I am no stranger to museums commemorating World War II history, and particularly the Holocaust; I’ve visited everywhere from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. And while Cologne’s NS-Dokumentationszentrum is not a Jewish memorial, it possesses a similar spirit and was an even more powerful experience.
Taking my first steps down into the basement of the interrogation center, I could almost felt the claustrophobia and terror the prisoners must have felt while living here.
The prisoners hailed from all corners of Europe and most stayed for a number of weeks. Some prisoners spent months living in these cells, and were periodically interrogated and tortured. Can you imagine awaiting certain pain and possible death at all hours for months on end?
The most moving part of the experience was reading the prisoners’ inscriptions on the walls, who inscribed their messages with anything from iron nails to lipstick. Interestingly, the guards did not try to stop them from writing on the walls.
We read love letters, cuss words, poetry, hate messages to the guards and philosophical meditations.
My favorite quote that we saw was very philosophical and all too relevant to the interrogation center, “Everything is transient, even a life sentence.” (German)
The cells were meant to hold one or two prisoners at a time, but became so over-crowded by the end of the war that at one point the cell below held 33 people. It measures 9×9.3 meters, about the size of a mid-sized bedroom.
The Nazis eventually built large gallows in order to hang up to seven people at the same time. More than 400 prisoners were executed in this courtyard.
When we emerged from the basement I had thought that we had seen the entire museum; one floor alone had provided so much information and given me so much to think about that I thought the visit was over. But we headed upstairs to explore the upper three stories of the building, which were once the headquarters of Cologne’s Gestapo officers.
The upper floors focused on the Nazi propaganda against the Jews. The newspaper clipping below depicts the caricature is of a Jewish man, over which, “The Jews are our bad luck,” is written.
As we walked around, Christian, my German Couchsurfing host, commented, “I’m glad I was born in 1989 and not 1929.” Strangely, I had been in the midst of a similar thought; that the happiness of our lives is so greatly determined by when and where we were born. It is almost hubris to think we are the captains of our own destinies when so much depends solely on our origins, a factor we cannot control.
On the left is a medal awarded to all German women who gave birth to seven or more children. On the right is the gold star that all Jews were forced to wear after 1941.
By the time we left the museum (two or three hours after arriving) I felt extremely physically and emotionally exhausted. I ended up trying to explain to Christian and Marina the meaning of “emotionally draining.”
After we left the museum Christian and his friend who is also German thanked me for taking them to see something they had never seen before; I was very relieved that the visit hadn’t been uncomfortable for them.
The NS-Dokumentationszentrum in Cologne is absolutely worth a visit; it is well-curated, extraordinarily moving and an important piece of WWII history. The only critique I have of the museum is that the information from the upper three floors was written only in German; it would have been nice for non-German visitors to be able to understand. Luckily the basement provided information in both English and German.
Are you interested in World War II history? Would you visit a Nazi prison?
Many thanks to NS-Dokumentationszentrum for extending complimentary admission to us. As always, all thoughts and opinions are my own.