Tag Archives: Holocaust

1945

It wasn’t the size or the scale or the beauty of the view, the changing leaves, the sun peeking out behind the grey clouds. It wasn’t the stones placed on memorials or the signs explaining what we were meant to remember. It was, rather, the order, the organization, the efficiency and thought that had gone into creating an industrial process that, as intended, exterminated thousands of souls.

Souls that were exterminated because they were no longer thought of as souls, as individuals, as humans.

In an industrial process devoid of humanity to enable the process to function.

In a place that was beautiful, with forest growing on the mountaintop, with sunlight streaming through trees, where the wind must have been extraordinary when it came.

And what got me, too, was the way that nature could entirely take over if we let it. The soil had regenerated from the burned remains of buildings overloaded beyond expectations. The trees had grown tall inside what had once been structures meant to contain, to suppress, to separate. The paths were almost overgrown, almost hard to distinguish from the leaves strewn across the ground.

It was autumn in the beech forest. Autumn in Buchenwald.

If we let it, nature could obliterate the remains of what we were there to remember. Nature thrives despite of humanity, against humanity, and here we have fought nature back to remember. Letting this place become, once more, simply a beautiful place would mean that we risk forgetting, risk allowing the lessons of the past go unlearned.

And so the paths were almost hidden. Almost, but not quite. Intentionally the paths were designed and intentionally they remained.

It is not enough to remember; rather, there is a responsibility to act. And this means putting up the markers, placing the stones, taming the trees. This means being there, being at Buchenwald, and acknowledging the lives taken and ended there. This means continuing to tell the stories, to say the names, to walk where thousands walked, and to share the experience so as to keep it as present as we can into the future.

Because it is not enough to say that we remember.

We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. – Elie Wiesel

Buchenwald

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.

Stumbling Stones

Several weeks back, I looked over the notes I took years ago as my grandmothers regaled me with stories of our extended family history. I looked over the family tree that my grandmother’s cousin, who I’ve never met, had painstakingly put together, complete with full names and the dates and locations of births, marriages, and deaths. Somehow, the story feels different on this side of the world.

One evening heading home from climbing, an American friend asked how my family had responded when I said I was moving to Germany.

Later, a German friend told me he had been wondering that, too, but as a German, never would have asked. He walked with me through town and pointed out buildings the Nazis had built and used as offices. A small sign, so nondescript that it’s easy to miss, explains it. No fanfare.

It took several weeks of lessons before my German teacher told me she had been afraid to ask about my family history after learning my name for the first time.

My history students and I are studying the period of European diplomacy between the World Wars and it hasn’t yet come up that I’m Jewish. It might. What is obvious is the depth of understanding these young people have about propaganda, hate speech, power, victimization. They do not take today’s world for granted because they know what it cost.

Yesterday I photographed the first stumbling stones that I saw when I arrived here. Before I knew what they were. Before I knew how they got there.

Hier wohnte. Here lived.

Here lived.

Hier wohnte.

As a memorial, the stumbling stones, or Stolpersteine, are not without controversy. (Is there such a thing as remembrance without controversy?) As of December 2019, 75,000 Stolpersteine had been placed in Germany and they are in other countries, too. But not everyone agrees that accidentally tripping over a stone and then recognizing its significance, even if it forces you to kneel before the victim, is dignified. I can appreciate the disagreement because it means that people care. They care enough to argue about the best way to honour lives taken.

It is one thing to be steeped in history. It is another thing entirely to learn from it.

Do you not know that a man is not dead while his name is still spoken? – Terry Pratchett, Going Postal