In my previous post from many months ago, I made my 1985 trip to the German Democratic Republic (aka East Germany, aka “bad” Germany) sound like a good time, didn’t I?
It was a good time.
But it wasn’t always comfortable. It was not always fun.
One of the worst experiences I had on this or any trip was going to Buchenwald. The Buchenwald death camp is quite near Weimar. It’s a short bus ride.
I was not Jewish yet, although my husband was of course, but I still remember being completely shocked by the fact that the Jews who were commemorated on the plaques in the camp were all credited for their work as communists and socialists. I asked the director of our language program about this, because I was so stunned.
He looked at me and nodded thoughtfully.
“We are remembering their sacrifice and their heroism based – not on their religion – but on their political activism,” I remember him saying.
I was shocked by that, like I said. But there was one more thing left to shock me. I walked out of the camp, and while I was getting ready to get back on the bus, I saw a horse and buggy ride by with a bride and groom in it. They were going to the restaurant directly next door, to celebrate their wedding.
Because — you see — Buchenwald is also an actual forest and a park. Although alot of it was cleared out to make room for the camp. You can read about the Goethe tree in the beech tree forest (that’s what “Buchenwald” means) here.
So, the wedding couple – complete in tuxedo, and bouquet, and long white veil — had come to eat and drink and sing and dance with their friends and family, while next door, we examined and confronted what is perhaps the darkest hour of the German past.
Did the bride and groom not know about the death camp? Or did they not care?
I remember that my Polish friends Sophia and Dariusz stood next to me outside, as the couple drove by. I would learn later about Tadeusz Borowski, the Polish writer who resisted Hitler and went to Auschwitz.
Dariusz pulled out his cigarettes as soon as the buggy passed us and offered me one. I had quit smoking, but I had a cigarette with him. At least that’s what I remember. An odd, creepy, and perhaps under the circumstances appropriate thing to do.
Were the curators of the Buchenwald memorial wrong to memorialize the Jewish victims as communist resistors? I thought so at first. Yet, now that I AM Jewish (I converted some 15 years after this experience) — I think that at least some of the Jewish folx memorialized at Buchenwald would be proud to be included and named as heroes in the political struggle for communism. Because there IS that connection. I know a lot of leftists, and a lot of them identify as Jewish. They’d want to be remembered as both, ideally.
My husband and I are currently involved in many political activities. The relationship between being a Jew and being a leftist is still a complicated one.
It’s all uncomfortable, and when I think of Buchenwald, I think about all these disquieting things.