July 20, 2008 in Europe, Germany, Travelogue

Prelude: From Tony, July 16, 2008 8:00 p.m.

I will not trivialize the plight of the Jewish men, women and children who traveled here sixty years ago. Much to the contrary, an unexpectedly emotional moment came as I saw the bare obelisk marking the turn to Buchenwald just the thought of being only 3 km away from such a horrific place which people more eloquent than I have failed to describe…. However, the day involved a train ride covering 250 km to go 120 km, crisscrossing the countryside, through mountains and valleys, followed by a ride -strike that- a push 4 km up hill in an absolute frog-drowning downpour along a highway with nowhere to push the bikes other than right on the road. Certainly this is nothing like any of the trips made to this place by the interred, but it has put us in a reflective mood for tomorrow’s visit.

July 17, 2008
I’m glad we rode our bikes today. It allowed us to travel slowly. It required us to struggle, fully loaded, up the long, slow hill to the camp. It felt appropriate to suffer, in some small way, as we traversed the “blood road” built by the inmates of Buchenwald in 1938.

The ghosts lined the forest road, three deep beneath the trees. Staring silently out at us as we passed. Some of the trees remembered, the biggest ones, drooping sadly over our path.

It was good to become winded by the weight of our bikes on the climb and be forced to walk. It gave the children time to listen to Daddy’s translation of the stories of the ghosts around us and of his grandfathers, one of whom spent part of the war in a German camp after being shot down over the ocean. It gave us time to prepare our hearts for the place before us.

The view from Buchenwald is breathtaking. One of the prettiest vistas we’ve yet seen in Germany. It felt as if we were surveying the whole world and everyone in it, from within a barbed wire fence. I am not nearly eloquent enough to put words to the experience of walking through the iron gates of the camp and turning to look back, only to see the words “to each his own” twisted in the bars. As if this fate was deserved by the interred.

There simply are no words to describe the horror of passing into a white tiled room, scrubbed antiseptically clean, a long tiled table in the center with a drain.

The room in which the bodies were mutilated, skin pieces removed to make lampshades and heads prepared for shrinking: as gifts for the SS officers, or their wives. It was all I could do to bring myself to run my hand across the edge of one tile.

That room leads to one much worse. The room in which the specially designed ovens stood, mouths gaping, still ready to receive the dead. Trenches behind them where the bone ash was shoveled. An elevator from the basement to facilitate moving the men, women and children with lives and a stories from the room below where they had entered knowing fully their fate: to be hung on metal hooks at the top of the wall and removed as corpses. A sink on one wall. A bathroom next to the rear exit. All absolutely still and silent.

It was impossible not to look into the semi-circular hole of the oven and not wonder why it was “them” and not me.

There are no words.

The children had lots of questions. How does one who has lived a life of only childish delight and happy freedom understand electrified barbed wire and emaciated faces with vacant eyes? Much less ovens for something other than helping Mama bake bread?

We did our best to answer them and point out that there are tigers in this world. We feel inadequate to the task of teaching them in this capacity. If we can’t fathom it, how can they?

We were allowed to pass out of the iron gates. Hannah noted this freedom and showed her appreciation for it.

Buchenwald has long been on my list of places to see. Elie Wiesel’s book, Night took me through the gates for the first time twenty years ago. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s story ended here as well. Only two men who told their stories in ways that spoke to me of tens of thousands who never spoke another word.

I can’t say I enjoyed the visit. In fact, it made me physically nauseous to stand in a courtyard where hundreds of bodies lay piled waiting for the black fires to turn them to ash when my grandparents were my age. I am, however, glad we came.

We told the children when they asked, “Why?” (a big question in just three letters, says Daddy) that it is important to remember so that we never forget the depths of human depravity, and the importance of treating our fellow man as if he was created in the image and likeness of the Living God, regardless of how he looks, where or what he worships, or who he voted for in the last election.