago I was approached by one of the Museum’s personnel and asked if I would meet the then-minister-president from Brandenburg State in Germany. He was coming to observe the Days of Remembrance, to read some names in the Hall of Remembrance, and to light a candle. I agreed. But from that time on, hardly a day passed by without my wondering about meeting (with trepidation) the German official. How would I react meeting someone from the German government?
While volunteering at the Museum with Visitor Services, I have met many Germans, including student groups, exchange students, and visitors. Some have even apologized for what their ancestors did, but I have never met anyone in a position of authority. Scenes from the past flashed through my mind, as did questions: Do I stand at attention while speaking to him? Can I look directly into his eyes?
When I learned that in the Brandenburg district, his district, there had been two well-known camps, Sachsenhausen and Ravensbrück, I began to relive the time I spent in Ravensbrück. I was held there after being evacuated from our camp in Gleiwitz and after a death march. The conditions and the treatment there were indescribable. Though the camp was built in 1939 as a labor camp to accommodate about 5,000 women, by January 1945, when we arrived, the camp housed about 30,000. The sanitary conditions were deplorable. We slept on three tiered bunks, on straw sacks, four women on each bunk. Some even slept on the floor. Every morning, before roll call, while running to the latrine we stepped on corpses, women who had died during the night. The few “toilets” were without doors, and hundreds of women waited in line. And as the number of inmates increased, the food rations decreased. Some of the Kapos (our German overseers), in addition to walking around with clubs in their hands, were also escorted by dogs. Every morning, while standing in the lines to be counted, we saw the carts loaded high with emaciated naked bodies being wheeled to the crematoria.
Almost daily, I relived those memories, until the day arrived (more than 60 years later) when I was to meet Herr Platzeck, minister-president of the Brandenburg State. I got up that morning feeling extremely nervous. I checked several times to see if I had my Metro ticket, my Museum badge, my keys. Halfway to the elevator I turned back to make sure I had locked the door. Through the years I have spoken to thousands of people about my experience during the Holocaust—from junior high school students to White House correspondents—but I had never been so anxious before.
When I arrived at the Museum, I could not even remember where we were supposed to meet. I met Miriam, our photographer, and seeing the state I was in, she was kind enough to stay with me until the party arrived.
Finally Mr. Platzeck and his entourage, including a translator, arrived, accompanied by several staff members from the Museum and a security guard. I was introduced to him, and after a short handshake, he put his arm around my shoulder, a gesture which he repeated often. He had requested a private meeting with me (and his translator). We proceeded to the Hall of Remembrance where he read names of inmates from Sachsenhausen and Ravensbrück who were murdered during the Holocaust, and we lit candles in their memory.
Led by the security guard we went through the exit from the Permanent Exhibition and through a security door to the fifth floor. There we separated from the rest of the party.
By then I was more relaxed. He was human. I even joked with him that he has a Polish name but misspelled. He inquired about my personal life, about the time I was in Ravensbrück. I told him I was there only a short time. Most of that time I spent in the Gleiwitz camp. He was very familiar with the camp, the Gas-Russ- Werk, and with the company that started it. Besides running our camp, that company was instrumental in melting the gold confiscated from the Jews and from the gold teeth extracted at the extermination camps. They also contributed to the production of Zyklon B, the gas used in the extermination camps.
Mr. Platzek seemed very proud while telling me about the memorial built in Ravensbrück and about the German youngsters being taught there about the Holocaust, who in turn take visitors on tours and tell them about the memorial. He mentioned that every year—with that one being the exception—he travels to Israel to observe Yom Hashoah. He also told me about his family. They had belonged to the Socialist party and were put in camps during the war. Then he told me about a former inmate of Ravensbrück who came to visit the memorial; he said an “elder dame” came. I got so emotional, I interrupted him. I did not wait for the translator. I asked him, “Please repeat it.” I don’t know why. Maybe the conversation about the camps brought me momentarily back to that time, and his expression “elderly lady” was such a shock to me. That elderly lady was from France; she had been a prisoner in Ravensbrück. After seeing the memorial, she said she had lived long enough to finally see the Germans apologize for what they had done; now she could go home and die.
Finally our time was up. The knock on the door brought me back to reality. But before leaving Mr. Platzek handed me a gift, a shawl with a design from a wall hanging in a palace ordered by Fredrick the Great around 1765. I didn’t have any gift to reciprocate. I remembered I had my ID card from the Museum in my handbag, so I handed it to him. Someone from the Museum remarked that it was a very proper exchange.
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