Posted by: facetothewind | June 7, 2010

Into the abyss

“Everyone Gets What He Deserves” (figurative translation) inscription on the main gate to the Buchenwald concentration camp in Weimar, Germany

In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way—an honorable way—in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, “The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory….”

— Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor whose wife and parents were murdered in concentration camps

Here’s a short film I made of my experience of Buchenwald concentration camp…

What can I say that hasn’t been said a million times already about the Holocaust?

I didn’t come to Buchenwald to document or offer historical factoids. I came to experience it viscerally and to capture some of its bleakness in my own way, with my own camera. I wanted to see if I could still feel ghosts and lingering spirits. Remarkably, I had the whole crematorium and corpse cellar to myself. It was very, very quiet and still. I couldn’t feel the ghosts. Strangely I felt nothing. I think my mind was numb…perhaps a little spellbound to be seeing the actual equipment I’ve seen in films. The imagery was very familiar: the slanted table in the morgue with a drain at one end (you guessed it), the towering smoke stack, the hooks on the walls, the ovens made by a bread oven manufacturer…

The only sound in these rooms where thousands upon thousands of bodies were efficiently disposed of was the birds singing sweetly outside. A warm breeze blew through the open doors. My entire life — from middle school history class onward — I’ve seen Germany portrayed in the flickering black and white of war documentaries. The strangest part of experiencing the KZ (concentration camp) is that it is set in bucolic, rural Germany…tucked in the rolling hills of Beech trees and just a few kilometers up from Weimar – the seat of German Enlightenment. The countryside is greener than green — soft and sweet and gentle. And as we cycled through this verdant forest on our way to the camp, little signs of the Nazis began to appear before us: some scrap iron, a fallen railroad marker, some remnants of rails. And then we arrived in the camp. It was quiet and stark.

There was little in this camp that I hadn’t already seen in films and read in historical accounts of the Nazi atrocities. I came to experience it in-person and to feel it and touch it. I also came with 2 questions on my mind — as I suppose most people who have been here also have: 1. How could this have happened? 2. Could this happen again?

To the first question: I leave it to the historians and your own curiosity to find the reasons beyond the most obvious ones of hatred, ignorance and institutional inhumanity infused with a climate of fear and peer pressure. This fear caused untold cruelty to be inflicted upon masses in a time of widespread panic. I am not justifying any of the actions of Germany during that period. It really is unforgivable in my mind and it colors every minute of my time in Germany. It happened and there’s nothing I can do to change history. We can only learn from it.

To the second question – could this happen again? Yes. In fact it has, but not to the numbers Germany so efficiently pulled off. Anyone remember Rwanda, Darfur, Cambodia, Hiroshima, Nagasaki? But probably this won’t happen again in Germany. Seeing this confirms for me what I have known my whole life: always question authority and assumptions. Never get caught in the barbed wire of peer pressure and don’t live your life in fear of prevailing sentiments. Stand up for what you believe in. Be inquisitive, speak up, help the underdogs, be courageous and live as freely as you can and try to stay open when all forces are against you to do so. And when it’s time to go, remember all those who have gone before you will be your guides.

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Responses

  1. David,

    Sadly, Daniel Goldhagen will convince you (over and over, repetitively) that Germans seemed to have not been pressured by outside forces, but seem to have been free to make decisions. In his examples (not in the KZs), he finds several cases where soldiers were free, even encouraged to not kill but instead chose to do so. And did so, with some enjoyment (photos/descriptions in love letters), etc.

    I had a very hard time listening to you speak during the film; it seems impossible, as you note yourself, that any words are necessary. In a way, hearing factual descriptions are horrible.

    The music however, was beautiful. And I appreciated seeing the stones with names by former the train tracks.

    I’m glad you had an angel by your side.

    Jeff

  2. Hi, David,
    Well, I feel very low now. Unlike you I had seen few of these images before, and I have never visited a concentration camp. I’ve always been afraid. But I know I want to — and this video was a start.

    I agree — all we can do is try to do better in our own lives. We can’t change past history but we can change the history happening now.

    I am signing up to clean off oil-slick birds, whose armageddon is fast approaching from the Gulf.

    Love,
    Gillian


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