Remembering and understanding… the lessons of history

Patrick meets us at the entrance of a small church in the heart of Cologne – Ehrenfeld. We are about to learn that this place has a huge and interesting historical wealth. As if to set the mood it starts raining as the guide begins his story. He’s about to tell us about the time right before the beginning of the Second World War and events happened during the war in this particular place.

If you take a look at the neighbourhood now you might never know that this place was ever the lair of political propaganda. Nowadays it looks like any other typical German city – nice, big houses, tidy streets, lots of bikes. Patrick describes the lives of the people who lived here approximately 70 years ago. The timbre of his voice and the breeze we feel take us to the early 1930s when the average German had to struggle to make ends meet. Most working class families who lived in bigger cities during these years were deprived of the simplest things known to our society – big families with members of 4 people and above lived in a single room, they had no toilets and had to work almost the whole day. They were miserable.

Meanwhile we’ve walked to another street where we stop to see a photo, shown by the guide. It is a man in a car who gained strong political influence and is being cheered by the crowd. Patrick tells us that he had promised to the people food, work and better conditions of live. They believed him. For a small period of time things really improved for the better.

Young people started joining his youth program and it’s easy to understand why – it was their way of getting away of the terrible conditions they lived in. In school they were being taught how to put out fires, how to process metal, how to handle critical situations. They were being prepared for a war  and to serve as soldiers in World War II. Usually after their time in the Hitler Youth they became soldiers in the Wehrmacht.

On the other hand there were adolescents who denied to be part of Hitler Youth and started gathering outside the city like the Edelweiss Pirates in Cologne. They used to go to the countryside where they could stay close to nature and get in touch with other people who felt like sharing the same way of life. These young people were later being chased by the nationalistic party that was in charge for refusing to join the youth program even though they were not criminals. In November 1944 a group of thirteen people, the heads of the Ehrenfeld Group were publically hanged in Cologne.

We move on to another street and we stop in front of a house. Our guide shows us six paving stones of bronze on the ground. They have inscription that says ‘Here lived … Roma, deported on 21 May 1945’. You see, this well known political figure had the crazy idea that the German race is superior to all the other races and it should be ‘cleaned up’ of all ‘impurity’. I suddenly feel a lump in my throat. I’m at the very place where people were chased, arrested and sent to concentration camps just for being themselves. I suddenly feel very cold, but it’s not the wind and it is not the rain either…

Our last stop is the Gestapo headquarters here in Cologne. Patrick tells us that this is the first place where people were brought after being arrested by the Gestapo. In the building almost nothing has changed – it is a museum now and the walls look the same way they did 70 years ago. We head to the cellar where the prison cells were. All the inscriptions on the walls are preserved –  I recognize some Russian messages and understand them without translation, because our languages have a lot in common. I don’t have to listen to the guide to find out what had been going on in here during the war. People were being arrested for nothing in particular and tortured. Patrick explains the Gestapo didn’t even try to mask the sound of their screams. On the walls are to be read many farewell letters and sometimes just parts of diary texts of people wondering how much they’ve got to live… some of them predicting their own death.

Suddenly I am stunned, because I recognize a swastika on the wall. I simply couldn’t believe it. Why would a person imprisoned here draw something like that? Patrick explained to me what the situation was – the Gestapo started arresting people just on suspicion and the victims were often confused, thinking that here was a misunderstanding. In order to confirm their political persuasions they carved the symbol.

This story is easy to remember, because of its shocking content, but what’s to understand from it? Personally, I believe that history teaches us a great lesson, proving that no race is superior to the others. So, from now on such ideas are simply unacceptable. It also tells us that not all people are the same, that there were Germans who were in opposition to the empowered Nazi party who did something to change the situation and whose names will be always remembered.

I look at Germany as a country now and I see a big difference. Old hostility is forgotten, Deutschland is now part of a union with other countries which were its enemies during the war and it’s again the economical engine of Europe. Its society consists of people of different nationalities, colors and ethnic groups living together as one. Is there a better way to understand this particular lesson of history?

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