This phrase was embroidered on a tote bag I bought at the Berlin Mauerpark flea market a week ago. This was part of a “Fears of a City” design project that a Hungarian lady and her daughter had started upon immigrating to Berlin. They interviewed people about their fears, and then embroidered the one-liners onto beautiful flannel tote bags. This one particularly resonated with me—it reminded me so much of why I loved traveling: I didn’t want to live a predictable, mechanized routine that I call “life,” slowly growing numb and taking cultural and moral values for granted, never once questioning the world view I’ve been spoon-fed ever since I was born. As the saying goes, seek and ye shall find. This summer, while attending the Plato in Berlin seminar, seek I did to break my routine—and I think I found what I wanted.
To say that my visit to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Oranienburg, Germany yanked me out of the lull of mechanized, routinized life would be somewhat of a gross understatement. We’ve all heard of or studied, at one point or another, the atrocities committed by the Nazis against Jews, homosexuals, Sinti-Roma people and political prisoners over the course of the Third Reich. Yet, I think there is a way in which history lessons and books render us inured to the magnitude of human suffering, until the death of six million Jews becomes nothing more than a bland number. In visiting a concentration camp, I suppose we had the intention of reawakening that sensitivity towards human suffering that has been somewhat dulled by numbers and history books.
But what disturbed me was the nature of the interest we all took in learning about Nazi-style cruelty. I remember standing in the dilapidated infirmary block building next to the prisoners’ barracks, eyes fixated on the two white-tiled autopsy tables, imagining emaciated corpses, the stench and the flies that would have fought with me for space. I listened to the audio guide commentary about how 11 young Jewish boys were brought to Sachsenhausen to be test subjects for a new strain of Hepatitis: they were force-fed a slimy solution containing the infectious agent and were left to develop painfully swollen livers.
“One boy was taken back to this room where a liver biopsy was taken by pushing a thick needle into his lower back. This was done without anesthetics. He screamed and sobbed from the depths of his soul.”
I squeezed my eyes shut. I tried to dissect my feelings at that particular moment in time—they were something like a mixture of hatred, sadness, extreme helplessness amalgamated with an overriding feeling of something else on which I couldn’t quite put my finger. Until now. I realized that I, along with everyone who simply could not get this story out of their heads, were unwittingly fascinated by human grotesquerie. I was riveted to the spot not only out of rage at the cruelty of the Nazi medical officers or the pity I felt for the innocent lives sacrificed; I was also riveted because I was in awe of the magnitude of evil of which humans were capable. This realization frustrated me to the point of shame—I found it unfathomable that humans are so inherently attracted to the freakish and the abnormal. It wasn’t that we condoned the behavior of the Nazis or that we felt as though the atrocities they perpetrated were not immoral; it was just the subtle and undeniable fact that we were naturally drawn to the alien and the monstrous. I had never, not even once, questioned this aspect of human nature until that moment, standing in between the autopsy tables with clenched teeth, trying to figure out what it was that rooted me to the ground in that room despite the emotional pain that the commentary caused me.
As I sat on the train home, watching ordinary German citizens get on and off the platforms, navigating their way through the bustling city, I wondered how they reconciled their human interest in the grotesque with their national guilt. Wounds of history and the resulting scabs are growing pains that all countries have to endure, but Germans seem to deal with it with knowledge and awareness whereas my home country, China, seems to have chosen the path of ignorance and suppression of information. German national awareness and open acknowledgement of the past is evidenced by its extremely well structured national history curriculum, where the Third Reich and all associated atrocities are extensively studied. Also, the mere existence of concentration camp memorials across the country that attract scores of tourists and local students is evidence enough of the nation’s transparent desire to come to terms with its history. I realized that perhaps Germany’s education system and attitude towards history shows us how human attraction to the tragic can be redirected in a way that facilitates the national healing process.
This led me to further reflect on China, a country that is plagued by the historical wound of the June 4th Massacre at Tiananmen Square in 1989. As I looked out to the Friedrichstraße train station and saw books titled “An Introduction to the Holocaust” in bookstores, I wondered what it would take for my country to do the same. Would it take an enlightened Communist? A regime change? I honestly don’t know, but the withdrawal of large segments of history from the national curriculum and the suppression of freedom of speech worry me that we are perhaps still very, very far away from achieving the same level of transparency. Time will help with the healing of wounds, and hopefully we will one day be able to do justice to our collective past through reforming our educational curriculum. I trust that there is a way in which we can bypass the flaws of human nature and harness our interest in the grotesque to fuel national historical awareness. And if it has been done before in Germany, why can’t it be done again in China?
So I guess this is what I meant when I said that I want my traveling experiences to challenge the way I think about the world. Placing myself into uncomfortable situations allows me to question my most fundamental values and encourages me to grow as a thinking human being. I revel in the tingling sensation of unease that is characteristic of the constant reevaluation of my worldview. And this feeling of murmuring disquietude is what makes me feel most alive.
I guess I made the right choice after all in buying that tote bag; I really am afraid of the routine.
~ Jin Yun Chow '17
© 2014 Princeton Traveler