Oma Sue's Blog
Hi – I’m Sue Reyzlik. I recently realized my life-long dream of building a writing hut in the backyard. The writing hut serves as a creative space and home office for Oma Publishing. This blog will be intermingled with family history, varied experiences and insights on being a Grandma (Oma), creating my special backyard space, as well as, my “retirement” career as a self-publisher of children’s stories. And perhaps a little bit on the 32 years I served as Executive Director for Keep Fremont Beautiful and the wonderful people who are sharing this adventure.
I started writing this blog on my birthday on January 29, 2022. It's taken awhile to get all my thoughts and memories clarified and arranged... it's a long one - get a snack and enjoy!
It’s my birthday today – 71 years old. I wasn’t really planning on doing much! Taking it easy and maybe binge watching a show I started on Netflix. Then I realized that I was 71 years old and then I realized – Hey, I turned 21 years old, 50 years ago… I know that is simple math, but it was kind of a big deal in my mind. This sudden “awareness” – 50 years ago today, I celebrated my 21st birthday in Berlin, Germany.
You know how there are major events in your life, and you think you will remember all the little details forever and ever and then you concentrate on a certain date 50 years in the past and all the specifics are rather vague. I thought that I would never forget the particulars of that day… but it’s pretty much gone. And honestly – remembering what we did on my birthday that day, isn’t the most important thing that stayed with me from that Berlin experience.
It was interterm at Midland Lutheran College. My absolute most favoritest Writing and English teacher, Alcyone Scott, was offering a political science course for the month of January. (Pretty sure she would take points off for using “most favoritest”. It’s my blog – I can be stupid if I want!)
So anyway, if I remember correctly, it was 4 credit hours concentrated into just a few weeks. I talked with Dr. Amland and asked if I could do an Independent Study on the German Expressionist Art Movement in Berlin and he agreed! Cool – 8 credit hours – I could do this!
The students would travel to Berlin on the 30th of December of 1971 and return at the end of January, 1972. I was so excited to travel to Europe. Our family had traveled to California by rail in the mid 1950’s and after that – Mom and Dad weren’t too whoopie about taking us anywhere.
The Smith family stayed pretty close to home – maybe traveling to neighboring states for a few days at a time but never ever any big-time travel experiences. My parents had a cabin on Big Island, and we spent summers on the river. We were homebodies, and I was ready to change that and explore. Here I was, a junior in college, a college in my hometown, and it was way past time to go somewhere. When the Berlin opportunity arose, I was prepared to board that jet and fly across the ocean!
The point I’m making is that I was more excited about traveling, going to Europe, seeing the sights, having a grand adventure and earning 8 credit hours than actually learning anything. I was not prepared for the life-altering, mind blowing, thought provoking educational experience – that was a bit of a surprise.
Alcyone had spent some time in Berlin prior to coming to Midland. She shared her knowledge of German history with us – which was extensive and helped us understand the events leading up to WWI and the rise of the Nazis and WWII. She shared her awareness of the history of the Lutheran religion (we were a Lutheran College) as well as other major religions practiced in West Berlin. We learned about the occupation of Berlin after the war and the dividing of the city into the various sectors. We all gained a better comprehension of the proceedings, actions, reactions, killings and dealings that led up to the world wars and the divisions that expanded in the eventual peace.
Each historic site, every ballet, every concert, every opera, every play, every lecture, every church service, every war memorial we visited, everything we experienced in those short few weeks gave us a greater insight into the German culture and the terrors people were made to suffer under the Nazi regime. A past only 30 years ago in 1972 - that wasn’t all that distant of a past… A past in 2022 that compares to reexamining the politics and world events of the early to mid-1990’s – a not so distant past.
We learned about the German insecurities, failings, victories, fears and the monsters the people allowed to lead them, and the horrors they chose to ignore. We learned that Germany must never be allowed to rise to such evil again. Never again.
We weren’t able to visit any of the Nazi death camps but there were a number of memorials that we visited that facilitated our comprehension of the enormity of the atrocities committed against innocent men, women and children. In looking back, I’m grateful that we didn’t visit Auschwitz or any other German death camp – I don’t think I could have taken it.
Alcyone did plan a visit to a small Berlin prison that had been turned into a memorial. The memorial center at Plotzensee is a place of silent remembrance, as it is described in some online material I was scanning for information and pictures. Nearly 3,000 political prisoners from Germany and other countries were executed at that location by the Nazis.
The memory that I have of Plotzensee is quite clear in some ways, and off kilter in others. I remember walking through the gates of the memorial… the walls were built from red brick… the top of the wall was covered with cement. Broken pieces of glass were sticking up at sharp angles from the cement topping. I can still feel the chill that went up my spine as I imagined trying to escape that enclosure and the cuts one would suffer in the attempt. The ground of the memorial courtyard was covered in cobblestone – not unlike many of the sidewalks we had seen throughout the city. The memorial was a flat gray brick wall which made it stand out from the surrounding red brick formations. There were wreaths and large bouquets of flowers standing in a row, left to right, on the raised stone platform of the memorial.
I also recall feeling a sense of somberness and extreme dread – it was silent… it was a place of remembrance. An immediate weight of sadness descended on my being as we stood at the memorial. Soon we moved on… around the right side of the memorial was a red brick building. The building was divided into two parts - the first part of the building contained displays on the dark brick walls. Information you could read and pictures you could view were displayed to give you a better idea how the Nazi’s utilized the prison and this space in particular.
As I read the documents, I became even more disheartened and physically weak – this place was a heavy burden – it was becoming even more difficult to breathe – my throat felt constricted. I was relieved when we finished that part of the tour and stepped out into the side yard – I was still deeply saddened but at least I could breathe – that room had been difficult to process. I was feeling so many emotions… none of them good.
We then were led into another room of the building through a wide wooden door. This room was clear of information. This had been the killing room. I have described, hundreds of times, what this room looked like… I never varied much in my description. I want to share that with you – because it’s weird…
Upon entering the room, I notice a row of large windows at the rear of the room – this room runs the full length of the building, and the sunlight is pouring in through the windows. The walls are painted white with tan tile covering the lower sections of the walls. At the far end of the room, in front of the windows is a raised platform. A door to the left allows for prisoners to enter the room and stand on the platform. There are several guillotines lined up on the platform.
There is a trough in front of the platform to collect the heads and the resulting drainage of blood. Along the right wall of the room, running the full length of the room is a series of meat hooks. I can imagine, the headless bodies are hung on the meat hooks. The meat hooks are on a track system. The bodies are moved along the wall – the blood trough collects the blood and moves it to a drain in the center of the room. The headless bodies move to the front of the room and the awaiting cart – parked conveniently just outside the a side door leading to the courtyard. I assume the bodies are taken to a gas furnace where the bodies will be cremated – but I only imagine that as there is a tall chimney attached to a smaller building and I think there must be a furnace in there that was used for that purpose.
Standing in that room, looking at the remnants of the killing apparatus, I fear I may faint – I’m sure I will faint. My vision is limited as I stumble to the door and work my way back to the memorial wall. I sit on a step leading up to the platform and I stare at the flowers and wreaths as I try to get that missing air back into my lungs and slow my racing heart. It’s cold in the January weather but still I can’t stop sweating. Alcyone comes out to see if I’m all right. I remain in that spot to regain my composure and hope that my legs will support my body when the others are ready to leave. I do not return to the killing room.
I can only describe what happened to me in that room, as a truly overwhelming sense of fear, torture and injustice. I felt not the pain, but the mental anguish of lost souls and the evil that ended their lives. I can’t get the visual of that room out of my mind – it haunts me still. Fifty years later that feeling of dread is still with me – it was a dramatic moment, and I will never forget the overwhelming emotions I experienced on that fateful day.
It wasn’t a fun, pleasant, European vacation experience, rather, it was an educational and profound emotional experience that I needed - probably destined to experience in order to facilitate the development of my soul as well as, the ethics, values, morals and empathy that would sustain and guide me as an adult and a citizen of the world. It was a big deal!
NOW comes the weird part. Everything I felt is completely true and I have described those feelings and emotions to the best of my ability… the weird part is picturing that killing room in my mind is all wrong! I mean, it looks exactly like I remember it, but in a totally wrong kinda way! I’ll explain.
I looked up the prison online to refresh my memory and whoa that was a trip. The memorial itself and the placement of the wreaths and the flowers is just as I remembered it. The first room was pretty much as I described, the second room – the photos of the killing room was way off. Well – it was similar in most respects, but it did not contain some of the more vivid aspects of my recollection. So weird!
In current photos of the room, the windows are still at the end of the long room and the sunlight is still seen streaming through the windows. There are only two windows... I remember more windows. The walls are painted white but the tile that I remember circling the room is only present in a very small section… you can see a drain in the middle of the concrete floor… but there isn’t a platform at the far end of the room, no door to enter the nonexistent platform and there isn’t a single guillotine present – what? I remember guillotines…
Surprisingly, there are meat hooks hanging from what looks like a heavy wooden beam at the far end of the room – right in front of the windows – NOT along the wall to the right – meat hooks where the guillotines are supposed to be – that’s not right. AND the meat hooks are stationary – they don’t move the bodies to the awaiting cart – they don’t have a cart sitting there. I am so confused.
I’m thinking that I’m losing my mind – ya I know – been there done that… but this seemed really weird. It’s one thing to not remember what you actually did to celebrate your 21st birthday in Berlin back in 1972 and quite another thing to alter your entire recollection of a Nazi killing room – especially when so many other parts of the memory had been online image verified to my satisfaction! Thus began my all-day research project, on my 71st birthday, into all those weird ass strange memories of the Nazi Plozensee killing room.
Wellll… I eventually happened upon a treasure trove of historic pictures - accurate representations of what the killing room looked like during its operational time period – from the early 1930’s to the mid 1940’s. There had been a door at the far end of the room – just to the left of the windows – well that makes me feel better. That door has since been closed off, and for balance, they evidently closed off the far-right third window, so now only 2 windows remain.
And you know what else? There had been a platform under the windows – it has been removed. That missing platform was bugging me, so it was reassuring, in a strange sense, that there had indeed been a platform at the end of the room.
Examining more photos, I found a close up of the original meat hooks and it appears that the hooks could be pushed along the metal beam. I found pictures of additional hooks that had nooses hanging at the ready for the next series of executions. All of these pictures told a more in-depth story of what had transpired at that location. Those pictures must have been included in the informational displays in that first room of the memorial and seared into my brain.
As I completed more research, I found additional photos that exposed the Nazis using guillotines at numerous locations in Germany and occupied lands. Pictures of the guillotine used at Plozensee were among the photos I viewed. The guillotine was a massive contraption that sat in the middle of the room – close to the floor drain.
I viewed several photos of Nazi killing rooms at other locations. Several of those rooms had tile extending halfway up the wall and additional illustrations of blood drainage troughs. I assume some of those pictures were included in the display. I also stumbled across a photo of a man who had been beheaded. His body lying on the table of the guillotine and his head placed carefully near his shoulder at the corner of the table. That picture is troubling on so many levels and one that speaks to the evil of the day.
Memory is a funny thing… I know now that I took elements of what I saw and read that day and combined it with the foggy, almost fainting, heavy sweating episode in the killing room and created one nice, neat, compact scene in my mind… not exactly right but not exactly wrong…
Visiting Plozensee was hard for me but something I needed for personal growth. I know that Auschwitz would have been a much greater ordeal, therefore, I am relieved to have been spared that painful experience.
Just a few years later, when my first husband and I were living in Columbus, we attended a Chamber event. We were talking to a local businessman. I had a bad feeling about this guy - I was hoping he would move on and once he did, I told Dan that there was something wrong with that guy. To which Dan replied, "He's a Holocaust Denier". What? "He thinks the holocaust never happened." I was stunned. Later on, I realized that that moment foreshadowed our current political, ethical and moral dilemma. Never again - could happen again... anywhere!
When an administration separates children from their parents at the border and keeps them in cages... Never again is growing again. When an evil con-artist, celebrity TV host, rapist and fake billionaire rises to the office of the presidency of the United States... Never again is growing again. When that evil man continuously lies, stokes fear, and creates division among its citizens... Never again is growing again. When that defeated President convinces his followers that the election was stolen and orders them to march on the capitol... Never again is growing again. Banning books and denying citizens their human rights and voting rights... Never again is growing again.
Investigating and holding accountable those who have broken the laws of our nation is making sure Never again is Never again. Passing legislation to protect voting rights is making sure Never again is never again. Accurate and complete information on historical events is essential in making sure Never again is Never again. Electing qualified, soulful candidates to leadership positions is also essential in making sure Never again is Never again. Caring for your fellow citizens and resisting any attempts to make you hate the "other" is making sure Never again is Never again. Protecting the rule of law, our democracy and the constitution is making sure Never again is Never again...
I will be forever grateful that I had that college experience and was able to travel to Berlin with such a wonderful teacher and fun group of friends. In one way it seems like it was yesterday and then in another way, when I stop to ponder a specific detail, I become painfully aware that 50 years has passed and some memories are incomplete, mushed up or even veiled.
I asked my friend Pat Osborn if she remembered celebrating my 21st birthday in Berlin? She said no – but it was probably a night that she had too much to “sip”. Oh ya – too much “sipping” in Berlin, I remember a few of those nights. That probably doesn’t help the old memory!
I’m pretty sure I have more to write about my Germany experience, but this essay has gotten way longer than I expected. Soooo…. To be continued!
I went out in the garage and found some pictures from Germany 1972. The pictures had been damaged from time and temperature extremes - so I started messing with them with the "Brushstroke" app. It seems like the paintings are more in keeping with my foggy memories. Hopefully I will find my slides for the next blog entry!