When I converted to Judaism a year ago, my rabbi told me that as a convert I would never have an asterisk next to my religion. In choosing a life of Judaism, I would be fully Jewish, without exception. I believed this to be true until the day I stepped foot on the grounds of Buchenwald concentration camp.
Located just an hour and a half outside of Leipzig, the concentration camp was deliberately placed in the middle of the Buchenwald (literally “Beechwood Forest”) in 1937 so as to not raise suspicions of the people in nearby towns. During the Nazi regime, the space was used as a forced labor camp for political prisoners, the disabled, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Poles, Gypsies, and Jews. While not an extermination camp, many prisoners died at the camp as a result of harsh treatment, starvation, and murder. Thousands more were transferred to execution camps to meet their demise.
Upon entering the camp in present day (now a museum), I knew it would be an emotional experience. My husband and I started our tour with a video that described the history of the camp along with survivor stories. Most surprising was a description of the camp zoo that housed wild animals for the entertainment of guards and their families. The zoo’s bear den was placed just outside the electric fences of the camp, in plain view of the prisoners, to serve as a warning for the prisoners if they attempted to escape, a sadistic reminder that life outside the prison was continuing on as normal, and that their lives were considered less valuable than these well-fed beasts.
Traversing the grounds of the camp, we listened to our audioguides describe more unpleasant scenes of the past. As I walked around reflecting on these stories, I realized as a “Jew by choice”, I did so as an outsider to the conflict. None of my family members would have lived in fear of religious persecution. Had my family lived in Germany in the 40’s, our lives would have been spared. As a convert, I understand the tragedy that occurred on those grounds differently. It was unfortunate and grotesque, yes, but it was far less personal.
Most of the buildings were demolished either by US firebombing in 1944 or planned demolition of the camp in 1950, so there was little left to look at, but the foundations of the barracks stood like tombstones marking the locations of previous atrocities. What still stand today are the crematorium that was used to incinerate the dead, two guard houses, an old trading building that now holds photographs of previous camp inhabitants (on both sides of the fence), and a very moving museum dedicated to prisoner artwork.
Equipped with only charcoal and stolen scraps of paper, prisoners would secretly draw as an outlet for emotion, to process the atrocities they had witnessed, or to simply engage in a humanizing activity. By some miracle, many of these drawings survived the war and are now on display. Some of the drawings were full portraits or scenes in nature, others were just outlines of people or mere scribbles hinting at an artistic scene left unfinished. But within all of them, there was beauty, there was emotion, and there was undeniable perseverance.
My favorite piece was a colorful painting that had been discovered after the camp was destroyed. Somewhere on the concrete of a prisoner barrack, an artist had used stolen paints to depict a serene mountain town. The shear beauty of this creation in the midst of such tragedy is so incongruous, and the gall it took for the artist to pull this off so admirable, that it brought me to tears.
For any person visiting a concentration with an ounce of empathy, it is a moving and somber occasion. For me, it was also a chance to reflect on what it means to be a Jew living in present day Germany. Like that mountain painting, it is a strange juxtaposition of past hostilities and current tranquility. I am keenly aware of what transpired in the past, yet optimistic for a life free from animosity. With present day cooperative efforts between Germany and Israel and a palpable German cultural remorse for all things related to the Holocaust, I feel very safe in my current living situation. Yet, at the same time, I still live with a lingering fear of neo-nazism or unresolved anti-Semitic beliefs of any elderly people I encounter. Peacefulness amidst a ghastly history and a sprinkle of reserved fear – that is what it feels like to live with a concentration camp in your backyard.
If you are traveling in Germany, I encourage you to visit the Buchenwald Museum if for no other reason than to see the artwork for yourself.
For more information on the Buchenwald Memorial, please visit the official website.