"My soul is elsewhere, I'm sure of that. And I intend to end up there." -- Rumi

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Buchenwald: at the going down of the sun

I've never written anything like this on here before.  Or... ever, really.  Because I've never done anything like this, not even remotely close.  On Easter Sunday, 2014, I visited the Buchenwald Concentration Camp Memorial.

I wasn't prepared.  I went with Lisa, and we took the bus, got our audioguides, made sure the cafeteria would be open later.  Usual things.  We walked though this gate, and got very quiet.

The gate, from the outside
"Each to his own."  Implied: "Everyone gets what they deserve."
What this scene would have looked like in 1944.
There's really not very much you can say, looking out over something like this.  In school, we're all taught the horrors of the Holocaust.  We know the numbers.  After a while, even the most horrific numbers, given enough repetition, fade into... numbers.  Even though they shouldn't.

240,000.  That's the number of people who were incarcerated and tortured here, in Buchenwald.  56,545.  That is the number of people who were murdered.

View of the gate from inside, crematorium chimney in the distance
Shoes, broken bowls, and other remnants
The fence separating "The Little Camp"
None of the usual play-by-play here.  You don't need to know what I ate or what the bus times were.  This is what I saw, one Easter Sunday in Buchenwald.

Crematorium basement.  Hooks were not for show.

This happened when my grandparents young adults.  My grandfather -- that same one who told me about drinking a Campari and soda in the Piazza Navonna -- was Captain of a submarine chaser during this war.  In a rare moment which I will never forget, he told me the story in which his ship torpedoed the last Nazi submarine to go down in WWII.

My point is -- this didn't happen in the time of Caligula, or Nero, or the Biblical Pharaoh of Egypt.  This happened within the last 69 years.

I walked around and around, feet crunching on gravel and wind whipping across the razed landscape, and I kept thinking, just... How?

You watch and/or read about crazy people, serial killers, religious fanatics.  You think:  "What could have gone wrong with their brains?"  A fanatic might persuade a couple hundred poor souls to drink the kool-aid, and that's plenty crazy  and tragic enough, but this was a madness that infected an entire sub-continent.  What kind of fanatic has the power to do all of that?

And just.... "how???"  I walked, taking it all in, and comprehending nothing but the insane cruel methodical senseless brutality of it all.  Modern humans have invented the internet and fucking spaceships, but sometimes it really seems like we haven't learned anything, really.

We all like to say: "I could never do anything like that."  But the truth is, really, is that so few of us have actually been tested.  When it truly comes down to it, we don't know what we would do in the face of such a giant, unstoppable monster machine.  We like to think we would be brave, heroic.  That we would stand proud and tall, shout the perfect Hollywood words, and turn the tide.  It's a very heartwarming thought.

Because this blog is always about honesty, for good or ill, I'll come out and say that I don't know what I would do.  I don't know, because I can't.  There's simply no frame of reference for me.  I can imagine, and I hope (Hollywood-style) that I would go out in a fierce blaze of glory, protecting those that I loved most, and making a difference.  But if I realized anything on this day visiting Buchenwald, it's that reality doesn't offer much opportunity for epic hero moments, and that simply surviving, for a day or an hour at a time, giving your bread to someone a little more starving than you, can be more heroic than the most poetic battlefield rallying cry.

We are always so close.  This is what I learned, in a place named for a beech forest, on a mild spring day.  At the end of things, there really is not much atmosphere separating the world of our quiet existences, our winetastings, our hostel reviews, our kickstarter forwards, our well-meaning Facebook memes -- from Buchenwald.

We're never that far away.  From the fanatic with charisma and a promise.  From the ends that will supposedly justify the means.  Anytime anyone begins to separate people into us versus them, and them into numbers, that slippery slope starts to appear, leading to the one choice that everyone hopes they'll never have to make.

So hey -- enjoy life.  I know I try to.  Life is beautiful.  Just don't... get too comfortable.  Because there is no reason this couldn't happen again.  Anytime, anyplace.  It's happened already -- in Soviet Russia, Cambodia, and Rwanda, just to name a few.  I'm sure we can all think of more.  In some parts of the world, it's happening right now.  Just... keep that in mind.  And don't ever forget it.  The scrim is pretty damn thin.

This was a thing that happened.

Look.  Remember.

And learn.

"At the going down of the sun, and in the morning,
We will remember them."


  1. Goosebumps. And I'm totally holding back tears! Great post, Mary.

  2. Thanks Sweetie. This was a hard post to write, but needed to happen.

  3. Some of my students read Night as their summer reading, much of which takes place in Buchenwald. Would you mind if I share this link with them next Fall?