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Learning about Buchenwald

After our morning visit to Weimar, we spent the afternoon in Buchenwald, which is a mere fifteen minutes outside of Weimar but feels like a separate world.  We learned that the area was once a popular hiking destination for Weimarians, and that Goethe has a special tree on the premises where he wrote one of his most well-known pieces of literature.  Knowing this history made the contrast of Buchenwald and Weimar more shocking.           

Site of the former Buchenwald Zoo

The vast expanse of Buchenwald contains little of the original camp, but the main camp area has been left as an empty field with a few remaining buildings as a way to memorialize what was once there.  We learned first about the administration of the camp, initially headed by the commandant Karl Koch.  Koch was notorious for making conditions for inmates especially humiliating and treacherous.  Koch would force Jewish prisoners to perform Jewish songs and dances, and he instituted a camp band made up of inmates.  There was also a zoo, where the animals were well fed, in full view of the inmates and directly across from the camp crematoria.  These obscene forms of mockery show how Koch’s administration took vestiges of enjoyment from Jewish prisoners’ former lives and used them as a form of torture.  We learned, additionally, that Koch’s wife, Ilsa, was equally evil and would hand-pick good-looking prisoners from transports to work in her private residence.

Koch also instituted a store at Buchenwald, which further demonstrates how ordinary life was completely distorted for prisoners in the camp.  Koch set up a system where inmates could “earn” money and purchase goods that were brought into the camp cheaply but were sold for double what they cost.  This store was the brainchild of Himmler, who was surprised after visiting Buchenwald that there was no incentive for prisoners to work hard.  It is also worth noting that homosexuals were barred from using the Buchenwald store.

After learning about these different facets of the camp, it is evident how Buchenwald became a contorted version of reality.  The camp became its own municipality and although it was modeled on aspects of ordinary life, it served as a horrific alternate universe.  Knowing this allows for a better understanding of Nazi mentality and provides insight into how guards were able to justify their actions inside the camp.

A box of combs from the artifacts center at Buchenwald

Buchenwald has an extensive artifact and restoration center, which we were able to visit because of our contacts.  We saw a number of different personal possessions including combs, bowls, brushes, and toys.  It was very moving to view these objects, which seem to speak volumes on their own about life in the camp. 

 Inscribed on the gates of Buchenwald are the words “JEDEM DAS SEINE.”  This is literally translated as “To each his own,” but it can also mean “Everyone gets what he deserves.” After American forces liberated the camp on April 11, 1945 Buchenwald was converted into a Soviet prisoner camp where former Nazis were inmates.  These words were then turned around and interpreted to mean that the Nazis were getting what they deserved as prisoners of the Soviets. 

We left Buchenwald by walking to the memorial for the camp constructed by the GDR.  This led to a discussion with Robert Jan van Pelt about the role of memorials in providing a proper entrance and conclusion to a memorial site.  The memorial begins as a descent, where seven large steles with engraved depictions of pain and suffering represent the seven years that the National Socialists operated the camp.  The themes on the stones then change to those of perseverance and triumph, and continue until the very bottom of the descent.  The memorial continues with large stones with the names of the home countries of those individuals who were murdered in the camp. 

Sculpture of Soviet workers from the monument at Buchenwald, which was constructed by the GDR.

On the ascent back up, and the climax of the memorial, one initially sees the tower of freedom.  During the climb, however, a sculpture of a group of Soviet workers comes into view, giving the feeling of exuberant victory.   The Soviets, however, did not liberate Buchenwald; American troops did.  Experiencing the walk through this memorial and listening to Professor van Pelt’s insights and interpretation helped us to see the memorial through a different lens.  Though it was not Soviet prisoners of war nor Soviet troops who liberated Buchenwald, that is the message the memorial portrays.  Instead of representing events as they occurred, this monument seems to rewrite history. 

As we walked back to our bus to proceed to our next destination, we had plenty of food for thought.

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