Visiting Buchenwald

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.

Comments

I have never been to visit a former concentration camp site, but Robby's account painted such a clear picture that reading it made me feel as if was there as well.

And I also appreciate his concluding comments that remind us all about doing what we can to make this world a better place.

Robby, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on this difficult but important journey!

My best wishes,
Martha Kransdorf

As someone raised in a protestant family in the midwest I am often unaware of impact of Hitler and the death camps on my fellow Jewish activists. I know it intellectually, but I forget that it is a living emotion of daily consequence to most people with Jewish ancestry. Could you tell us a little more of how this history impacted your family and how it affects your activism today?

Thank you Robby for your touching and real account of your trip to Buchenwald.

It doesn't surprise me that you would find that shred of misery that those brave souls felt day after day. The relentless and mindless torture at the hands of their fellow humans consuming their lives.

Buchenwald was about 75 years ago. How timel Robby for you to remind us all. In jJune another dark anniversay is upon us again..the 56 anniversary of the Execution of the Rosenberg's. A stain on the complexion of the United States that it must forever wear.
Whether you are religious or not let there lives be for a blessing as the ancient Jewish prayer says...I know it was.

Empathy is why RFC.org exists today. I know I will continue to make my monthly contribution to carry forward the Meeropol Family dream and the dream of all fair minded human beings in a peaceful world.

Dennis Byrnes
dbyrn@verizon.net

This is Robert Meeropol responding to the comments we've received so far.

Thank you Martha, it was a very powerful experience and, therefore, easily susceptible to literary animation.

I spent a little time in Germany in 1966 and felt, as a Jew, the Nazi past everywhere. But this visit to Buchenwald had a more general political impact because it was not primarily an extermination camp. Politics, rather than ethnicity, was the primary reason why people were sent there. Thus, the author of the second comment, as a protestant progressive activist, could have been sent there.

Finally, Dennis, the upcoming 56th anniversary of my parents' execution (June 19th) resonates very strongly for me because for the first time in 11 years the days of the week in 2009 will mirror the days of the week in 1953. In other words, the executions took place on Friday, June 19th, 1953, at sundown, and this year June 19th also falls on a Friday. I plan to comment more on this during the week of June 19th.

Dear Robert,

I was especially touched by your account of your visit to Buchenwald, as my father, who will be 99 next month, is perhaps one of the few "liberators" (a controversial term, one he is not fond of) of Buchenwald still alive. I happen to be exactly your age, born in '47, and remember vividly the stories my father would tell me about the day he and Patton's 3rd army arrived at that camp. Further, he took pictures, which I now have, and was even able to meet a little boy, now in his mid 60s, who, with his father, was the subject of one of his photos. Some of his pictures are quite gruesome, some show ovens and piles of bones. Anyway, when I see my father on his birthday, I will tell him of your visit to Buchenwald. Thank you for sharing this story with your website visitors.

Christina Braidotti
Boston

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