My book, An Execution in the Family, was released in Germany in 2008. The publisher, Zambon Verlag, brought me for a promotional tour in March of this year. I did a reading in Weimar, in the center of the country, and while I was there I toured the Buchenwald concentration camp.
I anticipated and dreaded this visit, but it was an experience I felt I must have. Buchenwald was not an extermination camp; it was a slave-labor camp. Established in 1933, it was the initial camp the SS used to house political prisoners. This was the place where communists, socialists, social democrats and even some Christian Democrats, and later POW’s were worked to death. Over 60,000 of the quarter million inmates who came to Buchwald died there.
As our car climbed to the hilltop camp over the rough cobblestone road laid manually by starving inmates, the frigid wind-driven rain turned to wet snow. Our guide took us on a mile-long circuit of the “monument to the nations,” a massive series of cold and intimidating Stalinist stone works constructed by the prior East German regime to commemorate the 28 nationalities of those who were interned in the camp. By the time we completed the circuit we were soaked and frozen. I groused to myself that maybe we didn’t need to see all this in the snow and biting wind.
Then we drove to the other side of the hill under a sign in German that translated roughly as: “This is what you deserve” into the inmate’s section of the camp. The crude barracks had been razed decades ago. All that remained were acres of shattered grey stone shards on the gale-swept hilltop, one of the bleakest landscapes I have ever encountered.
After another 20 minutes of shivering we were led indoors to hear a talk on the camp’s history. I learned that only at Buchenwald had the prisoners overthrown their captors before the allies liberated them. When the U.S. Army arrived 48-hours later, they found the inmates in control and the disarmed guards locked up.
Later that evening, warm and dry in my hotel room, I rethought the day’s discomfort. I had visited one of the grimmest places on earth, and felt the tiniest bit of the misery endured by hundreds of thousands of my fellow human beings confined there. It was right that the weather matched the mood of the place. I felt I’d glimpsed the soul of our worst enemy more directly than I ever had. It has made me value our struggle for social justice more than ever.