I wasn’t expecting to see a sign for the Buchenwald memorial, even though we had decided as a group to ride there. I wasn’t expecting my heart to drop into my stomach and begin to beat slightly faster. I wasn’t expecting the sounds of the world to grow softer, to find myself so fully inside my own body.
In short, I wasn’t expecting to feel what I felt.
Sometime during my first week here in Weimar, I saw a bus with the word “Buchenwald” on its marquee. This is a place, I reminded myself. A real place. Linked by roads, buses, and people. Where life exists and carries on.
But it wasn’t until last week, actually, that I realized that I knew the word “Wald” – forest. Yesterday, looking into the forest, I learned “die Buche” – beech tree. Buchenwald is a beech forest.
Life exists and carries on.
We turned left at the roundabout and I listened to a friend explain where we were, but I already knew. The obelisk had given it away even before the stone marker indicating the beginning of Blutstraße, or Blood Road. We pulled over and I took a moment that I didn’t know I needed. To the unasked question I answered, This is very strange.
Did I want to turn back? I was grateful for the offer, but no. So we rode on.
Blutstraße is so named because it was built by camp inmates from 1938 to 1939. Small stone markers along the road indicate the railroad that was also built by inmates, a railroad designed to bring people here more quickly rather than walking up the road. The markers are painted with a bright blue train, ensuring visibility through the trees. Buchenwald. Beech forest.
We stopped to look at a map of the sight and the surrounding towns and villages. The residents of my town, Weimar, were marched up this road by the Allies who refused to accept that they didn’t know what had happened here.
The vastness of loss is staggering.
We left our bikes at the entrance to the memorial and walked towards a tower that I have only previously seen from the Autobahn below. That was the idea – to be visible. To be a reminder. So that this will never happen again. The thought of forgetting, the evidence seen around the world of all kinds of forgetting about so much history, is exactly why it was important to be here.
The complex includes three mass graves and as we walked down the steps towards them, the wind picked up. And once there, once protected by the stone that forced us to look down to the grassy knoll at its centre, the noise of the wind faded and we could take stock of where we were.
We followed the path along the ridge with monuments representing each of the eighteen nations that the prisoners came from. We read aloud each name, doing our best to speak the language that the people of that nation would have used to name their home.
The path curved back up the hill and we followed it, pausing at the sculptures illustrating scenes of life in the camp.
And then we returned to where we’d started, wind urging us along, back to the sculpture that had greeted us upon entrance. I couldn’t bring myself to take a photo of the faces that were far too real.
But the artist left no doubt as to their triumph, and for this, I am grateful.
What I felt in my bones as we walked through the memorial was not the sense of something uncanny that came over me at the roundabout. Rather, I felt the fire of a question that I will never stop asking: How can it be that people looked at other people and did not see them?
And to do justice to this question, I must acknowledge that this is often the case in the world we live in. I must face the reality in which we declare, “Never again”, but are quick to look away precisely when we need to look more closely. And to play my part in the world, I need to say this aloud.
Yet, I do believe the world has come a long way. I believe people have dug profoundly deep into history and rebuilt because of it. And precisely because this is possible, the challenge remains: What will we do, each of us, to make the world a better, more peaceful place?
To start, we must never stop looking.