I was on a missions trip back in the eighties to East Germany. We were working with the underground church in the back woods, a little town that had a pastor with big vision. The name of the town was Radis. It was about half way between Berlin and Leipzig. We taught in the Bible school that the pastor had organized. You could feel the undertow of freedom starting. It was a year or so before the wall came down.
I had read many things about Nazism over the years and I knew quite a bit about what had happened in the concentration camps. I was talking to one of our hosts and asking about visiting a camp and he said in broken English, “Do you really want to go to a concentration camp? Death is there.”
I assured him that I wanted to go so he arranged it. We took a car probably about fifty miles south of Leipzig to the town of Weimar where the Buchenwald concentration camp was located.
The outside of the camp was where the guards stayed and looked almost like college dorms. Very nice and well groomed. We bought our tickets and walked through the gate which read “Jedem das Seine” which is a German proverb meaning “to each his own” or more accurately “to each what he deserves.”
The moment I walked through the gate I could feel it. Death. Our host back at the Bible school was right. Death was there. It’s difficult to describe. There was a hush that fell over us. No one spoke. We almost just wondered around aimlessly until we came to our selves and realized what had happened there forty years previous. We didn’t speak in loud tones we just sort of fumbled with our map and tried to identify the different land marks.
A Canadian airman, Ed Carter-Edwards describes their unit approaching Buchenwald during the war. “As we got close to the camp and saw what was inside… a terrible, terrible fear and horror entered our hearts. We thought, what is this? Where are we going? Why are we here? And as you got closer to the camp and started to enter and saw these human skeletons walking around-old men, young men, boys, just skin and bone, we thought, what are we getting into?”
That same sentiment was still present in the camp. I felt like, what is this, what am I getting into.
We went from building to building, from the gas chambers to the hospital to the isolation cells and so on. One of the things I remember vividly is a heavily built cart that our guide book told us the prisoners pulled to the quarry just outside the camp. It didn’t seem humanly possible to pull that big heavy looking cart, much less by weakened, starving people.
There were fresh flowers in one of the ovens of the crematorium. I asked one of the workers what the flowers represented and he said, “Family members of people who died here periodically put flowers in the ovens. I was awe struck. After almost fifty years they were still remembering their relatives who suffered in this awful place.
The gas chambers and the torture rooms, the hospital where they had many of the devises they use for their medical “experiments” were displayed. As I sit here and write this, the same hush we experienced in the camp that day has settled on my heart. It is very difficult to explain. The memories of that terrible place come flooding back and become once again very real.
I remember reading accounts of the people who lived in the neighboring towns saying that they didn’t know the camp existed. I have a hard time believing that. If there was a camp housing several thousand people with extermination capability a few miles from where you lived, you would know about it or at least there would be rumors about it.
It’s hard to believe that humans treat each other the way they do. You hear about it all the time. The NAZI’s were taught that the Jews and other groups of people were not human. They were taught that Jews were like a disease that invaded the healthy German people. They were given a rational for their actions and murdered millions of innocent people. Mao and Stalin did the same thing in their countries. Hard to figure out.
The displays of pictures, the documentation they had and personal testimonies of that place made our host correct. “Death is there”.
photo provided by: jens-lindner-147624-upsplash.com