We had glimpsed the memorial once before, silhouetted against the sunset as a Utah Symphony tour bus trundled into Weimar. Now it confronts us every morning outside our apartment window, the sun glinting off the bell tower on the hill northwest of the city.
Still, it's not a pilgrimage I'm anxious to make, delving as it does into the darkest pages of German history. At the same time I remember the words of a friend who had been here before when he heard we were returning to Weimar:"You must see Buchenwald."
When the day awakes ere the sun does smile,
The columns trudge to the day's hard tasks
Off into the gray of the morning.
And the woods are black and the heavens red
And we carry in our breadsack a piece of bread
And in our hearts our sorrow.
It's a beautiful day on the Ettersberg, the light streaming through the tall stands of trees that line the road to the memorial. The 19th-century poet/philosopher Goethe used to take walks on this hill with its commanding view of the Thuringian plain below. In fact when the site was approved by the Nazis in 1937, it was decided not to use the name "Ettersberg" precisely because of its association with Goethe. Instead the camp would be called Buchenwald/Weimar.
"Corrective-labor camp" was the official designation, or in some sources "re-education camp." The bas-reliefs of the memorial, however, do not mince words. "Ein Todeslager wurde hier gebaut," the first proclaims - "A death camp was built here" - as the mural itself depicts guards laying into prisoners with whips and rifle butts.
There are seven murals in all, each a testament to man's inhumanity to man, leading down the hill to the main amphitheater. Humanity shines through, though, in scenes such as a prisoner offering water to a torture victim hanging by his wrists from a tree. And the final liberation mural, in which a camp survivor can be seen holding a rifle aloft over a Nazi soldier.
Reportedly the memorial was built at the suggestion of playwright Bertolt Brecht, who envisioned an annual festival at which choral music and political readings would be performed in memory of the dead. Construction began two years before his death in 1956 and was completed in 1958.
The result is a typically massive German evocation of classical architecture, the grassy pits at the bottom being linked by an avenue of 18 rectangular columns, one for each country whose citizens were murdered here. The Street of Nations, it is called, each column being surmounted by a metal fire urn. In the three pits, a stone legend informs us, more than 10,000 enemies of the Third Reich were buried.
Surveying the whole, from just below the crest of the hill, is the giant bell tower. Before it stands a statue of a group of militant inmates, while atop its pale facade are engraved the Roman numerals MCMXLV - 1945, the year Buchenwald was liberated. Inside, behind two locked iron doors, we see a memorial plaque set in the concrete blocks of the floor, decorated with flowers and wreaths. The writing is in three languages, German, French and Russian, each barely illuminated by the small amount of sunlight that filters down from above.
And my blood is hot and my love is far
And the wind sings softly and I love her so,
If only she'd stayed true to me!
The rocks are hard but our step is sure
And we carry our picks and spades along
And in our hearts our love.
April 11 - 46 years ago Thursday - is commonly given as the date of Buchenwald's liberation by troops of the U.S. 3rd Army. At Buchenwald, however, that is recorded as the date of the armed uprising within the camp.
A week earlier the SS had attempted an evacuation, mainly consisting of Soviet prisoners of war and Poles who were afraid the camp would be set afire before the Americans could arrive. The camp underground, however, had attempted to radio for help on April 8, and three days later brought out the weapons they had been holding in readiness. By the time the Allies showed up, they were in control and handed the camp over to them.
Even those battle-hardened troops were appalled at what they found. Bodies piled in heaps. Survivors who were little more than living skeletons, their skin pulled tight over their bones. The gas chambers. The crematorium that burned day and night. Bales of women's hair, spectacles, dentures and clothing, all neatly sorted, including a bin with thousands of pairs of baby shoes.
Of the 238,000 prisoners who passed through Buchenwald's gates, more than 56,000 died or were killed. That's a small number compared with Auschwitz, where an estimated 3 million perished. But it was enough to fill the Allies with rage as everywhere the German citizenry denied any knowledge of these atrocities, although near Weimar, it is said, the stench of the camp had carried far over the countryside.
The motto over those gates, "Jedem das Seine" - "ToEach His Own Due" - can be seen in wrought iron to this day. Not so the barracks, which stood row upon row across the compound. All that remain are the guard stations, the stables (where, a plaque informs us, 8,483 Soviet soldiers were murdered), the detention center, the children's barracks, the canteen and, dominating the landscape, the crematorium with its towering smokestack.
Reportedly when the wood was cleared in 1937, crews were careful to leave the Goethe Oak, on which he had once carved his initials. Now the only thing left is a charred trunk, the remnant of an Allied bombing raid in 1944 after the camp had been turned to the production of war materials. (Ironically it was the guns dropped during that raid that the underground confiscated for later use.)
An open door leads to the crematorium. Across the rough, deep-stained concrete floor another door leads to the examining room, outfitted with a cold white table and cabinet and a metal stove. Beyond that lies a room containing one of the carts used to haul bodies here for incineration. I notice that someone had laid a red gladiolus on one side.
One also sees flowers in the inner court near the memorial to slain communist leader Ernst Thaelmann. Other plaques within include memorials to a multitude of Russians (many in Cyrillic) and one to former Belgian Minister of State Paul Emile Janson. These can be seen in the room adjoining the crematorium itself, whose six ovens reportedly gave the camp a disposal capacity of 400 bodies per day.
Heading back outside we pass the rooms used for medical experiments, for which the camp was famous. The testing of new surgical techniques, various toxins and antitoxins, even artificially induced diseases - these are estimated to have taken as many lives at Buchenwald as did brutality and starvation.
A museum now occupies the large building to the north of the compound. Here one can see not only the brick and barbed wire of the camp but the clothing and metal cups and canteens of the prisoners. Photographic exhibits profile both the victims and the progress of the Reich. They also lend extra impact to a now-empty gallows and a display of overcrowded wooden bunks.
And the night is short and the day is so long
But a song resounds that we sang at home:
We'll not let our spirits falter!
Keep in step, comrade, and don't give up hope,
For we carry the will to live in our blood
And in our hearts our faith.
Yes, amid all that there was a song, the "Buchenwald-Lied," written by two prisoners when the commandant decided the camp should have an anthem. I first hear it during the film, shown six times a day at the information center, one of them in English.
The one we see, however, is in German, and as the song is heard behind the stark images unfolding onscreen I attempt to note it down. "Und die Nacht is kurz, und der Tag is so lang/Doch ein Lied erklingt, das die Heimat sang . . . ." ("And the night is short and the day is so long/
But a song resounds that we sang at home . . . .")
It's a quiet song, yet it communicates both the terror and the hope of the pictures themselves. Smiling SS officers. The smoke of the crematorium. The statue of Goethe and Schiller that stands before Weimar's National Theater. Via German newsreels we see both the decadence and elation of Hitler's Germany on the eve of war, via 3rd Army footage the hollow eyes and wasted limbs of the survivors, and the dead stacked four and five deep.
Reportedly when Gen. Eisenhower toured one of the death camps for the first time, he turned to the officials with him and declared, "For the first time in my life I am ashamed to be German." Subsequently he ordered the people in the neighboring towns brought up to view the horrors they had denied all knowledge of.
Surely they must have known of the book-burnings and synagogue fires the film shows all too graphically, though, as well as the carnage of Kristallnacht, whose open hostility toward the Jews is generally credited with inaugurating the terror officially.
There are no denials on the weeping faces of the women of Weimar as the film shows them being taken through the camp. Or on ours as we look at one another and ask, "How could they have done it?"
At least one survivor of Buchenwald, the Spanish writer Jorge Semprun, maintains that the memorial is a monument to bad taste, that "the camp should be left to the slow work of nature, to the forest, to the roots, to the rain, to the irreversible erosion of the seasons. One day, people would rediscover the buildings of the old camp overgrown by the irresistible profusion of trees."
But in a day when many are again denying the reality of the Holocaust, he is wrong and my friend is right. We must all see Buchenwald and what it tells us about man's capacity for good and evil. And the ability of one to overcome the other.
Oh, Buchenwald, I cannot e'er forget you,
Because you are my destiny.
Whoever left you can but begin to fathom
How wonderful freedom is!
Oh, Buchenwald, we'll not lament and sorrow,
And what our future ever be,
We would despite it all say "yes" to life,
For surely comes the day when we are free!
Holocaust Memorial Week
"Days of Remembrance 1991 - Holocaust Memorial Week" is being commemorated April 7-12 throughout the United States. Related events have been under way in Utah as part of the observance. Among those still on tap:
- Peter R. Black, chief historian of the Office of Special Investigations, U.S. Department of Justice, will discuss "The Pursuit of Nazi War Criminals in the U.S., 1979-1991," at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 11, in the Mark Greene Auditorium, Francis A. Madsen business building, University of Utah.
- Mina Iancu of Yad Vashem (the Museum of the Holocaust) in Jerusalem will speak about "Righteous Gentiles and the Holocaust" at noon Friday, April 12, in the U. Alumni House.
- "Say I'm a Jew," an exhibit by French film artist Pier Marton, continues at the Art Barn, 54 Finch Lane, through April 29. Call 596-5000 for information.