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Buchenwald: Why we should never forget

The Holocaust, as exemplified by the Buchenwald concentration camp, is a way in which everyone can examine the darkness within, waiting for outbursts of hatred that cause death and destruction in the name of country, family, community, race or, tragically, god, writes GEETA DOCTOR.


Inmates of the Buchenwald camp inside their barrack ... an example of the ordinariness of cruelty.

FROM the top of Ettersberg Hill, the German countryside of Thuringia, stretches out in a shimmer of blue, as far as the eye can see.

It's so calm and serene, that you don't want to look down and walk through the entrance gates of the Buchenwald Concentration camp. You don't want to follow in the footsteps of the United States Army as they stumbled into the camp on a fine day of spring on April 11, l945, and beheld for the first time, a record of human degradation so complete that it dries up the imagination. You do not want to be witness to the atrocities against fellow human beings that have now become a benchmark of what ordinary men and women are capable of planning. Somewhere in the midst of all the statistics about the tortured and the dead, a small part understands: the horror can be you.

The weight of those who died, still guards the dark mountainside at Buchenwald, the forest of Birch trees as it was named by Heinrich Himmler, the Fuehrer's trusted lieutenant. The Memorial Foundation of Buchenwald is committed to making sure that no one can forget what took place here. It has recorded and classified every bit of the human suffering that people have undergone. Suddenly, it is no longer a bright and sunny afternoon. A cold wind drags across the sky, ruffling the clouds into sharp edges, like the barbed wire fence, through which we peer. Even the trees seem sinister. They stand like dark and brooding sentinels on which no birds sing, even after this long passage of time.

It does not matter that just next door, stands the gracious city of Weimar that was declared the European City of Culture in l999 to mark the 250th birth anniversary of Goethe, Germany's most celebrated literary figure. He presided over the golden age of Weimar in the early l9th Century and attracted the best-known names in both the sciences and the arts to the city that prided itself on its liberal outlook. It was at the Ettersberg Castle, that Goethe took part in the "Court of Muses", evenings of amateur theatricals, music, poetry and philosophical discussions encouraged by the Duchess Anna Amalia. When he walked up from the Castle to the top of the hill and looked out on what he described in his journal dated September 26, l827 as "The broad view of over half of Thuringia," he could never have known that this would be the infamous "Road of Blood" that would one day lead to Buchenwald.

At first, Buchenwald was created as a detention camp. There were three main areas, a large camp for the prisoners who were considered to be political dissidents; a small camp that was called a quarantine camp, and tented section for the prisoners arriving from Poland. As the War progressed, the inmates were forced to engage in the production of arms at the nearby Gustloff factory and at the quarries. The first prisoners were forced to take part in both the creation and the maintenance of their own systems of torture and oppression, building the road, the railway line and the extensive barracks, interrogation chambers and crematoria.

Unlike the other camps, Buchenwald was not a termination camp. It was a labour camp, if people died it was because they could not withstand the terrible conditions of work, or because they tried to escape from the camp and were either torn to pieces by the guard dogs, or shot in the woods. Between l937 and l945, more than 250,000 of them were held prisoners, 50,000 of them died here. There were political detainees, gypsies, (half a million gypsies died under the Nazis) handicapped persons, homosexuals, women and children. But the statistics do not end at that. It was from here, that 28,000 of the prisoners were taken, towards the end of the War, on what came to be known, as the death marches. They were the Jewish prisoners, women, children, young people, old parents and some of the brightest minds of their generation, who were shunted out of Buchenwald, so that nobody could accuse the Nazi leadership of discriminating against the Jews.

"What I can never get over seeing is the sight of the shoes and small caps and clothes worn by the children," says Hella Graber, my guide to Buchenwald. She has been forced to sit by my side, while watching a documentary film that records the thoughts and memories of a group of survivors. There are black and white portraits that show how the prisoners were herded like common sheep or pigs into the large open ground, stripped to the skin and sheared of all body hair and then dipped or doused with pails of disinfectant. The outlines of the camp with its watch-towers and systems of control may now be seen as they used to be when filled with rows and rows of thin gaunt-faced men, wearing striped uniforms, staring impassively from their over-crowded bunks, or sitting at crowded tables eating from metal plates. No matter how many films may have been made, the stark narration of the documentary is far more harrowing to watch because it just sets out the facts. When the allied soldiers walked into Buchenwald, the guards had already abandoned the camp but even though they knew that they were free, the prisoners were in such a weakened condition that the soldiers could not make out whether they were dead or alive. Equally brutal are the scenes of the American soldiers forcing the good citizens of Weimar to walk through the camp forcing them to look at and admit to the tortures and brutalities that have been taking place under their very noses for more than eight years.

Even though there are just a few of us in the darkened auditorium, it is impossible for each one of us, newcomers not to sit there with our eyes streaming with tears. There is a point at which each one of us finds the truth staring at us, in the face, the ordinariness of cruelty. Would we too have behaved liked the camp commandant's wife, Ilse Koch, a beautiful woman with red hair who made it her hobby, if you could call it that, to order lampshades to be made from the skin of some of the prisoners, selecting them from the bodies that had the smoothest skins, the best tattoos? Could we too have ordered a set of switches made for domestic use, fashioned from the thumbs of dead prisoners, as Ilse Koch is said to have done? Would we have been able to live a happy domestic life surrounded by a well stocked zoo, a park for the children to play in, a special enclosure for the Alsatian dogs who were given better living conditions that any of the prisoners, so that they could hunt down any prisoner who tried to escape, had we known the human suffering taking place just across the barbed wire barricades?

"They tried to make it easy for the prisoners who were condemned to be shot by allowing them to come here on the pretext that they were about to go through a medical examination," explains my guide as we walk though some of the buildings that served as the execution chambers. "The prisoners would be stripped and made to take their weight and height and when they were asked to sit in the dentist chair to have their teeth examined, they would be shot through the back of their heads." A narrow slit in the wall is all that remains of the execution chamber.

It was considered to be a humane way of killing a person. It would neither distress the condemned person, nor the executioner on the other side as he pulled the trigger. The bodies were carted away quickly and fed into the "ovens" conveniently located in the same building. The evidence was neatly collected and stacked in a number of terracotta amphorae that were discovered much later, amidst the remains of Buchenwald. What few people realise is that it continued to be used as a detention centre, even during the Soviet rule, long after the Allied soldiers had liberated the original victims of the Nazi era in l945.

It is difficult to make out what passes through the minds of a new generation of Germans as they are confronted with the stark images of their terrible past. Do they feel ashamed? Do they feel resentment that they must confront the sins of their fathers again and again, even after all these years? Is it time to put the past behind them, as indeed, even Simon Wiesenthal, the Nazi hunter, now 94 years of age, has finally been able to do, with the words, "I found the mass murderers I was looking for and I have outlived all of them. My work is done."

"Did you know that there were 330 prisoners here from India at one time?" asks Pia Frohwein, who heads the Educational Department at the Buchenwald Museum. "They were in Block No. 4146 and amongst them there were even l5 women," she tells me as she greets me with a formal namaste at the entrance to the extensive, office, library and auditorium at the Buchenwald Centre. "They were arrested in July l940 and set free in May 1942." She describes how they were so well adjusted that they actually used a piano for entertaining some of the other prisoners.

She is almost fierce in making sure that even a reluctant visitor such as I must learn to understand and experience each tortured step, and narrow cellar, each frozen parade ground and barbed wire enclosure of the camp. It's her way of making a difference. By the end of it, you begin to understand that it's no longer just a "German" problem, something that only they have to live with, or even something that concerns just the Jews, as the primary victims of the Holocaust. It is a way in which each one of us can examine the darkness that lies just beneath the surface, waiting to crawl out in those outbursts of hatred that cause us to kill and maim and destroy in the name of the country, or family, community, race, or most tragically, with the name of our god branded on our lips.

"For a long time, I did not want to think of the past," she explains, "But I had a chance to visit Israel and spend some time there and then I knew that I could not forget what had happened to them, what we had done to a whole nation of people. Once, I could accept that, I felt also that the only way that I could do something, it may be a very little thing because nothing can wipe away the memory of our past, was to come and work here."

As we talk, we come upon a flat memorial stone that has been embedded into the very spot that the prisoners used to stand surrounded by the watch-tower, the sentries, the guard dogs, the dark ring of trees and the entrance gates with the sinister words, "Everyone gets what he deserves." The names of each one of the 30 countries have been engraved on the plain grey surface of the memorial. As I kneel down on my hands and knees to run my fingers across the letters that spell "India" I notice that the memorial stone is warm to the touch. It's a human warmth. In the midst of that desolate stretch of cold grey earth, it's another reminder that human spirit will triumph in the end. Buchenwald is finally also a memorial to our common humanity.

A German fairy tale

The train doesn't stop here anymore.
The tracks have been prized
out with iron tongs
from the gaping mouth of the Earth,
leaving only the black stumps
welling with brown rust
that clutches at our boots
as we crunch across the
that scatters like broken glass
as we step carefully
through that delicately etched landscape
of black pine trees that stand shoulder
to shoulder in their winter uniforms
the fir-tips bayoneting the pale
yellow Sun.
Marvelling at the countryside that stretches
out with the shout of a hunter
from a German fairy-tale.
Rolling hills that are filled with
a promise of primroses in the Spring,
eglantines, tiny embroidered daisies
on a child's coverlet named Buchenwald
the forest of birches.
Searching for the sweet scent of grass
only to find the sharp stench of ammonia,
the acrid taste of cordite, the burble of
blood flooding through the nose.
As the Doctor gloved, jack-booted, leans
Forward and murmurs:
"This won't hurt a bit."
A quarter of a million open their mouths,
Political prisoners, anti-socials, homosexuals,
Gypsies and Jews of course.
The assistant moves forward with the precision of a clockwork soldier
loads his drill.
Stares for an instant through a narrow slit in the
wall. Fires.
The head snaps, dandelion, pansy, Jews n' all.
There's a perfection here even about Death.

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