Living with a concentration camp in your backyard

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.


The old train tracks that led to Buchenwald.

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.


The bear den still stands outside of the camp.

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.


The present camp grounds.

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.


Prisoner art museum.

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.


Colorful artwork pulled from a prisoner barrack.

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


3 thoughts on “Living with a concentration camp in your backyard

  1. swanpride says:

    I have been to Buchenwald (did they remove the landmines from the woods by now?). And have my own bit of family history connected to this place – one I tell from time to time, because I really want people to understand the mechanism behind this place. It’s the story of the cousin of my grandmother. See, he was an only child, very beloved and still very young when Hitler rose to power, but he was also a really dedicated Nazi. So dedicated in fact that he made himself one year older in order to get accepted into the SS. As you may know, the SS was responsible the camps, and he was stationed in Buchenwald.

    He was shocked by what he saw. He never talked to his parents in detail, but smuggled out letters from the people trapped there and brought them home into the Ruhr area. And then – well according to the story my grandmother told my mother, he took the only “safe” way out (the one which wouldn’t have brought attention to his family) and volunteered to the Eastern front, because he couldn’t stand being part of what happened in Buchenwald. But who knows, he might have gotten caught or somebody noticed that he wasn’t really into his role, and therefore got the kind of assignment which was usually for common soldiers, not for the ones in the SS. In any case, he was only 19 when he died somewhere in Russia.

    What is so interesting about Buchenwald is not just that it existed, but also the nature of the prisoners which were incarnated there (as you mentioned, unlike other camps it was less about killing Jews and more about holding political prisoners, as well as Sinti and Roma and other groups which tend to get forgotten whenever people talk about the holocaust – but we should always remember that the holocaust was not just about murdering Jews, but people who dared to be different) and how long it was used as a prison (since it got turned into a so called special camp until 1950 – this time to hold political prisoners of the Soviet regime). While the circumstances were slightly better, at least 7.000 people died in the camp during that period. To me it symbolizes the system which made the holocaust possible more than any other camp. Especially since it is located so close to Weimar, the home of Schiller and Goethe, the place where Bauhaus started, and not that far removed from Leipzig, which used to be the centre of the German book trade. It was built practically in the centre of German culture.

    I weep when I see places like this, when I see countries building walls, and the hatred with still exist between so many groups out there. I always say that it is a good thing that nobody else is as efficient as Germans tend to be, when it comes to putting other people into Ghettos and killing them off. But sometimes it seems like some people are trying really hard to be.


  2. steve patterson says:

    I’m gay. I also converted to Judaism years ago, am a WWII buff, and planning to move to Germany in the fall next year. Leipzig in fact! I know that when I visit camps, and I will visit camps, I’ll be shedding a lot of tears for the cruelty and the lives extinguished during all of WWII.

    Guards placed naked gay men outside in the freezing weather and hosed them down until they were blocks of ice. Several gay prisoners are interviewed in the documentary “Paragraph 175,” and the history of gay life in Germany from the end of WWII to the end of persecution in the 1970s or 1980s.

    I don’t look at the Holocaust as a gay or Jewish issue. So many people suffered and were exterminated. It didn’t just happen in Germany. The Japanese were as bad or perhaps worse.

    I hope it never happens again on this scale. We have in the past decades seen genocide. As humans, we need to understand and accept each others’ cultural and religious differences. We are, after all, family members.


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