It caught me by surprise — that lingering sense of sadness, hopelessness, and anguish. But I was too busy trying to catch up on editing photos to focus on tuning into the first wave of the vibe. I certainly hadn’t intended to know the history of that place since all I thought we were doing was ‘parking’ ourselves for a week after our wonderful month in Berlin. But it happened nonetheless, washed over me, and it has taken me months to feel like writing about it.
We had been enjoying our time in a self-contained apartment in the small town of Ortrand outside of Dresden. We were at the Ferienpark Dresden campground with holiday apartments that were surrounded by thick forests on one side and flat farmland stocked with dairy cattle on the other side. We could cook for ourselves or eat in the charming little restaurant downstairs. And the biergarten served such yummy dark German beer! The setting was lovely, all was well, and there was no reason for my psychic senses to go all twitchy.
But as we took a long walk one afternoon to put some movement into my laptop-obsessed-and-inactive-body, I spontaneously blurted out to Mark as we walked, “I wouldn’t want to ask any of the local people about what went on here during World War II.” Mark was accustomed to this sort of out-of-the-blue sensing from me, so he just looked at me and didn’t query my reactions as I continued to talk.
“I get the oddest vibe here — as if there was a concentration camp or a work camp or something even more dire related to the Nazis. It’s hanging around in the atmosphere all of these years later. And it would make the current occupants uncomfortable about what their parents and grandparents might have been up to 70 years ago. I’d never want to make any of these nice people feel ill at ease.”
Every single person that we had met thus far had been completely charming and both common sense and common courtesy meant that I knew that the German people were quite sensitive and aware of what an aberration those 1930s and 1940s years were under the Nazi regime. I read the English translation of the German newspaper online and I knew that both the government and the general populace were determined to never have a return to that kind of chaotic violence. But it was a hurtful period to reflect on for many of them, so I wanted to practice the utmost courtesy and simply not ask.
We had stopped to stare at a waterway and the cows in the field as we continued on into the town. Then I told Mark that I was going to do a web search when we got back to the apartment. I knew that we were in an area that had been in East Germany until the reunification in the late 1980s, but it didn’t feel like a Communist time period vibe — it felt like a 1940s vibe.
On we walked into the spotlessly clean and orderly Ortrand, looking around slowly, and we began to spot things that we had never seen when we had arrived three days earlier from the other direction and gone straight into the campground complex. Watch towers — we saw watch towers looming over two different places. And then we walked by the fences, fences that were quite a lot taller than I am, fences that spanned both sides of one of the roads on the outskirts — and my entire stomach just went all icky.
“Why are those fences shaped like that?” I asked Mark. And he told me that they were bent at the top to keep things in, not keep intruders out. I didn’t have a camera with me and we had to return there a few days later as we were departing, but I thought I would share what we saw and what I discovered.
There were large concrete tanks and platforms and crumbling buildings behind those fences and I was just preparing to photograph those when the hair on the back of my neck began to stand up. I turned to see a man who appeared to be in his early to mid-90s who was absolutely glaring at me with an extremely hostile expression when he spotted my camera. We departed quickly.
Ortrand had been the site of a work camp — one of the “Arbeitskommandos (Work Camps) supplied from Stalag IV-D” in Torgau according to the website run by a man named Graham Johnson. His extensive research was done to honour the memory of his father who was a prisoner in one of these camps. If you scroll down that extensive list, you will find that Ortrand used British servicemen from Stalag IV-D to make cement for the German army. That certainly explained all of those moldering buildings behind the fencing which were grown over and only partially visible.
This Iron Cross and Eagle monument, pictured below, stands in the middle of a traffic round-about in front of the train station which is currently full of workmen and undergoing renovation. So yes, the past is still visible in several places around the village.
This is Ortrand today — a very peaceful, pretty, and tidy village full of pastel coloured buildings. Any feelings of discomfort that I may have had several days previously were dispelled by an afternoon of walking around, taking photographs, eating ice cream, and drinking a wonderfully strong expresso at a local cafe.
I am quite aware that most people aren’t as sensitive to lingering historical vibrations as I am, but it was an episode that I felt was worth sharing.
©Deborah Harmes and ©A Wanderful Life
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