We went to Buchenwald today. Seems to me that requires a bit more than just a photo posted on the ubiquitous Facebook.
I’ve been sad before in my life, obviously – but the overwhelming sense of sadness in this place was like a wet, thick fog – and when I walked into the ruins of the houses where the SS officers lived and enjoyed the finer things with their families, all the while, less than 500 meters away, more than 33,000 people were dying – I understood all at once the feeling John said he got immediately: that there was evil here. It might sound hokey to some, but I believe evil exists, and you know when you’re in the presence of it. Even our trusty “Labradog” was apprehensive when he went ahead of me (John stayed behind with Skye, as it was too snowy and rocky to safely carry her in) and kept whining and scratching – barely remaining still long enough for me to snap a quick iPhone photo.
I don’t need to spend a lot of time talking about what was done at Buchenwald, especially to the audience of this blog. You already know what happened, you already know the depravity that surrounded and caused the death and misery that occurred there.
My heart physically hurt, and my eyes filled – many times. They spilled over, though, as I held my little girl while we looked out over the “inspection field” where prisoners were made to stand for hours in little more than cotton pajamas, their skin raw and exposed, their bodies crawling with vermin and riddled with disease – all hope for mercy extinguished. They spilled over when I saw the shoes of a 4-year-old boy, and thought about how frightened and cold and terribly hungry he must have been, and how alone he must have felt, since he was undoubtedly separated from his mama when he died.
As we passed the entrance gate, and saw the clock frozen at 3:15 (the American Army’s liberation of Buchenwald occurred on 11 April 1945, at 3:15 p.m., and the clock has been permanently stopped to reflect that moment), and the gate’s mocking motto of Jedem das Seine (“To each his own”) cruelly twisted out of iron letters, readable only from the prisoners’ side - I thought of a story I heard Gerda Weissmann tell in the “Testimony” film at Washington D.C.’s Holocaust Museum:
In May 1945, U.S. Army lieutenant Kurt Klein came upon Gerda and about 120 other young women who were all near death, all victims of Nazi concentration camps. Gerda apparently made a sweeping gesture with her hand as she showed Klein where the girls were lying on the ground, and quoted the German poet Goethe (who had lived and died just a few miles from Buchenwald, in Weimar):
“Noble be man, merciful, and good.”
Klein was struck with her composure and declarative irony – delivered so simply and sadly.
He married Weissmann in 1946 in Paris.
As we were leaving, I said aloud to John, “John, I still cannot believe the horror that happened here.”
His response: ”Holly, when you take morality out of the decision cycle, you can convince people that an irrational act is rational.”
Morality and compassion.
“…merciful and good.”