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.

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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.

Stalin’s Gulag
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.

33 Responses

  1. LarryGriffin

    Stan, words cannot describe how I feel just having read your passionate, provacative story. I am truly sad and disturbed, especially the fact it is still occuring in places all over the world.
    Be well my friend.

    Larry Griffin

    • Stan Goldberg

      Thanks Larry,

      I’m currently working on a poem about Buchenwald that ties in current times. It will be accompanied by the pictures I took and also my shakuhachi.

      Take Care

  2. Nancy Brown

    Stan, What a beautiful story. I can think of no more appropriate instrument to play there than the Shakuhachi.Its tone is so haunting.(I used to play one. Didn’t know you play it. As for today’s events in Tucson, they give much food for thought on the topic of understanding such events. I hope to read your novel some day.

    Take care, and good health,

    Nancy Brown.

  3. Ronee Henson

    Stan – I was profoundly moved by your description of your thoughts and of your emotions. As I was reading your story I was there with you at Buchenwald, though I’ve never been there in reality.

    I have spoken to many survivors of the horror of WWII, from both sides of the fence. After the war, all of Europe was in great turmoil, and the suffering, and the death of millions, has been well documented. Over the years I have read many accounts of it as well.

    Your vivid description is a masterpiece! It should be required reading, and discussed, in our highschools. There are far too many young people growing up who are not aware of this inhumanity that took place such a relatively short time ago.
    Or that it is still going on in various parts of the world.
    Chances are that history will continue to repeat itself because of this ignorance.

    When does the Age of Enlightenment start?

    • Stan Goldberg

      Hi Ronee,

      Thank you for your kind words. I think even if I read something as descriptive as my piece, I couldn’t have understood it unless I was there. From the experience, the words came. Listening to the news from Tucson today, I don’t think the “Age of Enlightenment” is even in the distant horizon.

      Take Care,

  4. Patricia Grace

    Stan, thank you for sharing this personal experience. It gave me chills.

    I am confident that your relatives are smiling down upon you for all of the good work you have done and still do.

    It is a pleasure to know you even if it is through websites, Linked In and Twitter.

    Warm regards,
    Patricia Grace

  5. Lidewij

    Dear Stan,

    Thank you for sharing this. I feel deeply touched by what you express. It might not be a coinsidence that I just spent this morning talking with my 85 year old grandmother about her experience of the human capacity to kill, to be cruel and to survive during WWII in The Netherlands. Her father, being the commander of a small resistence group in the North of Holland, got captured and tortured heavily only a few days before the Canadians came to free the Dutch. He was released three days before the war ended while most of his colleagues were so heavily tortured that the Germans decided to shoot them. She described me how her father and herself had been visiting the German officer who did this to him. The man reminded my great-grandfather that he had given him a cigarette. My great-grandfather assured him that he would not be hanged because of what he did to him, but because of what he had done to all those others. “And it looks like these cruelties never stop”, was the conclusion we ended up with this morning.

    Are you familiar with the work of Samuel and Pearl Oliner? They focused in their research on the acts of altruism during WWII and described several characteristics of these altruistic people. It might help to place things in perspective. And it might help us all to raise children who are able to stand the cruelties of our world without ending up participating in them.

    This is the reference:
    Samuel P. Oliner and Pearl M. Oliner, The Altruistic Personality; Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe: What Led Ordinary Men and Women to Risk Their Lives on Behalf of Others? (New York: The Free Press, 1988).

    Also one last musical note. Your desription of flute play reminded me of one of the most beautiful pieces of flutework I ever heard: Paul Horn inside the Taj Mahal. I believe there is non duality in that music.

    • Stan Goldberg

      Hi Lidewij,
      An incredible, moving story. I find it amazing how many stories there are such as believing the giving of a cigarette is redemptive, or not understanding what is done to children when they are placed in a field of terror. I haven’t read the Oliner book, but I will get it and also look for a copy of Paul Horn.

      Take Care,

  6. Frances Shani Parker

    Reading this reminds me of my haunting and emotional tour through Elmina Castle in Ghana, West Africa. The castle was an important stop on the route of the Atlantic slave trade. Dark, ghostly dungeons where shackled African slaves, my ancestors, were herded, raped, and tortured before being forced through the “door of no return” to an imprisoning slave ship were devastating. Millions of slaves died on the journey while others were scattered across the New World to endure more horrors. There wasn’t a dry eye at the end of the tour.


    • Stan Goldberg

      Hi Frances,
      It seems, not only you and I, but our ancestors had a similar experience, just the geography and time frame are different. Thanks for sharing your experience.

      Take Care,

  7. David Klein

    Stan, That is a beautiful, beautiful article. It is such a wonderful thing that you do with music at sights like this. It is such a great gesture for you to connect with with what is soulful, spiritual, to strive to connect with what makes us human, capable of good, in the midst of such evil.

    But good and evil are human concepts. And I console myself as I look at the cruelty that we humans inflict upon each other, realizing we are just animals first and foremost, with no barometers for absolute judgment. We are animals, first instinctual, first bent on survival, first bent on taking no quarter on the killing of another soul as it justifies the means of our survival. Our minds have no soul, no heart, it is just an extensions of our instincts, and can be twisted willy nilly. You are so right when you mentioned in your comments about doing whatever we can to prevent the conditions that create Hitlers because otherwise the animal in use will rise up and our humanity will fade once again and one neighbor will machete or gas a neighbor just as easily as we swat a fly or slice into that filet mignon.

    Base, instinctual animals. So it is the DUTY of those of us that strive to realize our humanity to, well, play the flute….

    Thanks Stan.

    • Stan Goldberg

      Hi David,

      Thanks for your kind words. Your point about survival is well-taken. I think when we look at survival, it’s often confined to the physical. Sometimes psychological survival can lead to more devastating consequences for a person. I think about the right’s reactions to Obama. There was nothing he did (and still hasn’t) to warrant the vitriolic reactions to almost anything he or even his family does. My take on it is that he represents an affront or negation of some people’s values. And in order for their value system to survive, they need to attack anything that shows they’re wrong (e.g., only white men are competent enough to lead a country). I think this is true for whether what is being attacked are the humanity of the Jews or the value of health care reform. Thanks again for your comments.

      Take Care,

  8. Caryn Isaacs

    The history channel has been showing a program, not about the Holocaust, but about the German people’s reasons for following Hitler. It focused on people like Wernher von Braun, who was part of a contest with his fellow rocket scientists and physicians to build a bomb that could destroy all life in New York City. A son of one of the other scientists said, “Our fathers were only trying to go after their dreams. They had nothing to do with anything political.”

    I was particularly interested in this because my client Beverly, an 85 year old American, who had no family in Europe during the war, had written several plays and poems related the continued persecution of the Jews. Her room is filled with research documenting the work of Rabbi Meir Kahane, as it related to her experience as a NYC Parole Officer in the 1960’s and 70’s.

    “Kahane saw many of the poor and elderly Jews living in the inner-city being targeted by criminals; as a result, he set out to change the image of the Jew from “weak and vulnerable” to one of a “mighty fighter, who strikes back fiercely against tyrants.” The JDL’s controversial methods, which frequently included the threat of, or actual violence, greatly exacerbated the Black-Jewish tension already present in New York City. The JDL also focused on the plight of Soviet Jewry, and coined the phrases “Never again,” and “every Jew a .22″ to emphasize that Jews would no longer passively ignore the plight of their foreign brethren.” http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/biography/kahane.html)

    On New Year’s Eve I told Beverly about the show. She was so happy to hear that that people were discussing how this could happen, not just what had happened.

    Right after I got off the phone with Beverly, I turned my attention back to the TV. I didn’t want to spend a depressing New Year’s, so I turned the station to watch General Custer slaughter the Natives.

    • Stan Goldberg

      What an interesting sequence of events! I also saw the show you referred to. Unfortunately, commentators, documentarians, and activists try to find simplified explanations for events that are quite complicated. I think Kahane and the producers of the History Channel’s show tried to do that. Yet, the complexity of what occurred is often found in the words of those people who experienced it, like Elie Weisel.

      I think often people believe that by trying to understand why something dreadful occurred, we end up condoning it. I don’t think that’s true. Understanding might be the basis for preventing it from happening again.

      Thanks again for your comments,

  9. Damiano de Sano Iocovozzi MSN FNP CNS

    Thanks for your remembering, Stan. When I was 17, I left New York and became a German student studying in Arolsen. There I met Lieselotte and Gerhard who became my German parents where I finished school & would later go to a German university in 1972. They were Nazis. Gerhard was sent to Prussia & Russia at the beginning of WWII. Lieselotte would remain alone in the north, gleaning fields & subsisting as best she could. She hid Jewish school children once and was nearly shot herself. Gerhard was unable to communicate with her during the war & she didn’t know if he was alive or dead. Lieselotte described the horror of living in Germany where neighbors often turned on neighbors, using the police to settle personal scores against neighbors one didn’t like. Lieselotte was a simple woman with no formal education & still didn’t understand what the Third Reich was all about, only that she suffered enormous privation, hunger, cold & saw unspeakable horror, alone, newly married & an orphan. So much suffering on every side, with many thrown into situations over which they had little control. The war also for many simple Germans was unspeakable. Thanks for your article. Damiano

    • Stan Goldberg

      Hi Damiano,

      Your response points out the need for understanding individual behaviors rather than relying on terms such as “national character”to explain why horrible things occurred in WWII.

      Your experience beautifully shows why the individual circumstances a person lives with is a more fertile area for understanding than general labels. I’m still struggling with it.

      Take Care,

      • Damiano de Sano Iocovozzi MSN FNP CNS

        Manichean explanations are often sought after, even by intelligent people because there is no logic to any of it. The “other” always remains the official scapegoat for what ails a civilization. In the US, we have our current scapegoats- just listen to the media. Group is pitted against group: the ignorance of the other causes fear which is itself, irrational.Look at the mess of wars we’re in because of ignorance & fear of the other. As a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco, the myths & stereotypes about Islam & Arabs are so dumb. It is an expensive “us” vs. “them” scenario which costs billions per week & has no sign of stopping anytime soon. The only remedy I see is a stance of ending abuse we have for ourselves & our fellow humans on the planet. If one can learn to love himself & his fellow human being, that’s the only religion or country one will ever need. Damiano

      • Stan Goldberg

        I guess there will always be a need to identify “the other” for a culture (nation, etc.)that is either insecure or believes in their supremacy of their values.

  10. Michael Brant

    What I felt, as I wandered Birkenau on a cold, rainy afternoon like you had, was both great grief, but also great gratitude for the spiritual teachers I have been fortunate enough to have met, who showed me what is real and valuable, for this murderous reign was ultimately only great folly.

    • Stan Goldberg

      Hi Michael,
      Thanks for your insightful comments. I think probably everyone (maybe) who visits a camp has similar reactions. But I’m not sure how the experience affects their relationship with time when they leave.

      I’ve talked to people who were moved visiting Auschwitz and spoke to me about it at great length. I knew them before their visit and stayed friendly after it. Their hatred for what the Nazis did became intensified as a result, and unfortunately spread to a general dislike for Germans–even refusing to buy or ride in German cars. They were the same person they were before the visit, with all the short-sighted ideasof why brutality occurs and no direction or thoughts of what they could do to help prevent it in the future. I’m probably being unkind, but I thought Auschwitz for them had the same emotional impact as a tragic, emotionally-dense film.

      I think people like you, and I think me, come away from visiting a camp changed by what we brought to it. You obviously brought the lessons of your teachers. I did also, but my teachers were more than 450 patients and their families that taught me a reverence for life, something that was obviously a “qualified” value for the Nazis.

      But despite the depth of my feelings, extensive research and personal connection with Buchenwald prior to my visit, I really did leave with less understanding of how human beings could be so brutal than before to my visit. Most of my preconceptions where destroyed, especially by things such as where the zoo was built. I can understand the rise of a Hitler based on conditions, but I’m still wrestling with personal acts of brutality. It would be so much easier if we could say that these people were unbalanced, mad, or acting within a national character. But all evidence suggests, basically in many ways they were just like us. And paraphrasing Elie Wiesel, that’s what makes it so horrifying. And it’s something I will need to resolve, or at least understand before I can finish the novel.

      Take Care,

  11. Stan Goldberg

    Hi Henry,

    I agree with you completely that holocausts can be prevented by eliminating their causes. I wish I could believe that the solution was harmony.

    Maybe it’s my pessimism or unorthodox form of Buddhism, but my examination of history leads me to believe that it’s self-interest that has a better chance of preventing brutality than harmony.

    I wonder if the Chinese would have been less apt to kill the pro-democratic demonstrators if they had to pay an enormous economic price to do so. It would have been in their self-interest to be tolerant, even if they despised the students that were demonstrating.

    In some ways, my ideas parallel those of the Dali Lama when he wrote about doing good and compassionate things because it’s in our self-interest to do so–being compassionate leads to our own happiness. The twist here with my idea is that when people don’t do what they should (acting harmoniously), maybe an alternative way(self-interest)can be used to reduce the consequences of their unskillful actions.

    Take Care,

  12. Henry Shen

    Everything happens by one or more reasons. We got to eliminate the causes of them to uproot the possibility of next holocaust from this planet. Harmony is the cure, isn’t it? If only people can understand each other’s needs, help and take care of each other, and more importantly, yield to common interests and make compromises. When one person suffers, the whole world suffers. When this kind of tragedies happen, they remind us of the harm human being’s greed, hatred and ignorance have brought to us. Everyone is a victim of them, not just the killed, but the killers.

    I myself have survived another massacre that happened in 1989 in Beijing, China, where Communist government butchered those peaceful pro-democratic demonstrators with no mercy. At that time, as a 19-year-old man, I wanted to curse the Communist rulers to death. But now, as a Buddhist, I have realized it’s not just their problem, but all humanity’s. Even now, our foundation of modern civilization is still more or less based on greed and bigotry. We got a lot to do to stop it.

  13. linda

    Thankyou for sharing this Stan , it was very moving . I do not understand how such things can happen and continue to happen , I do not understand the cruelty that can be shown to people from other groups whether it be race , religion , sexuality .How educated people can do such things – the Drs that you mentioned .
    I just hope that through all of this eventually comes peace .
    I cannot begin to comprehend how those people must have felt , and how you must feel knowing this was the fate of your relatives .
    We should never forget these events and strive to stop similar things happening again , but sadly as you said – they do .
    I just hope for a world were there is more understanding and humanity towards others.

    • Stan Goldberg

      Hi Linda,

      Thanks for your insightful comments. The complexity for me is that I believe the reasons people allow barbarous dictators to come to power is different than why “normal” people do hideous things.

      In looking at almost every holocaust, desperate conditions preceded the takeover by a dictator. I can understand how the belief you have no choices in life can lead to undying loyalty to someone who promises you a way out. But beyond the loyalty, I can’t understand the needless cruelty at Buchenwald and other camps. Although many people talk about a “national character” as an explanation, I have trouble accepting that reasoning.

      Take Care,

  14. Sarah Novak

    Wow Stan – Thank you for courageously sharing your experience at Buchenwald. I am certain that it is a very difficult topic for you to write about, even as an experienced writer. This story really helped me better understand your gift as a healer, taking me deeper into why you’re on the path you are on. It can be tough to see the renewal amongst so much darkness and hatred – I am thankful that you model it so beautifully.


    • Stan Goldberg

      Thank you for your kind words Sarah. I’ve always found that I grow more when I confront difficult situations rather than remaining with a comfort zone. Although, occasionally, a little R & R helps.

  15. Steven Evans

    In the Bible, in the Book of Exodus, Amalek cruelly kills the Israelites [particularly the weak, the women, and the children] right after they have departed Egypt. Hitler is said to be, by some rabbinic teachings, Amalek reincarnated. So what does the Bible say [even command] about Amalek? Not that we are to remember him nor try to understand him. Rather it says that we must “blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven.” [Exodus 17:14 and again, Deut. 25:17]. Is there any wisdom here?

    At first blush, it seems to be a contradiction since we must remember so that we blot out [i.e., blot out the remembrance]. But this commandment [and it is one] may suggest remembering is instrumental, it is for a purpose other than for remembering, and that purpose is so that we can blot out the name. Hence we might ask, what is entailed in blotting out a name?

    This may include not allowing its use to exalt or glorify the name. Germany has a law [as do some other countries] that makes it illegal to glorify Naziism through the sale of its memorabilia, through any “glorification” of it. Blotting out may entail so identifying its extent of inhumaness that it remains so utterly repulsive that we hope to never see such again. Blotting is an active verb.

    In short, we may “remember” [or never forget] in order that we know what we are to blot out from under heaven, so that others will not wish to imitate or reflect it or ever have it as a [role] model.

    It cannot be understood — but it can be blotted out from under heaven.

    • Stan Goldberg

      I wish I could agree with the biblical scholars, both the ancient and new one. If “blotting out” involves ridding the world of those conditions that bring about a Hitler or Pol Pot, I’m in complete agreement. But usually it involves references to more esoteric and humane things like reverence for human life, tolerance, etc. But my take on history is that as much as I would like to think that these values can be universally accepted, repeated holocausts have shown that it can’t. Being a pragmatist, I’m for a more realistic approach that is preventative and in the best interests of people who would otherwise commit hideous acts–eliminate the conditions that make a Hitler or Pol Pot attractive.

      • Steven Evans

        Far be it for me to suggest that I have the remedy for mass violence in the world. But let me note that I, as the Webster I am now consulting, defines “to blot out” as 1. to hide entirely or 2. to destroy or kill. The contra-positive to this strategy is the news frenzy over some killing that yields copy-cat crimes. So blotting out the remembrance is an active process [not to be confused with preaching tolerance or revering life, etc. — at least here in the mid-west versus perhaps San Francisco’s take on it]. Blotting out uses a Big Stick. It might be one of many strategies.

        You seemed to indicate you seek a preventive strategy [as I do] such as making a potentially grievous action very costly. If the Hutus thought they all might be blotted out from the face of the earth, this might have been a possibly mitigating factor [but maybe not]. Although we agree as you noted that understanding may be the basis for preventing, there are a lot of diseases, for example, that we fully understand — but this does not help us to prevent them. I am not even sure that understanding is truly a prerequisite to prevention — in the rational model, we speculate this may be so, but that can be a very rigid model. Prevention actions need not be grounded upon initial causes.

        In speech pathology, I have seen you use both positive and negative reinforcement. Always good stand-bys. As a Buddhist, I also embrace a change in Universal Consciousness. Naturally, unlike a Chinese restaurant, we are not required to just pick one from column one.

  16. Tammy McLean


    I read your post with a sense of rising panic but also profound sadness that is beyond words. I cannot begin to imagine what it must have been like for you to actually be there with the knowledge that your relatives were there.

    It is truly sacred ground.

    I find it beyond comprehension, yet also there is knowledge that every one of us is capable of great acts of kindness and also great acts of evil.


    • Stan Goldberg

      Hi Tammy,

      I think you captured one of the predominant feelings I had–rising panic. At times, it felt that there were unseen forces that were moving me around the grounds. There was one event I didn’t include in the article because I knew nobody would believe it. After I finished playing and the rain stopped, a rainbow appeared over Buchenwald. Fortunately I had my video camera and recorded it. At some time in the future, I’ll be creating a multi-media presentation that I’ll place on YouTube.

      Take Care,


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