Wednesday, May 27, 2009

a sobering experience


a recent post by melissa of tiny happy of an embroidery depicting some of the details of her recent trip to auschwitz got me pondering my own visits to concentration camps--first to buchenwald in 1994 and last year a visit to dachau near munich.

any visit to a camp is a sobering experience. when i visited buchenwald, in former east germany, the wall hadn't been down that long and it still had a very east german feel. the exhibition there at that time had been set up by the occupying soviets and thus had a very russian slant to it, emphasizing the russians who died there, with very little about the jews. i remember at the time that it struck me as inappropriately funny. and i almost had a fit of lispl talking about it to the friend who went with me.

buchenwald was one of the smaller camps and although it had ovens, it was never the death factory that the big camps in poland were. holocaust survivor and winner of the 1986 nobel peace prize elie wiesel spent time there. but one of the most striking things about buchenwald for me was an enormous tree outside the gates, where goethe was said to have sat while he was writing. the contrast of the loftiest literary thoughts and the purest, darkest evil was a strong one.

i was most moved walking on a path in the forest outside the fence of the camp. it was a cloudy day, threatening rain and although the woods were green and lush, they somehow seemed spooky and dark and haunted with the souls of those who had been hastily buried there. strangely i had more of an emotional experience outside the gates than inside. i think because even tho' you're seeing it, you somehow can't take it in--all those rows of bunks and long, low buildings and large grounds where the poor people were lined up. even while you're looking at it, it's impossible to believe people could be so evil. by which i do not mean to say that i don't believe it--what i mean is that your brain can't really comprehend it.


last year around this time, sabin and i met some of my cousins in munich for a weekend. i went with two of the cousins to dachau, which is a short train journey from munich. i felt it was too much for sabin, so she stayed and fed swans and hung out in a cafe with my other cousin. dachau was the very first concentration camp, set up already in the early 30s to take care of any opposition political prisoners the nazis felt needed to be put out of the way. it served as the model for the building of other camps and it was enormous. when the americans arrived there in 1945, there were 32,000 prisoners there, crammed 1600 to a barracks (which were designed to hold 250). it must have been a truly shocking site for those troops to encounter.

today, the barracks are gone and are just rectangular foundations on a vast grounds, which again gives you a surreal feeling about the place--it's hard to imagine all of those people. the grounds are enormous and it's amazing how close the town is to the fences. my main thought was of the people of that town of dachau--how did they let such a thing go on right next door to them? did they know what it was? and what did they think? when the ovens were going full blast, the stench must have been terrific. what do you suppose they thought was going on? how could they avert their eyes for so long? i think that's the part that's hardest for me to understand.

since it was a place for political prisoners from the early days, people of all religions were imprisoned there. and there are several memorials on site representing the various religions of those who died there--russian orthodox, protestant, catholic, and of course, jewish.


the jewish memorial is powerful in its design--dark and cavelike, but with an opening at the top, where light pours in like hope. it's quite moving.


near the crematorium there was a little wooden russian orthodox memorial and there were benches to sit on, but we felt it was pretty distasteful to sit there, chatting and eating lunch like these girls did. we couldn't help but be a bit shocked by that. yet it was somehow representative of how the town must have lived with the horror in their midst, going about their lives.

there is a large, striking and disturbing sculpture near the main buildings which also house exhibition space--a tasteful exhibition with many photos and words, but few of the objects melissa talks about in her post. but disturbing nonetheless.


but the holocaust is a disturbing part of history to say the least. it feels important to have visited these places, even tho' i didn't actually have the reactions i expected to have when i expected to have them. i didn't cry on either visit--i think because of that feeling of remove you get even tho' you're standing right there. it somehow just seems too unreal to comprehend. and that unreality leaves you a little bit numb.

24 comments:

Extranjera said...

I know you would understand perfectly why I felt the extreme need to ditch the anti-semitic 'friends' I had in SA. Important post, this one.

I have never visited any of the concentration camps, but have been to many slave auction sites, and forts. I know it's not the same, but I totally get you on the inability to go on with your normal life (eating) in the face of this.

See even I can keep decorum.

The Fragrant Muse said...

What a powerful post. Your images are haunting echos of your words.

I visited Dachau, alone, in 1984. In my three-month solo tour of Europe, it remains one of my strongest memories.
I was most disturbed by the barracks which you say aren't there. Perhaps they have since been removed or I saw one representative building. I couldn't get over the small bunks and visualizing 10+ people cramming into one bed. To this day when I'm tired and forced to sleep in an uncomfortable bed, say in a hotel, my mind returns to those bunks and those people and I am humbled into not complaining.
I had exactly the same thoughts as you about the townspeople when I saw the proximity of homes to camp. Maybe is was "don't ask, don't tell".
I also didn't cry because I was more shocked than sad and felt a grey feeling deep in my gut that I couldn't shake for two days.

It's good to have you back :-)

julochka said...

ext--i was sure you could keep decorum when it came to serious stuff. :-) but them eating was a bit too much. the place made me lose my appetite.

HRH TFM--you're right, there was one of the barracks left, so you could see all those beds, but it was so empty, i felt you couldn't really imagine it--the stench and the filth and the people who were sick and starving--it had all been sanitized. and i felt the rest of the torn-down ones, shown only with the outline of their foundation was far more powerful than the one "model" one.

i know what you mean about the grey feeling deep in your gut. although i want sabin someday to know and understand, i was really glad i hadn't taken her along that day.

The Fragrant Muse said...

I agree with your decision to leave Sabin home. In our school district all the 8th graders study the holocaust. That seems to be an appropriate age.
BTW, After watching Sophie's choice I have never been able to watch another holocaust film. Not Schindler's List, not It's a Beautiful Life and not the current Boy in the Striped Pajamas.

smith kaich jones said...

Thank you for this post. A powerful reminder to us all.

When I was a child and taught about the Holocaust, I was always taught that the world would never let such a thing happen again. And yet, as an adult, I have found that to be so untrue. We are such a world full of talkers, not doers. We pass resolutions which stop nothing and feel quite smug about ourselves, we prefer to turn a blind eye, we expect others to "fix" things, and yet when those others try, we protest against them, we call them names. The last few years have shown me that to be politically correct, to say the right words, is deemed more important that actually doing something.

Excuse me - I am much more honest in the early morning.

:) Debi

julochka said...

Debi--love your early morning honesty! and couldn't agree with you more that the world does seem to have forgotten about never letting such atrocities happen again. they may not be quite as organized or systematic today, but genocide is happening in many parts of the world.

it is a sobering reminder to visit one of these camps.

Amanda said...

Just having finished The Reader, this is a perfect post for me at this time.
I will visit those camps one day, and am wondering what my feelings will be there. How powerful, and moving and horrible all at the same time. And to think that some deny that any of it happened.

Again, a beautiful post from a wonderful writer!

Cyndy said...

Thank you for this special post. I have learned that I am incapable of viewing places like this first hand--it gets under my skin and stays there. Even when I read stories about it, they haunt me. It is not that I don't care; it just immobilizes me when I experience it, and I don't think that is the purpose. Even when I visited Ellis Island in NY, the hallowed hollow halls echoed for months afterward in my mind. And that was supposed to be a more positive experience. So I cowardly stay on the edge so people like you who are able to teach me, remind me that this should never be allowed to happen again--or to be disgusted and enraged when it does under a different name...

julochka said...

Amanda--thanks. i'm not sure whether i'll be able to read The Reader. i took a holocaust lit course during grad school and, a little bit like HRH TFM and Cyndy, i have difficulty facing it now. at least through both literature and film.

Cyndy--strangely reading or seeing a holocaust film is harder for me than the visits to the camps were. but that's no doubt because the camps are empty of people today and in film and books, you have to face the human part of it. that's somehow removed from the camps today. or at least the two i've been to.

Cyndy said...

Being removed can be just as haunting, no? Walking away with the silence, the color gray, the the emptiness would be devastating. I do appreciate what you are saying about reading about it or viewing on film. I am an author's/director's best audience. I consume their works with all senses wide open and take time to digest...

Bill Stankus said...

Your thoughts about the people of Dachau and their closeness to the camp is pivotal. The question of how they could let the camp exist or how they could live normal lives always seems the logical question.

We assume we are "better" today, that we wouldn't tolerate the brutality and horrors of what the Nazis were doing.

But is that really true? We certainly want to believe we would do something. But facing down butchers with guns isn’t that simple.

The Nazis were modern with their death machines and are correctly labeled as monsters. But Stalin is said to have murdered even more than the Nazis - estimates of people killed during his reign are as high (and grim) as 60 million people. And in the mid 1970s Pol Pot murdered about 25% of all Cambodians.

And, in our time, there’s been extensive ethic cleansing, genocide and wholesale slaughtering in many countries. What goes on in Africa, for example, brings angry speeches in many non African countries, but the results?

julochka said...

bill--you're absolutely right. they say Stalin killed 22 million during WWII alone, at the same time as the Nazis were busy.

i often think about what i would have done had i been there then. i think people just kept their heads down and tried to go about their lives. or they bought the propaganda. or, well, i don't really know...but i have actually thought a lot about it, without really reaching any conclusion.

rxBambi said...

We actually were just talking about this a couple weeks ago. I think probably the people of dachau were just afraid. The only term I can come up with at the moment is herd immunity, but I'm not sure that's what I mean. No one wants to stand alone and protest because if they did, the community would turn against them. Or, maybe like you said, they didn't know what was happening or they believed the propaganda. We hear all the time about how the middle eastern countries (and some others?) hate the US. We hear about Darfur, but as one person how am I supposed to stop it? Very daunting questions for a monday morning...

smith kaich jones said...

Julie - Let us not forget the fear of the government these people must have felt. In my own country, the current administration issued a warning against, and I quote : " . . . those that are mainly anti-government, rejecting federal authority in favor of state or local authority, or rejecting government authority entirely." Issued just a week before nationwide protests against the overreach of government. Coincidence? Doubtful. Did it scare anyone? I think none of the people who were already committed to protest, but some who were on the fence? No doubt. I can only imagine what was done to scare people in Germany. I am sure some agreed with the powers in charge, but I am also sure some were just too terrified to say or do anything against them.

Debi

julochka said...

rxbambi--i think you're right, part of the answer is a willful blindness of sorts, or fear, or relief that it's not you and your family.

where do you live again? it's wednesday here. :-)

debi--valid point--we're subjected to propaganda from all sides all the time. i've been knee-deep in the environmental issues/CO2 quotas/cap&trade and such and it's no better on that front.

marinik said...

Thanks for the post, yes an important reminder to us all. This has a painful spot in my heart as well. My grandparents were survivors of the first Genocide of the last century. The "ethnic cleansing" as if was called of all the Armenians by the Turkish government in 1915. But did the world do anything to stop it, or better yet does the world except it now?? Perhaps if punishment was carried out back then.. who knows if anyone would have repeated these horrid acts of humanity. Hitler said "who remembers the Armenians", before he ordered the systematic annihilation of the Jewish people, as if to imply... that they went unnoticed and the Turkish government didn't get punished.. so why would they? To think that we humans would learn from history, but it will constantly repeat itself unless we do something about it. But what?

heidikins said...

This is beautiful, just beautiful. And haunting, and shiver-inducing.

I have no other words.

xox

Fidgeting Gidget said...

Thanks for this post. I am fascinated (I don't know if that's the right word) by the Holocaust....I've always wanted to go to the camps because even though I know it happened, it's almost unbelievable to me because it all seems so terrible...

The pictures were great.

Christina said...

How powerful. I am teary because it was such a huge part of history, that is a reality for so many generations. Thank you for this thoughtful post.

Char said...

have you ever read Night by Weisel? so powerful.

Shweta said...

I have always wanted to visit concentration camps since the first time I learned about them in school. I became really interested in WWII (esp. Germany). Have you ever visited the Auschwitz camp? I really want to it.
I expect to feel the things you described in your post so well.

AquaSass said...

I went to Dachau in 2004, and I live out here in San Diego where I am so detached from European history. But this writing brought me right back to my day at the Camp. Walking through the gas chanber, the bunks, slowly reading the articals posted, then walking the grounds, picturing the people around me, and seeing how closely freedom was. It was right beside a neigborhood and I though the same thing, how could you live literally in the ashes of these people? As they rain down on your house?

Crazy. But it changed me. Its part of my travels that gave me respect for all people.

Pattern and Perspective said...

Very sad. I remember in 5th grade the whole 5th grade class went to a week long camp which was near what at one point was a concentration camp. Sad for a 5th grader to see graves of people -- I can't remember where it was. A slate forest in Germany? Anyway, imp't post -- I agree with Extranjera (I spelled it right this time I think?)

marathoner81 said...

I visited Dachau and it was a good yet horrifying experience. It has stayed with me to this day and I will never forget it as long as I live.

I took my camera but was so overwhelmed with sadness that I didn't take any pictures. Everyone should visit a concentration camp at least once to truly understand and make sure it never happens again.