In the Shadows of the Wannsee Conference

On 20 January 1942, senior Nazi officials arrived at a lakeside villa at Am Großen Wannsee 56-58 to decide the fate of millions. The posh surroundings are in stark contrast to the horrors of the Holocaust.

On 11 January 2019, I made my way to the same house – a 44€ Uber ride from Spandau, where I had been with the group of University of Virginia students at a historical museum that preserves historical monuments that are no longer in their original locations, such as the head of a Lenin statue. One of the students on the program with me joined in the visit. As the black Mercedes Benz weaved through Berlin traffic, we were conscious of the historical juxtaposition a visit to Wannsee would have after having visited Buchenwald concentration camp. What kind of environment could have surrounded officials planning a genocide? It was a chilling question.

Minutes before our arrival, we turned onto a street with elegant, nautical-themed homes. Model ships were on display in private homes surrounded by tall hedges. Coming from Michigan, it was weirdly reminiscent of the homes one would see around St. Clair Shores or Grosse Pointe, if the reader is familiar. If not, think high-end yacht club homes.

“I always thought a decision like this would have been made somewhere more discreet, like in the middle of the forest,” commented Robert, the UVA student with me. “These look like UVA frat houses, a bit,” I commented.

Haus der Wannsee-Konferenz, Photo: Claire-Marie Brisson

Surrounded by cherubs, statues of lions, and manicured gardens stands the Haus der Wannsee-Konferenz, built prior to the Nazi period. The Schutzstaffel (SS) purchased the home for their own use in 1940. After the end of the Second World War, the villa was converted into a school. Historian Joseph Wulf was glad that the space was repurposed as a space of education, however felt that there needed to be more done to educate the general public. In 1965, he suggested that the house be turned into a Holocaust memorial and documentation centre, a request that the West German government denied him during his lifetime. Infuriated with West Germany’s light-handed treatment of postwar investigations into Nazi war crimes and reliving the horrors of the Holocaust through his own experience as a Holocaust survivor, Dr. Wulf took his own life in 1974. The library inside the now-museum – opened in 1992 – bears his name.

Dr. Joseph Wulf – Holocaust survivor and historian

The exhibition inside could easily comprise four dissertations. Primary sources are displayed, showing who took part in the conference, how mass persecution and genocide was perpetrated against ‘enemies of the Reich,’ such as homosexuals, the Roma and Sinti peoples, and the Jewish population of Europe.

Main view from the first room; start of exhibition.
Documents from the Wannsee Conference detailing the estimated number of Jewish citizens by region.

The Wannsee documents were side-by-side in German and English, but were also available in Hebrew, which felt like a triumph against the anti-Semitic documents.

The museum showed methods of ideological manipulation to provide support for the Nazi regime’s war crimes, particularly by way of stylistic propaganda posters. I found the following image the most interesting – a book advertisement for Hitler’s Mein Kampf. As an avid reader, it was strange to see it marketed in such a banal yet propagandistic way – intentionally so.

After reviewing documents and viewing racist cartoons displayed on the wall, the exhibit led the visitor through a different exhibition – testimony given by both descendants of the Holocaust and by those who are related to Nazi officials. It was striking, particularly since it shows that both those whose families were persecuted as well as those who are descendants of the persecutors agree that this period weighs heavily on the conscience of all. These testimonies included Dr. Joseph Wulf, Primo Levi, and Katrin Himmler, among others. These are the most memorable quotes seen in that exhibit (for me at least):

These quotes led into an exhibit about daily life in each country occupied by the Nazis. A poster was displayed in Hebrew or Yiddish, inviting members of the ghetto to a symphonic concert. Even in the worst of times, the arts act as a point of resistance and community.

Poster for symphonic concert in Hebrew/Yiddish.

At the conclusion of the museum, I made my way to the library and archive, which led outside to a balcony. The visual juxtaposition of where I was once again was striking. For such a catastrophic event, the milieu was unsettlingly serene. One could sense that the Nazi officials felt particularly disassociated with their decision to commit genocide, as if it were something that would reinforce this privilege.

To conclude this journal entry, I leave you with three images juxtaposed. The first is the view from the balcony; the second, images drawn by artists imprisoned in a concentration camp; the final one, a view of the villa at night. I hope you get a sense of the paradoxical, sinister nature of this place.

Claire-Marie Brisson

Special thanks to Robert Bork III for having accompanied me on this tour.

Impressions of Buchenwald

Buchenwald, Photo by Claire-Marie Brisson (8 January 2019)

A short bus ride through the countryside surrounding Weimar leads to Buchenwald – the largest concentration camp on German soil opened in 1937. Intentionally created to be unassuming and summer camp-esque, Buchenwald (literally “Beech Forest”) once housed nationals of some 35 countries, incarcerated for varying ‘crimes’ such as being asocial, homosexual, or of ‘inferior’ racial lineage.

Today, 8 January 2019, was particularly a striking day to visit Buchenwald. The wind was harsh – so much so that its sound whipped the barren branches across the Ettersberg hill – an area that once graced the likes of Goethe as he strolled finding inspiration for his works prior to the crimes committed in the same region. Cold rain dotted the thousands of pebbles across the grounds of the concentration camp – nature’s tears planted upon the ground where humans were sacrificed to bravado-filled hatred.

Warning: Unsettling Images Ahead – Reader Discretion is Advised.

Students on the program I am helping assist are normally loquacious, but upon reaching Buchenwald stopped chatting and began to take in what was before them. Mustard yellow housing that had once housed SS officers dotted the grounds, juxtaposed to the looming grey sky. One of these had been transformed into a café for visitors, where the coffee was scalding hot and staff muttered amongst themselves quietly. The other building had a cinema, where we saw an informative film.

Though visually distressing, sound for me was the most noticeable part of my first ever concentration camp visit. The wind, the stones, a bird cawing in the distance, a metal gate closing. Strangely, noises you hardly ever notice are more pronounced here, simply because it is so quiet and vast.

As someone who deals quite a bit with images taken during this time period for my research, another striking – yet subtle – thing I noticed here was the colour, particularly of the things nature has begun to reclaim. It is powerful and telling in juxtaposition to buildings and transportation networks once used for the worst crimes committed to fellow human beings.

“We don’t go in that forest to the right of us,” explained the tour guide. “It was used for small arms production and likely still has unexploded land mines. The people working to make these weapons were attempting to save their lives while creating munitions that were used against their own people.”

Humans were reduced to conditions that caused dysentery to outbreak in the camp. Prisoners worked to stay alive, but only in the hopes of someday leaving this hell.

The grounds are vastly empty now, having once held dozens of prisoner-built barracks at one point.

The prison remains. Its architecture in stark contrast to another prison I saw a few days prior from another period – the GDR’s Hohenschönhausen. The prison cells at Buchenwald were less roomy and much more stark, though if a prisoner tried they may likely get a small glimpse of the outside ‘world’ in the camp complex.

The weight of history is palpable. Students noticed that a hill some miles away could be seen bathed in sunlight as we stood in the shadows of foreboding clouds instead, bearing the weight of the crimes committed and lives lost.

Everything here was meticulously planned to make sure inmates lost their sense of identity. Even the gate’s inscription “Jedem das Seine” (“to each their own,” from the Latin suum quique) is placed as a Platonic rule for the inmate that each must contribute his part to the state. It was also a motto used by high-ranking Prussian nobility in the German context, and is still used today as the motto of the Feldjäger military police.

Inside the crematorium, I was particularly struck by the memorial that caught my eye first before even noticing anything else. A bright display from visitors remembering their loved ones transformed this space from standing on its own as an apparatus of war crimes, to a memorial to those who might not have identifiable grave markers. This was a powerful way to reclaim this space.

Seeing the images of the camps or of the liberation is one thing; being here is entirely different. It was difficult to say the least to visit Buchenwald, but it has completely changed how I perceive historical documents I have been consulting for quite some time. It also left an impression on students. One student on the bus ride back mentioned that he “didn’t quite have the words” to describe how he felt, and neither do I. What I do have to say though is that the pain, suffering, and unbelievable weight are still very real and present in these spaces. It is crucial that we visit them so we work to never let such crimes happen ever again.