The massive monument on Ettersburg hillside, completed under the German Democratic Republic (former East Germany) in 1958 and more a socialistic propaganda shrine than a memorial to the victims of the Buchenwald concentration camp, is visible from the city of Weimar, the so-called cultural capital of Germany, several miles to the south, proving that, during the Nazi years, the folks of that city could see and smell the incessant column of smoke that rose from the crematoriums consuming the tens of thousands of bodies of those who died from disease, starvation, physical exhaustion and outright murder.
The tower disappeared when I reached the top of the hill and, following the Gedenkstätte Buchenwald (Buchenwald Memorial) signs, turned left through a woods dressed in gold like any other forest in autumn. I shuddered; thoughts about natural beauty were obscene here; I was approaching one of the largest and most brutal of the camps in the vast Nazi KZ system. Reaching the parking lot surrounded by the restored SS barracks and administrative buildings, I could still imagine this to be a large summer camp, a sylvan refuge from the city’s heat for Weimar’s youth. Go over the hill though and down a slope, passing the quite sumptuous kennels that housed the SS guard dogs, and it got eerie. Having already been to Dachau, the actual entrance with it wrought iron gate and its inscription was all too familiar as was the sinking feeling of fear, no matter how unwarranted. Nor was it difficult to visualize the efficient and monotonous process of a prisoner’s admission, incarceration, enslavement and final departure through the chimney in the corner of the compound, a wisp of smoke in a putrid cloud drifting over the prestigious city of Goethe and Schiller down in the valley.
I didn’t go to Buchenwald out of morbid curiosity or any further desire to immerse myself in the environs of evil. If such urges existed, Dachau and Wewelsburg had more than satisfied them. This time for me, the impact and emotion, sometimes to the point of tears, arose over unexpected details: learning that the bodies were found, at the time of camp’s liberation, heaped in the courtyards rather than burned because the SS ran out of coal for the crematoriums. Or the faces, ranging from horrified to tearful to passive, recorded in a grainy black-and-white film, of the town citizens as they “toured” on orders from General Patton the camp on April 16, 1945, just days after its liberation.
I came to Buchenwald because I was following in the footsteps of my novel’s protagonist.
Already towards the end of his own days, he, a researcher and writer who was having considerable difficulty functioning as an SS officer, was sent by Himmler, who still held out hope that he would become a proper SS man, as a disciplinary measure to Buchenwald to serve guard duty. He was there on the night of November 9, 1938, Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, when the Nazi party orchestrated a series of attacks on the Jews. According to the Buchenwald website, 9,845 Jews are crowded into a barbed-wire fold on that occasion with 255 deaths resulting, the first of many such roundups leading to the implementation of the Final Solution in extermination camps like Auschwitz.
At first, even to my subject on the inside, it may have appeared benign enough. Shown here is a photo I took of an official SS photo of the November 9th event. If you didn’t know better, you could mistake it as a group of business men participating in a parade; someone on the right side is even snapping a photograph. They don’t look like captives marching toward a future of deprivation, forced labor and eventual death. Beware, I learned later, of official SS photos; all clever propaganda. This one was taken for circulation to relatives, the German public, and the rest of the world, supposedly to prove that the Jewish men went willingly, viewing the camp as a haven safe from the rioting mobs.
But what was my protagonist to think once the beating and dying began and he, an SS man, was required to participate? Again, I won’t give away the story, but to get it I had to walk in his shoes and think with his mind, reaching the point where I felt like I was him, facing his dilemma and deciding how I would resolve it. And this had to be done, not from the viewpoint of a person living in the 21st century, the whole sordid Nazi story a closed book written a thousand times over, but from the viewpoint of a German of his day, who could peer forward only with no rearview mirror to check against. The story was developing, its darkest chapters still in the future, and around him were minefields strewn with misinformation, like the propaganda mentioned above. His sole guides were his internal ethical compass and his individual intuition as to what might come from the activities he observed.
There was a point towards the end of the day, after I had toured much of the vast grounds, where I was overwhelmed for several moments by a hot choking sensation, complete with sweat, prickling skin and nausea. I groped my way to a bench. I forced myself to breathe until my vision cleared and heart slowed. Then I sat in a semi-daze watching the sun go down, the autumn leaves flaming brilliantly before they went dark. I couldn’t put words to the experience then—I’m not sure I ever will—but I rose from the bench and returned to my car knowing I had gotten what I came for. My protagonist was no longer a type or caricature, not even an historical figure, but a single person, one-of-a-kind even while one of the rest of us: a sensitive and poetic, if troubled, individual who was striving to follow his life goals and dreams in a truly impossible environment. Evidently, he found his answer in Buchenwald, and I had to go to Buchenwald 73 years later for his story to become my story, and now it only remains for me to tell it.