The people that work in German prisons are much different than the people that work in American prisons. It’s very difficult to get a job as a German correctional officer. Fewer than 10% of the applicants are accepted. And it’s like getting into UCLA or Berkeley or something like that, to get a job like this.
Their training, they have two years of training. Most of their training is in social work, counseling, rehabilitation. Some of it is in physical control kinds of techniques. The facilities, as I’ve shown you, this Heidering Prison, the German prisons, they’re very nice places to work.
They’re clean, the staff eats the same food as the inmates, and the atmosphere in the prisons is actually quite relaxed. It’s not tense and angry.
Now, the obvious question is, Why? Article 1 of the German Constitution: “Human dignity shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority.” That’s the very and number one most important thing in the German Constitution, and that’s been sided by the German Supreme Court to give inmates one person per cell, no solitary confinement, no death penalty, and everyone is eligible for parole there.
Now, of course, this German Constitution didn’t come out of nowhere. I wanted to show you the picture of Shaka Senghor. He was a convicted murderer from Detroit who came on this trip with us. He’s been released; he’s doing very well. He spent seven and a half years in solitary confinement in a Michigan state prison.
The German officials think that this is cruel and almost torture and were surprised that he’s not completely insane.
Now, I said to you that I showed you the German Constitution. That Constitution in Germany was written in 1949 while Germany was occupied by the United States, Britain and France, after World War II. That was written in the shadow of the Holocaust and what the German government had done. And so it’s not a surprise that the number one thing was “respect human dignity.”
Now, I finished my week-long trip there, got in a Mercedes-Benz, and started to drive to Bergen-Belsen. The car started to speak to me in German and give me directions. I don’t speak German, and I wasn’t real comfortable being told what to do in German, particularly given the fact that I was going to Bergen-Belsen.
I arrived in Bergen-Belsen about three hours later. My father and grandmother were in Bergen-Belsen from January 1945 until April 15th, 1945. This was their third concentration camp. They’d been in two other slave labor camps in Poland.
By the time they got to Bergen-Belsen in 1945, there were 60,000 people and 10,000 corpses — that’s dead people — in an area less than 0.2 square miles, less than half the size of your campus here.
So, there wasn’t a need for people to shoot to kill people. Disease like typhus and typhoid killed thousands of people. Even after the camp was liberated in April of 1945 by the British, another 10,000 people died the next month.
In March of 1945, at the same time my family, my dad and my grandmother, were there, Anne Frank and her sister Margot, you may have heard of her, died in March of 1945.
So, I got to the camp. These are some photos of what the camp looked like. It was burned to the ground by the British to get rid of all the disease that was there.
And so, there’s sort of a memorial that’s been set up on the site. I met with Dr. Bernd Horseman. He’s the chief archivist of Bergen-Belsen, and I had corresponded with him before I came. He’s about my age. He’s not Jewish; he grew up near this camp.
And I’d sent him the information about my family. I spent about half the day with him and half the day walking around, and he was actually able to show me the records that the British army kept and the Jewish committee kept of the people that had survived.
The name of the Jewish Committee’s records is called nitzolim, which is often translated as “Holocaust Survivors” or something like that.
But the Hebrew is much more poignant; it means “Counted Remanence.” And in the records, I saw the original names of my dad and my grandmother, my remanence.
I walked around the camp for about four hours. There’s mounds like this all over the camp, where there’s tens of thousands of people that are all buried underneath there. I didn’t go to Germany to forgive or forget, and I didn’t either, but I went to learn.
How did a country that had done such horrible things recreate itself so quickly into one of the most enlightened when it comes to crime and punishment? If Dostoyevsky was correct when he said, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons,” then how civilized are we?
What I learned from visiting gleaming prisons, talking to correctional officers and convicted criminals, and then walking through a quiet field of mass graves is that the world might be broken but it can be repaired, because we’re all created with human dignity.