When Geography Class is Missed

Contributor Brady Eviota recalls a visit to a Nazi concentration camp, and recalls a presidential faux pax that may have unduly put OFWs on the spot. 

Filipinos working in Switzerland are a smart lot with travel, always using the country’s central location in Europe and its membership in the visa-free Schengen area to full advantage. Organized bus trips are a favorite during the vacation time because the group rates always turn out cheaper over the individual travel costs. Aside from leisure and sightseeing, a visit to some of Europe’s vaunted shopping capitals always draws in the Filipino. 

But one particular stop on a trip to Germany some two years ago caused us particular grief and sadness.

The place was Sachsenhausen, some 35 kilometers north of Berlin. We were going to visit a former concentration camp of the Nazis which was closed after the war and converted into a museum on World War II. A cultural side trip, so went our flyer.

Driving to the camp, we were struck by how close the camp was to the village of Oranienburg; it was in fact, right next to it. It was explained later that ordinary day-to-day life was not disrupted in the building and the operation of the camp in 1936. Villagers could see the inmates – mostly Soviet prisoners of war – being trucked into the camp, and life stood by as the war went on and more prisoners were added.

But the camp – or the reconstructed camp that we saw, since the Nazis had burned large parts of the camp at the close of the war to hide evidence of war crimes – was still real. The walls were about ten-foot high and everything inside looked grey and drab. At the entrance was a wrought-iron fence with the words, “ARBEIT MACHT FREI” or “Work sets you free”, a cold irony to the prisoners who knew that only their deaths, or their subsequent liberation, would set their bodies free. Some 30,000 inmates died in Sachsenhausen due to the poor living conditions; the rest died from torture or cruel punishment from their Nazi captors.

Although the number of deaths in Sachsenhausen do not compare with those of the more infamous camps of  Auschwitz or Dachau or Buchenwald, the place was special to the Nazis. Sachsenhausen was one of the earliest camps they built, making it the administrative center for all concentration  camps and also the training center for officers of the Schutzstaffel or SS who would be sent afterwards to oversee the other camps. It was here that the SS tried out and then refined their tactics for the systematic murder of the people they considered their enemies. Brutal medical experiments were also carried out in Sachsenhausen. 

Our guide, a young German girl sporting a nose ring, took us to the barracks buildings where the inmates lived. The insides were equally grey and drab. I remarked that the beds seemed rather too small and narrow for the European-sized body. But that was exactly the intent, said our guide. Nights for the prisoners were as miserable as their days because of the all-too-small beds and the inadequate heating in winter. Camp punishments –sometimes occasioned by an escape attempt - included a roll call on the massive camp grounds; in winter, the inmates were made to stand for hours in the cold in silence. The young and the elderly often did not make it through; many who did later got pneumonia from the exposure and subsequently died. 

At the back of the camp we were shown the execution trenches where prisoners were executed by mass shooting or hangings. A gas chamber and ovens were constructed later in 1943 near the close of the war to facilitate a more efficient and faster method of  mass killings of inmates. Inside one of those buildings we were shown tiled rooms which at first glance appeared to be the shower rooms for newly-arrived prisoners. Not so, said our guide.  Newcomers were ordered to line up one by one “to be measured”;  then as they stood against the tiled wall, they were shot in the back of the head through  holes which were bored into the wall. What unspeakable cruelty, I thought.

Our group of Filipinos had entered Sachsenhausen with the curiosity and the naiveté of a group which had never encountered the horrors of mass incarceration and killings up close. We left the camp silent and subdued, probably overwhelmed by the historical lesson of a dictator who had tried to impose his will in Europe during the last world war.

That is why it came as a rude shock to me when president Duterte, in remarks before the media in Davao, referenced his bloody war on drugs in the Philippines to Hitler and the mass slaughter of Jews in Europe. 

Those remarks seemed unreal, like a mistaken geographical pindown or an erring historical footnote. What, I was aghast, Germany during the Holocaust? The president could have been closer to home, in a manner of speaking, by mentioning the genocidal killings by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979; or  the slaughter of Indonesian communists during the  Sukarno regime in the 1960s.  The theme would have remained distinctly ASEAN, and the uproar more  likely speedily smoothed over between neighboring nations. 

But in drawing a parallel between his bloody war on drugs and the Holocaust, Duterte only attracted more attention from Europe. If his previous remarks attacking the European Union critics of his antidrug campaign were jabs which stung the members of the EU, his reference to Hitler was a rabbit punch which hit the back of the EU head, near the ear where it hurts most. Naturally outrage was expected from the Europeans from this foul blow; and the repercussions continue, and not the last from the Paris newspaper. 

And we, who were able to witness the evidence of mass slaughter which only happened 70 years ago, are left with little cause to defend those particular remarks of our president. Even before the “Hitler remarks” (this hashtag already sticks), the chair of a Europe-wide Filipino group had already appealed to our president to go easy on his tirades against the EU. “Many Filipinos voted for you in Europe, and we accept that you are now our President. But please show to us that you also have the interests of Overseas Filipinos by not swearing at the very people who have not only given us and our families work and better futures but who value our contributions,” said the head of the European Network of Filipinos in Diaspora or ENFiD in a personal message to the president .

That statement seemed to me to be the appropriate tone for us Filipinos living or working in Europe, we who are now trying to make sense of the changes in the homeland and how we in the diaspora will remain relevant to the new political discourse. 

(Mr. Eviota is a native of Surigao City. He began his journalistic writing in Cagayan de Oro City with the now defunct Media Mindanao News Service. In 2006, he moved to Bern and now lives in the Swiss capital with his family. —editor)