Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it…

March 10, 2011 § 1 Comment

On Monday, Beth had to go back to work 😦 so I decided to go to Weimar to see Buchenwald Concentration Camp. Seeing a concentration camp is something I’ve wanted to do for a very long time (for both personal and historical reasons) and I thought this would be a good opportunity to do so. While not formally a “death camp,” over 56,000 people are purported to have died at Buchenwald. (It is the largest camp in Germany.) Survivors include Nobel peace prize winner Elie Wiesel. I will definitely have to reread Wiesel’s book Night after visiting.

"Buchenwald survivors following their liberation. Elie Wiesel is on the second row from the bottom, seventh from the left."

I took the 9:20am train from Frankfurt to Erfurt, which was about a 2 hour ride. (Slept almost the entire time, sans a 30 min stretch in the end where I looked out the window and saw pretty pastoral scenes). I had a transfer to Weimar in Erfurt, and I took about an hour in Erfurt to wander around. I stuck close to the train station and didn’t see much, although the town seemed very nice. I did see, weirdly enough, a TJ Maxx, which was spelled TK Maxx. I also had a doner kebab for lunch, because I was told they are “the best” in Germany. Was pretty tasty but the experience was soured a little because the person behind the counter kept waiting on these flirtatious women ahead of me and this other man. Anyway, while tasty it was no better than Pita Inn.

I then took the train from Erfurt to Weimar (20 minutes). The instructions I had said to get on the number 6 bus when I arrived in Weimar. Of course, right as I got there, a  number 6 bus pulls up and I run to catch it. I ask the driver if it is going to Buchenwald, and he doesn’t understand English. (A very common problem in Germany, actually, from my experience.) He keeps talking to me in Germany, neither nodding yes nor no. Thankfully, at this point a random man who spoke both German and English was able to intercept and translate that it was in fact a different number 6 bus that goes to Buchenwald. This other bus only came once and hour and we had 30 minutes to wait. I continued talking to this man while we waited, and it turned out he was from Indian but living in German, and had lived in Canada previously (hence the English). His German skills would be invaluable throughout the rest of the day.

We (meaning me and the Indian man) took the bus to Buchenwald, and by the time we got there it was already 2:00pm. We stopped at the information desk to pick up the self guided audio tours, but they told us (or rather, him, in German) that the information center closes at 3:00pm and they stopped giving out the audio tours already. This was needless to say very disappointing, but luckily my new friend stepped in and said, “She has come all the way from America to see this, is there any way we can still get the tour?” I think the lady felt pity on us because she said ok, and that we would have to return them to the head office later, which closed at 4:00pm. She asked us to leave our passports as collateral, but my momma didn’t raise no fool, so I left a replaceable school ID card.

The weirdest thing about the day was how sunny it was. Not that sun is inherently weird, but I just felt like there should be a literal dark cloud over such a place. It seemed unfair that I was able to walk around on a sunny day with clear skies at a place that hurt and killed so many people. The juxtaposition of what I knew had happened there and how it is now was actually very eerie.

I wasn’t actually able to see the whole camp (I saw maybe 80% of it) due to time constraints, but here is what I saw:

I started at the train tracks that led into the camp. The tracks were all built by prisoners; 10km of track were built in a ridiculously short amount of time (3 months) to bring people into the camp. It initially served to bring in supplies for the armaments factory, but was eventually used to transport prisoners in. The tracks were also used to transport people out to death camps such as Auschwitz.

From the railway I went to the camp entrance which was along a street (also built by inmates) called Karakho Path. According to the guide pamphlet I bought:

The SS used to set dogs on the prisoners of newly arrive convos in order to make them run to the camp gate. For this reason, the road section leading from the railway station to the camp was called “Karakho” Path. This word is derived from the Spanish insult carajo.

The only remaining buildings along this road are filling stations and garages the SS used. There is also a small amount of the camp headquarters that is preserved, as well as a small part of the zoo. Yes, there was a zoo built here as leisure activity for the SS. The main attraction was a bear pit, which was taken care of by a Gypsy who died at the camp. The zoo was funded by “donations” from the prisoners. The didn’t say this in the audio tour, but I was doing some reading after, and apparently a former prisoner had an article in the New York Times in which he said:

In the camp there was a cage with a bear and an eagle. Every day, they would throw a Jew in there. The bear would tear him apart and the eagle would pick at his bones.

Apparently there are also photos of some SS men with their wives and children at the zoo. Good wholesome fun, of course.

The road lead up to the main entrance of the camp, which had not been demolished. The entrance had a door with the words “Jedem Das Seine,” which literally translates as “to each his own.” The idiomatic meaning is “everyone gets what he deserves.” The entrance also had a large clock at the top which was frozen at 3:15pm, the time of the camp’s liberation.

The guard towers were also still intact.

The majority of the camp, save the main entrance, two watch towers, and the crematorium, had been torn down in the 1950s, for reasons that seem odd to me. To quote http://www.buchenwald.de:

…the VVN’s vision of a “large-scale museum of the resistance,” in which former barracks would be placed at the disposal of various nations for their own exhibitions, was never realised. The politburo of the SED (Socialist Unity Party of Germany) had other plans…. The consequences this would have for the camp grounds became clear in a resolution passed by the secretariat of the SED Central Committee on October 9, 1950: …it was decreed that the entire camp, along with all of its barracks, was to be torn down. Only the crematorium, the gate building, and the western and eastern towers were to remain standing. The resolution was later supplemented by a plan to afforest the grounds.

…the combination of obliteration and preservation was dictated by a specific concept for interpreting the history of Buchenwald Concentration Camp. As per agreement with Walter Bartel [a former inmate], Robert Siewert felt compelled to justify the demolition once again in 1952 by saying: “The essence of Buchenwald Concentration Camp is not embodied in the barracks or the stone blocks … The essence was the deep comradeship, the mutual help, bonded and steeled by the struggle against fascist terror, organised resistance and the deep faith in the triumph of our just cause!”

The area of the camp where the barracks were was just gravel, and the medical facilities (if you could call them that) and located in the back of the camp was overgrown with trees. The Little Camp (where Elie Wiesel and other younger prisoners stayed), also located in the back was also torn down. (The Little Camp was also known as the Jewish Camp, because it was almost all young orphaned Jews who lived there.) A monument now stands in its place (click the picture to see a version big enough to read.)

The most eerie building left standing is the crematorium, which could be seen throughout the camp because of its tall chimney. Apparently, death became so rampant at the camp that portable crematoriums were moved throughout the camp. The crematoriums in Auschwitz were also modeled after those in Buchenwald.  It was unclear to me whether the ovens I saw were original or if they had been recreated. I believe they were recreated but I’m not 100% sure.

One more thing that stuck with me was a memorial to Gypsies who were at the camp. Each pillar has the name of a death camp the Gypsies were sent to (don’t know why the second picture came out so badly).

There were also several memorials for the Jews in the camp. Here is one a placed a stone on and the rough translation.

"From November 1938 to February 1939 were about 10,000 Jews here: boys, men, elderly, imprisoned. 600 of them were brutally murdered during this time. They died as victims of Nazi racial mania"

In all, over 11,000 Jews died at Buchenwald; more than 7,000 died in the first few months of 1945 alone.

At this point it was time to go return our headsets. Of course the lady forget to give our IDs to the main office, but it was all resolved. I took the bus back to Weimar, said goodbye to my new Indian friend, and got on a direct train back to Frankfurt.
I slept part of the way and spent the other part thinking about how incredibly lucky I am for my circumstances.
“If the only prayer you say throughout your life is ‘Thank You,’ then that will be enough.”
– Elie Wiesel 
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§ One Response to Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it…

  • Phoebe Amberg says:

    It’s cool seeing another person’s perspective at a more mature age (since I was 14 when I went to Buchenwald), but I agree, definitely the most eerie part was the crematorium. I have the same pictures from my trip.

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