Playing for Relatives: Understanding Buchenwald
I thought about my father’s family tree as I drove from Prague to Weimer. Thirty-three relatives had died in Auschwitz, three had been liberated from Dachau, but nothing was written about Buchenwald, the concentration camp I would visit the next day, November 11th, 2010.
It was Veterans Day in the United States and Armistice Day in Europe. I stood just inside the entrance and looked at the sign which could only be read by prisoners after they entered single-file through an iron door, giving the SS an opportunity to formally “initiate” them into the culture of Buchenwald.
Jedum Das Seine.
The words were elegantly twisted with an art nouveau flair. “To each his own,” means everybody gets what they deserve.
If I had relatives who were taken to Buchenwald, they would have been on my mother’s side. But all that I had was her Polish name before Ellis Island immigration officials changed it. My mother was Chaya Gutheiner from Chestakova, Poland. I couldn’t even rely on her birth date, since she changed it on her own accord, to make herself younger.
The Buchenwald archives listed three Gutheiners from the area surrounding Chestakova who died in the camp. One archivist told me that there were probably others, and since it wasn’t that common a name in Chestakova, most likely I was related. But it would take four months to get more definitive results. I left the office and entered the camp.
The camp (which is in the first chapter of a novel I’m writing), took an a reality that was surreal. It was as if every object and even the ground I stood on contained within it a history of unimaginable brutality.
All of the 30 wooden barracks were torn down by the Soviets when they occupied East Germany after the war, leaving only the foundations. Within them were thousands of similarly colored stones, and occasionally a lone flower placed by a survivor or a survivor’s family. Only two of the 22 three-story guard towers remained. But the crematorium, with its 100-foot smokestack, was impeccably preserved.
On the morning I was there, a severe storm blew across Europe, forcing most visitors to seek shelter from the wind and rain. I stood on the muster grounds and looked to where the prisoners would gather daily to see who would work and who would die.
I was alone as visitors sought refuge under the roof overhang of the Cell Block, a small building in which Russian prisoners of war were routinely killed by injections of a “vitamin booster” after marching hundreds of miles.
With nobody near me, I unwrapped my shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute). It’s an instrument that I play at memorials, sacred sites, and for my hospice patients in San Francisco. It allows me to express myself in a way not possible with words.
As I stood at the top of the muster grounds and looked down the slope to where the barracks had been, I struggled to make a sound. I don’t know if my failed attempts were caused by the emotions I was experiencing or the almost gale force winds that blew the notes apart before they became audible. I stood with my eyes closed and played as if notes were emerging from my flute.
Eventually, the winds abated somewhat and I looked to my right and saw the chimney that must have emitted my relatives’ ashes onto nearby cities whose populations insisted they knew nothing of what was happening in Buchenwald.
The notes started to flow, not melodiously as I had envisioned when I was given permission to play before the trip, but with a great effort and an intonation that could only be described as wailing. I have no idea what I played or for how long. When I finished my last note, as if on cue, the wind and rain stopped.
I have repeatedly read that once you visit a concentration camp, you’ll understand how the experience changed the lives of survivors (the theme of my novel). It didn’t.
I spent eight hours in Buchenwald walking among the ruins, reverently touching the carts that hauled bodies to the crematorium, descended into a cellar those walls were lined with hooks where bodies were hung, and walked on paths leading to the factories and the stone quarry. I left understanding less than I did before I arrived. How can you understand what the deliberate juxtaposition of opposites does to a person’s mind?
It began when I turned onto the four mile tree-lined road to Buchenwald, aptly named Blut Strasse (Blood Road) by the prisoners. Thirty-thousand were sent from various camps to clear the forest and build a two lane road and railroad bed in three months. Nobody is sure how many returned. If any of my relatives didn’t, the official records would have listed their death as a “heart attack,” or “natural causes.”
And as I walked down a bucolic tree-lined path to the quarry, I wondered what the prisoners thought the first time they emerged from the glen and saw bodies of those who were worked to death, as they eventually would be.
I looked at ledgers of names written in an elegant cursive style of more than 500 gay prisoners who were infected with typhus, and I couldn’t understand how physicians who graduated from the most prestigious universities in Germany could impassively chronicle the course of their deaths as if they were conducting important research.
I stood in the zoo enclosure just outside of the electrified fence, where, after children of the SS fed the bears chunks of meat, they glanced left and saw up to 30,000 prisoners in various stages of starvation, then turning right, saw and smelled the Thursday smoke rising from the crematorium’s chimney.
And even the name of the camp, “Buchenwald,” was based on the Nazi technique of calling something other than what it was. In English, “Buchenwald” means “birch forest,” something that sounds like a wonderful place to vacation.
I have often read historical warnings that say we need to remember the Nazi holocaust, so it could never happen again. But we do remember, yet holocausts continue.
Mao’s cultural revolution
Pol Pot’s killing fields
Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing
The Hutu’s and Tutsi’s genocide of each other
And there are others too numerous to list. It appears remembering doesn’t work. Maybe we need to do something else—like trying to understand how a children’s zoo can be built within sight of a crematorium.