A somber anniversary . . .10 Apr 2015, by Uncategorized in
During my first semester in Munich, we had a week of fall break. Most of my fellow students made the most of their Eurail passes to travel to far off places to the south or east or west, but I decided to go north, alone, and explore more of Germany. I took the train to Weimar, noticing the traces of the old East which were still clearly visible ten years after the fall of the Wall, and I spent a day reveling in the German culture of Goethe and Schiller. I visited Goethe’s house, considered his color theory, and had dinner at a Chinese restaurant with a view of the National Theater, where the Weimar Republic was founded in 1919.
Weimar was the European Cultural Capital in 1999, and there were signs throughout the town with images of the town during the Third Reich, including a photo of the National Theater with swastika banners behind the iconic statues of Goethe and Schiller. It is only one of many juxtapositions of German history, three points on the trajectory of German history.
The next day, I took the bus to Buchenwald (literally “beech forest”), without even giving it that much thought. It was a beautiful fall day with blue sky and clear air. I got out of the bus by the large apartment buildings where the workers from the camp had lived, walked through the gate with the slogan “Jedem das Seine” (to each his own), and was taken aback by the beautiful view from the hill. Is it permissible to admire the view from a concentration camp in which thousands perished? In Buchenwald the barracks have been demolished, but the crematorium remains. I visited the camp itself first and then the nearby memorial to those who died there under Russian occupation after the camp was ostensibly liberated.
It would have been easy to visit Weimar and celebrate German culture, and I don’t know that I even planned to visit Buchenwald when I set out on that trip (which continued to Hamburg). A month or so later, I visited Dachau with my American student group, but wandering alone through the crematorium in Buchenwald after having just visited Goethe’s house the day before made a much greater impression on me. The group experience insulates us a bit from taking things in at the rate and in the way we are most able. German schoolchildren visit concentration camps, but I imagine that these field trips are a bit like my school trip in the third grade to visit the Cherokee Indian Reservation in western North Carolina. The history of the Cherokee is also filled with ample reasons for sobriety, but I mostly remember the card games on the bus or the junk food.
On April 11, 1945, American soldiers arrived at Buchenwald and were greeted in celebration by the prisoners. But the population of the camp had shrunk in the days before this liberation. Tens of thousands of prisoners had been sent on death marches in an effort to evacuate the camp. Still, there were over 20,000 prisoners there when the Allied forces arrived. The photos are appalling, and one hates to even imagine what it must have been like to be either a prisoner or a “liberator.”
There are few eyewitnesses to this chapter of history left now, seventy years later, but, in this one camp, over 200,000 people were at some point imprisoned.
On this anniversary, I will be remembering a solemn and solitary trip, the echo in the crematorium, and the steel gate with that simple slogan. But I will also remember the blue autumn sky, the yellow beech leaves, and the houses at the entrance to the camp, where German soldiers lived and dreamed of the women they had left behind, wrote letters home, played cards, and became bystanders of one of history’s greatest atrocities.
On this anniversary I am reminded that in the decades since this atrocity, we have become bystanders of further atrocities, great and small. We have tolerated, or even perpetrated, injustice. On this anniversary I am reminded that historical scholarship is important, but that living and acting in the present is crucial. May the former guide us in the latter. May we have the courage to look long and hard at the past, and then to direct that gaze at the world around us and at ourselves.
Header photo: Beech forest
Feature photo: Entrance gate to Buchenwald Concentration Camp (Wikimedia)