Monday, February 06, 2006

The Graves in the Woods

So I’m still thinking a lot about Erfurt. I don’t know why; it’s something about Szolnok that pushes the right buttons in my memory, but it seems like there’s nothing that happens to me here that doesn’t remind me of Erfurt. Anyway, since last month I’ve been dwelling on the following story:

One town over from Erfurt is Weimar, near to which Buchenwald Concentration Camp was located (the good and innocent townspeople, of course, had no idea what was going on up on the hill). To the puzzlement and sometimes disgust of the Germans I knew, I visited the camp several times. It never upset me, it’s just such an interesting history that I wanted to know it completely. One beautiful spring day, Kaitlin, Wag and I decided to make a trip. Long story short, the bus we got on did not end up in Buchenwald, but instead on the other side of the hill. We asked the bus driver what to do. He pointed at a trail through the woods and told us it was half an hour’s hike. We gamely started walking through the cool, green forest. After a while, Wag revolted and turned back. Kaitlin and I continued, figuring that as long as there was a path, and only one path, we had to come out somewhere. Eventually, the path became more cared-for. We saw a short fence and a gate which had a Buchenwald sign on it. We went into the fenced-in area. Gradually, walking through the thinning forest, I realized that scattered among the young trees were narrow metal poles. They were silver and the sun glinted on them - otherwise, they blended with the forest.

The picture here doesn’t really do it justice; when the forest is green the poles aren’t instantly visible. My storytelling can’t really do it justice either, because I can only describe the feeling in a most basic way: imagine walking somewhere, somewhere innocent enough like through a field or a forest, then gradually realizing that something you’d been noticing all along, those rocks on the ground maybe, were actually human bones. Even if you’d never been disturbed by death before, it’s the feeling of being caught unaware, of death creeping up on you in a place you weren’t expecting it.

The end of the story has a small twist: it turned out that the inhabitants of the mass grave in the forest were not in fact concentration camp victims. They were Germans. They were some of the 7000 Nazi war criminals and other political prisoners who died while Buchenwald was being used as a prison camp by the NKVD from 1945-1950. Although the first memorials at Buchenwald were established in the 1950s, these Soviet mass graves weren’t discovered until 1989. There was some intense discussion about how or if the two histories (Buchenwald Concentration Camp and Soviet Special Camp #2) should be portrayed together in one memorial. Eventually the Thuringian Ministry of Science came up with the following guidelines: "Both the Nazi concentration camp and Soviet Special Camp No. 2 are to be commemorated. The concentration camp is to be the primary focus. The commemoration of Special Camp No. 2 is to be subordinate. The commemoration sites are to be separated spatially...” etc. Hence the unobtrusive poles in the forest, in a separate fenced area behind the camp and down the hill, best reached by a hike through the woods.

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