A short bus ride through the countryside surrounding Weimar leads to Buchenwald – the largest concentration camp on German soil opened in 1937. Intentionally created to be unassuming and summer camp-esque, Buchenwald (literally “Beech Forest”) once housed nationals of some 35 countries, incarcerated for varying ‘crimes’ such as being asocial, homosexual, or of ‘inferior’ racial lineage.
Today, 8 January 2019, was particularly a striking day to visit Buchenwald. The wind was harsh – so much so that its sound whipped the barren branches across the Ettersberg hill – an area that once graced the likes of Goethe as he strolled finding inspiration for his works prior to the crimes committed in the same region. Cold rain dotted the thousands of pebbles across the grounds of the concentration camp – nature’s tears planted upon the ground where humans were sacrificed to bravado-filled hatred.
Warning: Unsettling Images Ahead – Reader Discretion is Advised.
Students on the program I am helping assist are normally loquacious, but upon reaching Buchenwald stopped chatting and began to take in what was before them. Mustard yellow housing that had once housed SS officers dotted the grounds, juxtaposed to the looming grey sky. One of these had been transformed into a café for visitors, where the coffee was scalding hot and staff muttered amongst themselves quietly. The other building had a cinema, where we saw an informative film.
Though visually distressing, sound for me was the most noticeable part of my first ever concentration camp visit. The wind, the stones, a bird cawing in the distance, a metal gate closing. Strangely, noises you hardly ever notice are more pronounced here, simply because it is so quiet and vast.
As someone who deals quite a bit with images taken during this time period for my research, another striking – yet subtle – thing I noticed here was the colour, particularly of the things nature has begun to reclaim. It is powerful and telling in juxtaposition to buildings and transportation networks once used for the worst crimes committed to fellow human beings.
“We don’t go in that forest to the right of us,” explained the tour guide. “It was used for small arms production and likely still has unexploded land mines. The people working to make these weapons were attempting to save their lives while creating munitions that were used against their own people.”
Humans were reduced to conditions that caused dysentery to outbreak in the camp. Prisoners worked to stay alive, but only in the hopes of someday leaving this hell.
The grounds are vastly empty now, having once held dozens of prisoner-built barracks at one point.
The prison remains. Its architecture in stark contrast to another prison I saw a few days prior from another period – the GDR’s Hohenschönhausen. The prison cells at Buchenwald were less roomy and much more stark, though if a prisoner tried they may likely get a small glimpse of the outside ‘world’ in the camp complex.
The weight of history is palpable. Students noticed that a hill some miles away could be seen bathed in sunlight as we stood in the shadows of foreboding clouds instead, bearing the weight of the crimes committed and lives lost.
Everything here was meticulously planned to make sure inmates lost their sense of identity. Even the gate’s inscription “Jedem das Seine” (“to each their own,” from the Latin suum quique) is placed as a Platonic rule for the inmate that each must contribute his part to the state. It was also a motto used by high-ranking Prussian nobility in the German context, and is still used today as the motto of the Feldjäger military police.
Inside the crematorium, I was particularly struck by the memorial that caught my eye first before even noticing anything else. A bright display from visitors remembering their loved ones transformed this space from standing on its own as an apparatus of war crimes, to a memorial to those who might not have identifiable grave markers. This was a powerful way to reclaim this space.
Seeing the images of the camps or of the liberation is one thing; being here is entirely different. It was difficult to say the least to visit Buchenwald, but it has completely changed how I perceive historical documents I have been consulting for quite some time. It also left an impression on students. One student on the bus ride back mentioned that he “didn’t quite have the words” to describe how he felt, and neither do I. What I do have to say though is that the pain, suffering, and unbelievable weight are still very real and present in these spaces. It is crucial that we visit them so we work to never let such crimes happen ever again.