To commemorate the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe, here is a short story I have translated about my visit to the Buchenwald concentration camp in November 2017.
No birds are singing this morning. We’ve been walking for a few minutes already, under this yellow autumn sky, and we’re still a little numb from the one-hour car trip. The freezing air temperature took me by surprise once we got out in the parking lot. Little clouds now leave my open mouth, and my glasses are getting foggy. I pull up my scarf to cover my nose. I can’t help but sniffle. It’s oddly silent around here. We only hear our steps on the asphalt, our feet hitting the ground with a muffled thud, all sounding like the military march that has stuck to this place for too long. I wish I could not hear it. I wish the banging of our boots would stop echoing throughout the plain, but we have to keep walking. We don’t have all day.
Jedem das Seine is written on the main gate. To each what he deserves.
Once we get through the iron door, the atmosphere gets much heavier. I expected it to happen. We move forward to the roll call square and the gravel crunches under our feet. The sound resonates across the land, across time even. My throat tightens. We’re standing where others have stood weak and terrified, day in and day out, waiting for their name to be called — perhaps the last piece of humanity they were left with. The hill going down in front of us seems to go on and on. It is divided into rectangles made out of dark pebbles, which mark out the destroyed barracks that were once there. To the right, we see the depot building and the crematorium.
I ask my German friend if she’s ever been here before. Yeah, she answers, she was here on a school trip in ninth grade. Ninth grade? When I was that age, I went on a school trip to Toronto. We visited the Hockey Hall of Fame, the Eaton Center and Niagara Falls. I can’t possibly tell her that.
We enter the crematorium. Nothing’s hidden, and nothing’s truly left unsaid. Here, you can see how human beings were executed and how their bodies disappeared afterwards. And here, war prisoners were shot dead; it looks like there’s still a little blood on the wall. And here, we used to burn the bodies. Near the exit, there is a giant panel with a way-too-big black-and-white photo of a pile of corpses. Two tourists are posing for a picture next to the panel, their faces perfectly somber for the occasion. And here I thought the unwritten rule was simple: if you can’t smile on the picture, don’t take the picture.
And here I thought the unwritten rule was simple: if you can’t smile on the picture, don’t take the picture.
My friend is shaking her head, disgusted, when we finally get out of the crematorium. I’m just as livid. I ask her if I can take pictures here. She hesitates. I wish it wouldn’t be this way, but right now, every word I say to her I say to a jaw-clenched nation. She reassures me that I can take pictures of the landscape, but I might want to avoid selfies. I shrug. It’s not like I wanted to take pictures anyway. Some things you can’t just immortalize that easily.
We’re heading to the depot building, in which there is now a permanent exhibition on the camp’s history. We wander mindlessly through eight years of horror, disbelief and denial. Some teenagers around us are whispering to themselves, sometimes even smiling. I can’t really blame them. They look like they’re in ninth grade. To them, it’s just another school trip.
The exhibition is made up of a collection of documents, photos, striped uniforms, metal mess plates, and blood-curdling accounts from eyewitnesses. There are Nazi badges and flags, but as far as I know, I can’t find the name of the actual Monster anywhere. This is not his temple. After all, so many tortured souls are resting here. Why would anyone want to bring back his shadow to this place?
Suddenly, I stop dead in my tracks. In a showcase are displayed two plush toys that were made by a prisoner for her children. I stand in front of them for at least three minutes, motionless, completely hypnotized. The toys look scary and quite ugly, to be honest, but that goes without saying since they were handmade with the few materials that could be found on camp. Still, I can only imagine the love that was put into crafting those toys in the worst possible circumstances. This is what gets to me: the effort to preserve innocence amidst indescribable horror. I have to tear myself away from the spot. A ball of sadness is growing in my stomach at this point, and I know it’s here to stay for a while.
This is what gets to me: the effort to preserve innocence amidst indescribable horror.
I’m dragging my feet to the end of the exhibition. My friend is waiting for me at the exit. I give her a little smile to let her know I’m done with the visit. I would have loved to read every single thing to honor the victims, but the amount of information is overwhelming, and it’s too much to handle. I’m way too small to carry the weight of all those stories on my own.
We’re outside once again. Only the sound of pebbles under our feet manage to break the silence. I can’t speak. There’s nothing I could say to ease the suffering that’s still in the air. Everything’s stuck in my chest, and I can’t seem to breathe normally. Then, my stomach growls. The sadness slowly subsides. It’s almost lunchtime.
On our way to the next museum, I can’t help but wonder why the Schulzstaffel established a concentration camp here, in the state of Thuringia, right in the middle of Germany. The answer remains unclear, but something is disturbing about this choice of location that I can’t ignore. Fifteen minutes after leaving the camp, we find ourselves in the center of Weimar, a city whose name I’ve probably heard before but would have never thought I would visit one day. For centuries, and especially during the Enlightenment, this place was a cultural hub. So many intellectuals and artists have traveled and lived here: Luther, Bach, Goethe, Schiller, Wagner, Strauss, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer… Weimar screams of German excellence. I imagine that someone twisted thought this was the perfect place to uphold this excellence at the expense of tens of thousands of people who would be dropped off here without ever leaving. And just like that, darkness overcame the light.
This afternoon, in Weimar, we celebrate the spirit of Goethe, who just loved to stroll on the Ettersberg hill decades before it became Buchenwald.
Buchenwald was built in 1937 and was finally liberated in April 1945. Almost 280,000 people were imprisoned in the concentration camp and its subcamps. 56,000 of them have lost their lives.
For more information, visit the Buchenwald Memorial website.