I’ve had the hardest time publishing this post. I was blogging at Wind Scraps when we took this trip to Germany, and though I wrote about every other thing we did and saw there, and I even wrote this post itself, I couldn’t bring myself to hit “publish.” Then, when I started Twig and Feather and began to transfer my Wind Scraps posts here, I published every other post about Germany except this one. I was up at 4 a.m. this morning and began going through some of my old drafts to see what needed to stay and what could go, and here it was again — just waiting to be published. This is the hardest memory I have of Germany, and the one I couldn’t find an answer to, or a comfortable conclusion. So here is Buchenwald, stark and naked and incomprehensible.
When we first learned we were coming to Siegen, I began listing and researching all the places we might visit while in Germany. The first thing to go on the list was concentration camp. We couldn’t be in Germany and not do it. I’ve been twice to Yad Vashem in Israel and I knew that if I ever made it to Germany, I’d have to see for myself the actual site of such horror. Both visits to Yad Vashem brought me to tears, and I was sure I’d feel the same way at the concentration camp. But nothing quite prepared me for Buchenwald.
We left yesterday morning at a painfully early hour. Karen, a staff member at CCBC, and Marcus, a German intern, took Dave, me, and Matthew, a student from Santa Barbara east to Weimar. The van ride was about three hours. When we arrived at Buchenwald, I was struck first by how deep into the woods they’d built the camp. It made me think about deeds done in darkness, and how they don’t stay secret forever.
When the first of the buildings came into view, I was surprised by all the color. In my mind, the Holocaust (and Germany in general) always appear to me in shades of gray. I know it’s because the newsreels and the photos are in black-and-white, but there’s also something so very lifeless about that period of history. I’ve never imbued any sense of color to the scene. I overcame those thoughts as they relate to Germany itself, because this country is as green as my home. The sky overhead is as beautifully blue. The flowers in window boxes bloom in bright reds and yellows and oranges. But I still thought of those concentration camps as places brushed by only charcoal and asphalt hues. So it startled me to emerge from the woods and see several clean, butter-yellow buildings topped with roofs painted rust.
We went inside the information building and paid for the rental of two audio guides. They look like large iPods and are supposed to be loud enough that two or three can listen to one at the same time. With those guides in hand, we began walking toward the crematorium. Between us and our destination was a vast field of massive rectangles sprinkled with black gravel. Each represents the location of a barrack. We stood for a moment staring at those outlined memorials and trying to imagine how so many people could have all been confined to that one space. As large as it was, it was too small for so many souls.
Despite the sun overhead, we shivered as we stood together. The wind had picked up, and with no trees or buildings to shield us, we took the full force of its onslaught. There was a moment when, shivering and tugging the zipper to my coat all the way to my neck, I thought, Let’s get into one of the buildings where it’s warmer … But as quickly as that thought entered my mind, I pushed it aside. I knew that thousands before me had shivered in this place, withstanding far worse, and wearing far less.
I felt a different kind of chill when we walked through the doors of the crematorium. There was no inching our way in, no easing from sunlight to madness — we simply stepped across the hearth and into a place of utter insanity. First, there is the slab upon which people — still living or already dead — were laid. And then there were the ovens.
More than 50,000 people died in Buchenwald between 1937 and 1945, and when they did, they were treated like refuse. When the camp was liberated in 1945, piles of bodies were stacked like kindling outside the crematorium. They were nameless and faceless to the guards who had starved them, mistreated them, and worked them to death. But they had names … and faces … and lives. Fathers, mothers, grandparents. Beloved children. Favorite uncles. Timid in life, or funny and extroverted. Newly married. Ambitious. Dreamers. Readers. Women who knitted, or sewed. Men who took pride in the work of their hands. Children who once chased each other, laughing, down streets devoid of monsters, until the monsters came … and life was devalued, and all this insanity sprung into being.
How can one person look on another, and not see the beauty there?
This is all I wrote about Buchenwald. I don’t know why I stopped, except that I remember being overwhelmed at the memory of that room. I think I wanted to take a break before finishing, and before writing about the other insane room we saw … where prisoners were lined up against a false measuring stick against a wall (no doubt believing they had really been brought to that room for measuring). Through the back of the measuring stick there was a tiny hole, just big enough for the end of a revolver to fit through. The prisoners probably never had time to realize the true reason they’d been brought to that room. The floor was comprised of slats, and painted bright red. It’s easier to hose a floor made of slats. And it’s easier to disguise blood stains when you match paint to all that madness.
Maybe it’s better that some things are left unsaid.