Unobstructed freedom, as I see it, is our right and our privilege to be who we are, to live and to breathe without fear of our lives or our breath being taken away.
This past year, I lost my ability to breathe while visiting El De Haus, a four-story brick building that was under construction in Cologne, Germany in 1935 when it was taken over by the Gestapo.
This unassuming structure on Appelhofplatz was meant to be the residence of businessman Leopold Dahmen (hence the name, El-De Haus), but the Gestapo soon converted it to a prison with offices on the main floor, ten small prison cells in the upper basement, and a physical torture room in the lower basement for “advanced interrogation.” Innocent people from France, from Russia, from Poland, and from other neighboring countries were taken into custody by the Gestapo and held for weeks or even months in the tiny prison cells. Although the cells were intended for one or two people, more than thirty prisoners were often crammed inside, with no ability for physical movement. The prisoners received dry bread for their morning and evening meal, and a cup of broth mid-day. Buckets placed in the corners of each cell were piled with excrement. A small pane of glass in each cell looked out onto the pavement above, where passersby could hear the muted cries for help.
I knew when I entered El De Haus that it would be a difficult visit, but I wasn’t prepared for the physical response that overtook me. I began the morning by studying the inscriptions carved into the cell walls—more than 2,000 pleas for release had been etched with fingernails, chalk, lipstick, or metal screws—and with each plea for freedom, for the reunion with family and country of origin, I shared the anguish of those incarcerated, until I felt as if I were one of them. In my mind it was 1943, and I was desperate to be released.
I ventured downstairs to the darkened, windowless lower basement, my footfalls echoing on the stone steps, to the hidden place where prisoners were taken to be tortured, where their screams would be less detectable from the street.
I stood in the center of the room for less than a minute when a cold chill tightened around my neck like an unseen noose, cinching my throat and squeezing the air from my lungs. I gasped, dizzy and fearful that I would collapse from lack of oxygen. I continued gasping for air as I looked around the room with desperation, momentarily losing sight of the staircase. When it came into my field of vision, I made my way toward it, grasping the handrail and scuttling on unsteady feet to the main level and the front door. It took several moments for me to regain normal breathing.
I was quite sure that whatever happened to me in the sub-basement was not going to leave me at any point soon, and it terrified me. I wondered, in a way I had never wondered before, if it was possible to regain a sense of freedom in one’s life after having been incarcerated and tortured. Where did these persecuted people find solace? How did they regain their sense of justice, even after liberation?
Three days later, I traveled by funicular and on foot to a majestic mountaintop in central Switzerland, seven thousand feet above the landscape below. The sun created streaks of searing white light through the clouds, illuminating the tiny villages dotting the green hillside below, each with their white peaked roofs. In the distance were rows of craggy snow-capped mountains. The air was cold as I inhaled deeply. I lifted my face to the sun and spread my arms, relishing the pristine air, the space and the sky around me, the hard-packed white snow beneath my boots. This is freedom, I thought. Breathing. Being. Without obstruction.
As I continued to breathe, I regained my strength. It was a seminal moment in my many years of foreign travel, a moment I continue to relive again and again. The yin and the yang of my three day journey—the suffocating lack of freedom in the tiny prison cell where the ghosts of the tortured were still apparent and easily felt, followed by the euphoria of infinite, blissful expanse—rendered me energized, grateful and humbled by the notion of freedom. Yes, it’s a birthright, but it’s also a privilege.
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