We entered the Sachsenhausen Memorial Grounds, on the outskirts of Oranienburg, Germany, with the intention of collecting soil for the creation of Common Ground 191 from a site with a poignant significance in the story of humanity. The day was gray and damp. A light mist was falling by the time we arrived at the gate, and a sense of apprehension seemed to grow as we drew closer. There was a perceptible density in the atmosphere, a weightiness under which the prisoners are sure to have lived.

Impressions of poet and scientist, Jacob Bronowski, loomed in our mind. In his television series, “The Ascent of Man,” Bronowski walks into the bogs of Krakow, dressed formally in suit, tie, and dress shoes. Reaching down into the swamp, he grabs a handful of mud and says, “We must reach out and touch the ashes of our dead to stay in touch with all our family. We must remember who we are!” The most powerful moment in the episode dealt with absolutism and showed that every time science breaks one boundary and recognizes the discovery of the smallest “this” or the largest “that,” it is a mere breath away from the world being turned on its ear by the “next” discovery. “There are no absolutes,” concluded Bronowski.

In the 1940’s, Hitler was selling “Absolutism,” willing to sacrifice, even murder, all who fell outside the lines he defined as “fit.” Prisoners from the Emsland camps built Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp during the summer of 1936. The first camp established after the appointment of Heinrich Himmler as chief of the German Police, Sachsenhausen was designed as a model concentration camp to give architectural expression to the Nazi worldview and symbolize the subjugation of prisoners to the absolute power of the SS blackshirts (the Nazi police). Located outside the imperial capital of Berlin, the camp was used as a model training center. At first, Sachsenhausen housed mostly political opponents of the Nazi party, however shortly thereafter, they were joined by members of groups the National Socialist ideology (Nazi = National Sozialist) condemned as racially or biologically inferior. Next came people from the occupied countries of Europe. There were men and women, old and young. More than 200,000 people were imprisoned in Sachsenhausen between 1936-1945.

Sachsenhausen’s status in the National Socialist system was reinforced when the administrative headquarters for all concentration camps under German control were transferred from Berlin to Oranienburg. Sachsenhausen prisoners were used to construct the world’s largest brickworks factory that was to supply the materials for the reconstruction of major towns, such as Munich and Hamburg, and for preparing Berlin for its role as the seat of the “Great Germanic Empire.” The largest building in the world, the “Great Hall,” was to mark the culmination of the project, and ultimately, in Hitler’s estimation, secure their victory. Prisoners detailed to the “Klinkerwerk” (brickwork factory) commando were not expected to survive the dangerous, hard labor; they died in a matter of months, sometimes weeks.

Tens of thousands of Sachsenhausen prisoners died of starvation, malnutrition, disease, forced labor and draconian torture, or were systematically murdered. Thousands died on death marches when the SS evacuated the camp. Those left behind were liberated by Russian and Polish troops in late April of 1945.

In August, the same year, just three months after the end of the war and the liberation of Europe from National Socialist rule, the Soviet secret service moved their Special Camp No. 7 into the heart of the former concentration camp, and this time, it was the Soviet military tribunals who sentenced prisoners to the camp.

The remains of the execution trench, the guillotine and the gas chamber bear witness to the inhumanity that occurred in this encampment. Gnarled, barbed wire that secured the walls of the camp, the sign, “Neutral Zone,” that warned prisoners they would be shot without warning, the guard towers and the public address systems shout the atrocities that were suffered here. All remain, but the cries of the prisoners and the stench…yet their cries echo in the heavy air that shrouds this place… Such was the atmosphere as we stepped into this space that was only history in our minds, until in its presence, the reality of the force humans are capable of imposing on our fellow man crept into our conscious awareness.

Oftentimes, what begins as ideology turns to tyranny, explains psychiatrist and author, David Hawkins, who specialized in mental processes, and today dedicates his time to spiritual teaching and research. The nature of force, he states, is that it invariably inflicts its material values. A distinctive characteristic of force in politics is that it cannot tolerate dissent. Hitler put millions to death, relying on his SS, as did Stalin, using his KGB. Hitler assembled the greatest military machine the world had ever seen. On the simple level of force, his military was unbeatable; yet he could not defeat a tiny island across the English Channel because of the power expressed by Winston Churchill, who unified the will of his people through principles of freedom and selfless sacrifice. When power and force collide, power inevitably succeeds. Force is pompous; it has all the answers. Power is unassuming. Stalin, who strutted military autocracy, has gone down in history as an arch-criminal. The humble Mikhail Gorbachev, who wore a plain suit and easily admitted to faults, has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Force is divisive, and through that divisiveness, weakens, whereas power unifies. Mahatma Gandhi was aligned with power and demonstrated the power of selflessness versus the force of self-interest. Nelson Mandela demonstrated the same principle quite dramatically in South Africa. In our lifetime, we have witnessed the downfall of communism in Russia as a governmental form, after half a century of military confrontation.

How do we transcend the atrocities of Hitler and find meaning, faith and the courage to move forward?

We must remember who we are. It is out of the tragedy that tugs at every chord of humanity that arises the rebirth of life and the triumph of the human spirit… in self-evident principles. The Declaration of Independence states: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Common Ground 191 is a tribute to these inalienable values…the connecting thread of humankind, thus we reached deeply into the ashes to the last remnants of our Common Ground at Sachsenhausen and retrieved our soil…to stay in touch with all our family…to remember who we are.

-- Michael & Kay Rosness


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