Monday, August 20, 2018

Visiting Buchenwald

I was 12 when first read The Diary of Anne Frank. It was my introduction to the horror of the Holocaust and my first glimpse into the darkness of the human spirit, of how creatures capable of such beauty and love and creativity could also be capable of insurmountable evil and destruction. I read with great anticipation of a happy ending, expecting this teenager who was much like me eventually to escape the secret annex to find her world again at peace, a world in which she could grow up and chase her dreams. The ending broke my heart. I was devastated to realize that this was no fairy tale and that Anne's legacy was birthed from the tragedy of her death, not from the uniqueness of her life.    

A student of history who read everything I could find about World War II, I attempted to carry with me the story of Anne and people like her as I studied the war and the Holocaust, determined not to lose sight of the staggering human cost in the overwhelming statistical data. I struggled to comprehend numerical values like 6 million Jewish people killed by the Nazi party's "Final Solution," so I concentrated on the experiences of ordinary people-the loss, terror, heartbreak, and-sometimes-incredible acts of bravery and courage.  By the time I visited the Holocaust museum in Detroit, Michigan with my step daughter's seventh grade class, I thought I had at least a small grasp of the enormity of loss and destruction.

I carried all of these thoughts and experiences with me on my visit to the Buchenwald Camp Memorial.  Before the Nazis took power, Weimar was home to the German poets Schiller and Goethe, as well as the birthplace of the Weimar Republic, German constitutional democracy. Driving through a thick forest on Blutstrasse, which means "blood street," it was easy to see why this had this area had also been a popular recreation area for the people of Weimar before the war. It was a lovely drive. I even told my friends that I felt guilty for appreciating the sunny beauty of this place when it had such a dark past.

We arrived at the camp and picked up our audio-tour-guides, then walked down a path towards the reconstructed buildings where the Nazi police were headquartered and the camp records were kept. The pre-recorded voice said that the name Buchenwald would eventually become synonymous with the Third Reich's crimes against humanity.  Here political opponents, Jews, Gypsies and Roma, were persecuted, along with those considered "non-residents" of the German "Volksk├Ârper": homosexuals, homeless people, Jehovah's Witnesses and convicts. I felt like a tourist on a museum tour, automatically following the map down a marked path and trying to connect what I knew from my education to what the voice was saying over my headphones.

But as we approached the simple entrance to the main gate marked with "jedem das seine” (you get what you deserve), I was overwhelmed by emotions for which I was not prepared. Just outside the gate inside the wall was the jail. The door was open and the sign said “eingang” (entrance). I did not want to walk through the cell block where the SS carried out the worst cases of torture with a motto "continue until confession" -  73 years later I could still feel fear and agony and desperation hanging in the air - but I also could not come this far and not go in. I tried to walk silently, so I did not understand why people around me were talking and laughing. As a pastor I have officited many funerals and the sadness I felt here in this place was deeper than at any of those services, yet people who would never laugh then, laughed now.

The tour-guide over my headset talked about the unimaginable cruelty that had happened in these cells.  The SS tortured people for intel, though what kind of information they wanted the voice did not say and I could not imagine.  I paused outside each metal cell door and looked inside the small window. There were pictures on the back walls of the people who had spent the last hours of their lives here. The placards were in German so I could not read about their lives or discern the reason they had been imprisoned. But, I paused long enough to read each name and honor them with a moment of my own deep sorrow.  When I left the row of cells, I carried a deep feeling of loss and a profound sense of guilt, both for the vitality of my own life, the fact that I live while so many people died here unjustly, and also for my own humanness and culpability in social brokenness, knowing we all have light and dark, good and evil, within each of us. What we choose to act on is who we become. How easy it is for some of us to choose the darkness over the light.  

I went through the gate to the camp and walked slowly through the memorial, listening to the audio-guide talk about the inmate’s canteen, which served more as a reminder of everything they had lost than a store, and about the rows and rows of black rocks marking where the prisoners’ living blocks used to stand. I walked by the now crumbled SS zoo, the most infamous part of which was a bear pit, which served as “needed entertainment,” according to its creator, for the SS officers and prison guards and their families.  I learned about the execution station, designed so the killer could avoid looking in the eyes of the one he was murdering. Prisoners, most notably Soviet prisoners of war, would be forced to stand against a wall and were told they were receiving a medical exam, but instead were shot at the base of skull through a hole in the wall. I walked through the empty depot that used to hold prisoner clothing and other supplies, and through the sanitation building, which now displays artwork by former inmates of the camp. I looked at every photograph and read the signs, most of which included an English translation.  I listened to information about the medical experimentation center, but did not walk down the hill to see it. I could not fathom actual medical doctors who could be willing to misuse their training so cruelly that they would inject contaminated blood into healthy people to see how they would react as they became ill. I was overwhelmed by tragedy at every stop. Yet, in the midst of painful stories and copious amounts of historical data, I also heard about how people found hope in the midst of horror, forged friendships, made sacrifices for each other, and still held onto shreds of hope and bits of their faith.

I cried twice. The first was just after entering the gate. I skipped ahead to the 25th segment, because although it was intended to be the end of the tour, its placard was right next to me and I wanted to hear it now before I ran out of time. This section was about the day of liberation, when the American troops took command of the camp.  Liberation was on April 11, 1945-the hands on the clocktower are permanently set to 3:15, the time of liberation. The inmates erected a tall wooden memorial near the main gate, and though it no longer stands, its four corners are marked by metal forms. When they were rescued, the 21,000 inmates who remained swore that they would eradicate Nazism and build a new world of peace and freedom.  As one man reflected, “For one short hour of the world, one might have thought things were fundamentally different.”

His words crushed me and brought me to tears. I thought about the world of today and all that is happening in my own country. I thought about egregious human rights violations (families ripped apart by deportation and by detainment at the border, children separated from their parents, some of them put into American foster homes with a slim chance of ever being reunited with their families, people suffering violence because of their sexual identity, those experiencing hate and persecution because they are Muslim or a part of another non-Christian faith group, homeless people kicked out of public spaces with no other place to go).  I thought about the Trump administration’s criticism of the media, shutting down the free press and favoring censored, sensationalist news stories. I thought about humanity sacrificed for money, and the corruption that is bred by power. And then I thought about how all of these things so characteristic of Trump’s America look so much like Hitler’s Germany. Though the world is a different place, the hate and evil that breeds this kind of dehumanizing behavior and oppressive rule is still very much a part of human society. The world is not fundamentally different than it was 73 years ago, and that in itself is heartbreaking. How could we as a global community experience something like the Holocaust, experiencing the very worst of which the human spirit is capable, and still treat other humans with such contempt and degradation?  This in itself is unfathomable to me, yet, it is the world in which we live.

The second time I cried was at the crematorium. The sign at the entrance requested silence as many consider the crematorium a gravesite to the people whose bodies were burned here.  This was another place I did not want to visit, something else I did not want to see. But I walked through the building anyway, through the room where gold fillings were removed from the teeth of the murder victims, where inspections were done and fake causes of death were recorded on official records.

I avoided looking at the photographs of piles of corpses that hung on the wall, and focused instead on the candles and memorial plaques and symbolic urns that represented lives lost, before walking up the short staircase to where the actual crematorium was. The ovens had pits beneath them, a large cellar dug out below so that bodies could be burned continuously without ceasing.  The voice over my headset said 400 to 500 bodies were burned here every day at the height of the war, and that although the chimney towered above everything else in the area, it was the smoke that would remain always in the inmates’ memories.

I stayed in that room for about 20 seconds, which was about 20 seconds longer than I could handle. I walked down the steps and back outside, around the far side of the building, vomited, and cried. I was grateful that my stomach was mostly empty and that there was no one else around to see me. I was overwhelmed by feelings of grief for a past that was not my own and people I had never met. I wondered again how human beings could be capable of such systematic cruelty towards other human beings. I thought about my own faith and the faith of these people and wondered why God abandoned God’s most beloved creatures in an indescribable hell they did not deserve.

There was a break in the fence that led past a guard tower, and just outside a path lined with stories about the history of Weimar in the centuries before everything here went to hell. I walked down it a few hundred meters to give myself time for composure. I thought about the people who lived in Weimar during the years that the camp was active. Couldn't they smell the smoke from burning corpses? Didn't they have friends or colleagues who were Jewish, or any of the other categories the Nazis considered less than human or enemies of the state? Did they know what was happening and ignore it, or were they really blind to the atrocities that were happening just up the hill from their city? I was angry that a place like this could even have existed without people rising up against it.

Then I thought about my own country and my fellow American citizens. So many times I have heard those who are more conservative than I am, people who support Donald Trump and his policies, use nationalistic, discriminatory, racist, sexist, homophobic and xenophobic terms to talk about how the people who look and think like they do have more rights to life, freedom, happiness, and opportunity than those they clearly believe to be inferior and, even if they don't say it out loud, obviously consider to be less than human. Some of the people who hold these beliefs are people I have always known to be decent, kind, respectful human beings, friends and even members of my own family.  It is so hard to reconcile their actions with the people I know them to be.

But even more telling than this is how even I have responded to the growing spirit of injustice and prejudice in my country. How often have I in the past two years watched as my own government has eroded, sometimes subtly and sometimes quite overtly, the human rights of people in my own neighborhood, and done nothing? And even when in my outrage I have spoken out against the evil acts of the president and his administration, I have done so within the comfort of my own freedom and safety, sad and angry but incapable of affecting actual change, and willing at least subconsciously to risk only so much.

So, maybe my judgement of the German people is unfounded, uninformed, and unfair. I have no idea how I would have responded, or how easily I might have shrugged off the things I didn't understand as political actions that did not affect me.  I have no idea what it is like to live in fear of my own safety or to worry about losing my own freedom. I cannot judge a people I have never met when I never walked in their shoes.

Still, I think about Dietrich Bonhoeffer who fought violently against the Nazi war machine. He said, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” This is the motto by which I strive to live. This is the way I want to create my own legacy.  When I turned to walk back up the path and back into the barbwire-protected camp, I thought about how I need to stop hiding behind the comfort and safety with which the privilege of my race, citizenship and education provide me, and use that privilege to speak and act on behalf of others-those experiencing persecution, deportation, discrimination, and abuse because of any of their human qualities, for, as Bonhoeffer also said, “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.” I am good at handing out the bandages; now, I must attack the wheel.

I was silent most of the end of the tour. I walked back through reconstructed buildings and by the original building that housed the SS dogs. I walked by the youth hostels where young people stay now when they visit the camp to learn about their past in order to create a better future, past the auditorium, and past the information center.  I listened to a few more clips from the audio-tour-guide, realizing that in the two and half hours we spent at Buchenwald, we saw less than half of the memorials. But my heart was thinking about what kind of world I want for me and the kids in my life. It is not enough to me to say that nothing like the holocaust will ever happen again. It has to be deeper than even that kind of promise. We need a world where borders are about diversity and beauty, not about separating the “uses” from the “thems.”  We need a world where no one is persecuted because of what they look like, where they come from, what language they speak or what they believe.

I don’t know if any of this is possible.  I am one person, and obviously, as I considered the life work of people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I know that in every generation there are people born with ideals such as mine, and yet hate and fear continue to rule human society. Of course, I am not naive enough to believe that utopia is possible. But… I am hopeful enough to believe that we as human beings have it within us to be better than we are or have ever been.

As I walked back to the car on that oddly beautiful, sunny day, I knew I would never forget the things I saw or the feelings I experienced at Buchenwald.  I will always see the faces who were on the wall of the torture cells. I will always remember the agony I felt standing in that concrete crematorium full of ovens designed to burn human bodies. I will see the pain and heartbreak and unfathomable resilience of spirit represented in that depot full of artwork made by survivors of this horrendous place.  I will not be the same. But, maybe that is the legacy of this place, for me at least. My heart is more broken than it has ever been in my life, but I realize that in its brokenness I find the power and the motivation I need to continue fighting for something better, for a world that could be fundamentally different, for all people, in all places.

I remember when my favorite college professor lectured about the Holocaust in my “History of Modern Germany” class.  He said that those who escaped the hell of the concentration camps feared being forgotten. Leaving Buchenwald I knew that I would never forget, and though it is not a lot, it is the one thing I know, without a doubt, to be true.