The most terrible place I have ever been in my entire life.
Buchenwald Concentration Camp was built in 1937.
It was this concentration camp that the SS deported men, women, teenagers, and children – political opponents to the Nazi regime, so-called asocials and criminals, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, Sinti and Roma – who had no place in the National Socialist “people’s community.”
Following the commencement of World War II, the National Socialists sent people from nearly every country to Buchenwald. Between 1937 and 1945, more than 250,000 persons were imprisoned here.
The living conditions were extremely inhumane and barbaric. At the infamous “Little Camp,” separated by a barbed wire from the Main Camp, inmates were subjected to the greatest suffering of all those at Buchenwald.
Bricks outline where the windowless stables with dirt floors once stood. Intended to house 50 horses, at times these stables contained nearly 2,000 people. No running water, no sanitation, and virtually no heat. The Little Camp was a place of deepest despair for those left there to be forgotten. I considered my hands, still numb from the cold, inside my mittens. No, I do not know what cold feels like.
Some 56,000 human beings met theirs deaths in Buchenwald; they were
killed deliberately, they starved to death, they froze to death in the bitter winter cold, they died of dehydration, illness, or as
victims of medical experiments, they were systematically murdered by the
before the end of the war, the SS attempted to “evacuate” Buchenwald,
and forced 28,000 inmates on “death marches.” When the Third U.S. Army
reached the camp on 11 April 1945, the SS fled. Approximately 21,000
inmates, including more than 900 children and teenagers, were liberated.
Little remains today of the facilities, but the the horror lingers in the rubble. Piles of brick fireplaces and stone steps leading to nowhere in the remains of building foundations.
We’ve seen the images in high school history class. The yellow stars.
The striped suits. The ovens. The corpses stacked like pipes. We know it, we detest it, but we seldom
feel it in our bones like we should. It happened way back then, over
there far away, in the days of black and white.
Even as I approached the gate of Buchenwald with the information brochure and map in hand, it was hard for me to feel the reality, to sense instinctively that the Holocaust really happened, right here under my feet.
As I passed through the gate, I ran my mittened fingers over the words wrought into the iron: JEDEM DAS SEINE (which translates “to each their own” but figuratively “everyone gets what he deserves”) and my blood ran cold. I lost my breath into the frigid air. And I could feel it. The camp beyond disappeared into the thick fog, but I could see them here. I stood where they stood in their striped pajamas at attention for inspection. And it was all too much, I felt sick.
Having been to Buchenwald, it all seems so much harder to believe than it was when I learned about it in school. But it becomes almost unthinkable to travel here and try to imagine how people could build a place like this one. Just up the street in the nearby town, people lived in its shadow. They went to the bakery, tucked their children into bed, strolled through the local park…it is unimaginable to me, especially when I think of them as regular people and not devils. We want them to be monsters, because only monsters should be capable of this; but that is one of the principle lessons, I suppose.