Buchenwald: Why you should visit a former concentration camp

Buchenwald watch tower

The value of discomfort

It’s easy for me to use travel as a means of escape, pursuing fun places where I forget about work and the worries of home. Yet I’ve also come to appreciate how my times of greatest personal growth occur not during the easy moments, but when I step outside my comfort zone. New lands and unfamiliar cultures will do that for me. But so too will putting myself in situations that bring about discomfort in other ways.

This is why, in part, on a recent trip to Germany, my wife and I decided to visit the Buchenwald Memorial, site of the first and largest concentration camp in Germany during WWII.

Located just outside of Weimar, the cultural epicenter of the country, Buchenwald was also used after the war by the Soviet secret police for their prisoners. Today, little remains other than sections of the original fence, the entrance gate, the foundations of the barracks and the crematory where they burned the bodies of some of the 56,000 people who died there.

These scant reminders, combined with a visitor center filled with emotionally devastating artifacts and stories, are more than enough to give you a sense of the horrific tragedy that happened to over a quarter of a million inmates there.

I came knowing the place would affect me emotionally. But I wasn’t prepared for the surprising ways it did that.

Buchenwald fence

Buchenwald prisoners' clothing

Buchenwald statsWhat you don’t expect in places like Buchenwald

I expected to confront the evils of the past. But what I faced was more than history. The same forces that led to such horrors are still at play today, all around me. And here’s the scary part: Maybe within me.

For example, for all the atrocities described in the exhibit, it wasn’t just what the SS and Gestapo did that wrenched me. I anticipated reading about their appalling deeds. What I hadn’t foreseen was how hard it would hit me to learn of the “ordinary” people of Germany – people like me – who chose to look the other way in the case of the concentration camps.

An elderly German friend of mine who lived through WWII recently told me, regarding the concentration camps, “We had no idea.” She resided far from any of the main camps, so I wanted to believe her. But her response was the same as that stated by the local townspeople when the Allied forces liberated Buchenwald in April, 1945. “We just didn’t know,” they said. And yet, the evidence indicates otherwise.

Many of the prisoners from the camp were forced to work in local factories, side by side with the town citizens to build armaments and other products for the war effort. Upon liberation, the prisoners informed the British, American and Canadian forces that they had told the townspeople what the conditions were like. Plus, all you had to do was look at the emaciated bodies of the prisoners to know something about the desperate conditions in the camp. But still, these same locals repeated their excuse long after the war: “We just didn’t know.” They intentionally chose to look the other way and do nothing.

Entry gate to Buchenwald

This phrase, “Jedem das Seine” means basically, to each his own. It was twisted by the Nazis to imply that all the prisoners were there of their own doing.

Roma and Sinti people memorial

This monument was set up in memory of the Roma and Sinti people killed in all the concentration camps. Each stone pillar represents one of the many camps throughout Europe in WWII.

 

Feeding bowls of prisoners

If you lost your food bowl at the concentration camp, you starved.

Asking the hard questions from Buchenwald

Personal items from prisoners

Personal items taken from the prisoners at Buchenwald

I find it easy to condemn such apathy until I ask the question, “What would I have done?” Then, it isn’t so simple. Nor so comfortable. Self-preservation is a powerful force for all of us. And making the right choice would have been even more difficult if you lived in a culture of intentional, cultivated fear. The exhibits at Buchenwald document how the Nazis went to great lengths to determine with ruthless efficiency what would strike the most terror in both prisoners and the general population. They were fiendishly clever at devising ways to turn neighbor against neighbor. Under such circumstances, knowing – much less doing – the right thing would have become increasingly difficult.

But what about today? What about me?

Travel has a way of holding a mirror up to our lives. Particularly in difficult locations such as Buchenwald, you have to ask – and try to answer – questions that rarely come up amidst your daily routines. And the hardest one for me is that personal one, “What would I have done?”

I can’t really say.

Or maybe I can.

I just don’t want to.

Because when I confronted the horror of Buchenwald, I had to confront one even closer. And that’s the realization that if I were one of those locals living in Weimar during WWII, if I’m honest, I’d probably would have done the same thing and looked the other way. Like them, I would have asked, “What can I realistically do that will not get me or my loved ones killed?”

It’s an uncomfortable realization. But so are most of the deeper, lasting truths in our lives. They tend to be hard-earned and not always pleasant in the acquisition. But they stay with us and cause us to rethink some basic premises about our lives. Both on a trip and then for long afterwards.

Display of shoes
Medical examination table

Nazi doctors conducted unimaginable medical experiments on prisoners here

Buchenwald crematorium

The crematory where bodies were incinerated

Living with the truth 

The awareness that within me lies the capacity for great courage but also great cowardice, however, was only half of the surprising lessons from Buchenwald.

The other aha came from a recognition of just how interconnected we all are. I didn’t just read stories of Jews, Poles, Communists, Roma and others imprisoned there. I read of people like me thrust into horrific situations. How they suffered. How some overcame. How all were affected in ways beyond anything I’ve ever experienced. I left Buchenwald with a poignant sense of shared humanity, of identification with people who are more like me than unlike me. That’s something that the Nazis could never see. They sought to demonize and dehumanize others. But a trip to Buchenwald made me appreciate on a visceral level just how wrong that is, both then and now.

I walked away with this odd combination of bone-deep sadness, unexpected connection and a moral outrage tempered in my judgments against others by the realization that I could easily have been one of those others – on either side of that barbed-wire fence.  

It’s hard to explain this complex reaction. Which is why I encourage everyone who plans to travel anywhere near the location of a former concentration camp to make the effort to visit one of these memorial sites. To see. To better understand. To not forget. And to not let anyone else forget either.

Traveling to places such as Buchenwald isn’t fun. But sometimes we need to go to the dark places, in our world and in ourselves, to remember how much light there is. And to bring that light ever forward.

Buchenwald concentration camp

 

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This is a very different take on the topic of Looking the Other Way, but it shows just how many ways there are to see the world differently. And why even difficult places such as Buchenwald help us to grasp the world we live in, both the good and the bad, the world around us and the world inside us. You can read other entries in this series here:

Look the other way: Budir Black Church

Look the other way: Kirkjufell, Iceland

Look the other way: Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, St. Petersburg, Russia

Find what you love

Find what you love - Puppet Maker's ShopUse your trip to find what you love

Trips provide intriguing opportunities to find what you love. And for me, the best moments on a trip — those powerful, defining, magic moments — are ones so filled with meaning and emotion that I wish to linger long and absorb them. And yet, I never quite can, for I must inevitably move on. That leaves me with a poignant sensation of both loss and gain. I find something that deeply moves me in a place (gain). Yet as a traveler, I cannot stay in that place (loss). Still, I can take something of great value with me from the experience of having been there (long-term gain). I lose the place but gain the moment and all that it entails.

These defining moments are ones I can create for myself or others (as I discovered in Italy and Slovenia). But they often arrive unannounced. I open a door, sometimes figuratively and sometimes literally (as what happened to me on a recent visit to Erfurt, Germany) and I enter a different world. And in that world, in unexpected ways, I discover a great passion and even, sometimes, a greater sense of purpose.

Erfurt's Kramerbrucke (Merchant's Bridge)The puppet maker of Erfurt

In the heart of Erfurt sits the Krämerbrücke (Merchants’ bridge). Built of stone in 1325 over the Gera river, half-timbered homes and businesses sit atop the bridge making it the largest and oldest inhabited bridge in Europe (sorry, Ponte Vecchio in Florence: you’re number two). Over time, a number of craftspeople have moved in with studios and shops. One of them, Martin Gobsch, makes hand-carved wooden puppets there. Or so it seems. For what he really creates is magic.

Outside his shop is a miniature window theater.

Theatrum Mundi, ErfurtDrop in a euro, and a sinister-looking queen pulls back her cape-draped arm to reveal a fantastical scene of Snow White and industrious dwarfs moving about. It’s a mechanical marvel that would delight any child. And yet those who linger longest and whose expressions reflect the most childlike wonder are adults like me.

Step inside his shop, and the awe grows. Magnificently carved wooden figures and corresponding drawings make you feel as if you’re part of a fairy tale. Most people who enter Martin’s workshop leave enchanted. But for me, it was something more.

I had found what I love.

A different kind of connection

If you look at the factors that Dan and Chip Heath note in their book, The Power of Moments, as most contributing to a magic moment, one of them has curious dimensions beyond its obvious intent. The concept of “Connection” normally implies that you have moments where you feel a deep relational tie to others, a collective experience of joy, pain or deep sentiment as in a wedding or funeral. But Connection works as well on the emotional level where you connect to something within you, a past memory that triggers all sorts of associations and feelings.

Martin Gobsch at workMy favorite visual example of this is in the Pixar movie, Ratatouille, when the food critic Anton Ego tastes the dish of the same name as the movie. Immediately, he’s transported to his mother’s kitchen as a boy eating the same food. So it was for me in Martin Gobsch’s shop. The lighting, architecture and decor took me back to Merlin’s Magic Shop at Disneyland where I worked as a magician through college. And his Theatrum Mundi (the name of the window theater) also reminded me of the elaborate window displays at Disneyland I used to marvel at as a child.

Tie all that into my adult experience working in my own wood shop at home (equally untidy yet remarkably well-suited to the work at hand) and you get a collective experience that is more than a trip down memory lane. Stepping into Martin’s studio provided a connection of deep emotional resonance to the subtle factors and ingredients of delight that made those past experiences so formative for me, in my youth and even today.

Martin Gobsch's shopFind what you love: The power of inspiration

In the video above, Martin Gobsch says that one of his goals is to inspire others, not just to experience wonder, but to create and make things by hand. It’s not a craft, he notes, that’s been passed down to him so much as one that has died out that he is now re-establishing. When I spent time with him in that shop, examining all the details of his work and asking him questions about it, I too was inspired to spend more time drawing, carving, woodworking and making more things by hand. All of these are things I love but rarely make time for.

A friend once noted that we value more something we’ve had, lost and have found again than gaining something new. I think that’s true, in part because of the emotional attachments we form even with inanimate objects that have become part of our lives. In a similar manner, I find that when I return to what I love but have left unheeded too long, it’s like a brand-new discovery only better. I get the same delight of connecting with something I enjoy, but along with that comes all the memories of past related experiences. I find what I love all over again.

Find what you love - Drawings of puppets

Find what you love – Drawings of puppets – copyright 2019 by Steve Brock

Find what you love: The takeaway for you

When you’re someplace new, whether on a vacation or just in a new situation, pay close attention to what triggers your attention. When I first read about the puppet maker, though I have only a passing interest in puppets, the fact that this artisan carved them from wood by hand intrigued me. I’m always interested in seeing artists, particularly sculptors and woodworkers, at work in their shops or studios. I wanted to make sure, if possible, that I found his place of work and I’m so glad I did.

For you, if something even hints at connecting to a deeper interest, pursue that. It may feel silly or unimportant at first, but you never know where it will lead. Make it a quest to find what brings you your greatest joy. Trips allow you the freedom to do this in ways you can’t — or won’t — at home. You won’t usually find what you care most about unless you go looking for it, even if you’re not entirely sure how it might manifest itself. And even though you may come across it in an unexpected place or manner, often it is the effort of the pursuit that gives you the eyes to see it – or clues of it – when you come across it.

Puppets and sketches - ErfurtWhen you do, you leave transfixed and transformed. In cases such as this one, where it connects to creative passions and interests, it leaves you inspired. Not just to keep discovering. But to eventually return home and make something yourself.

And when you do that, you find what you love all over again.

 

 

Something for everyone

cropped-Stein-rack-texture.jpg

Beer steins in the Hofbrauhaus

In Munich, Germany, at the famous Hofbrauhaus brewery, locals hang out at tables assigned specifically for them. They also keep their beer steins locked in racks that only they and other locals can access. This, in part, is what separates the tourists from the locals.

And yet even though there’s a clear cultural divider there between insiders and outsiders, everyone is welcome.

It’s the same here: You may be new to travel or not think of yourself as a creative person. And yet you will find information here that can help you not only travel and create better, but appreciate life in a whole new way. So give it a shot and see. Who knows? You may have your own table here in no time…