I went to Europe for a vacation recently. With my sister and her husband, I visited Berlin, traveled to Erfurt, Rothenberg, Nurnberg, and Fussen in Germany. We drove to Vienna in Austria, then on to Prague in the Czech Republic. Our two-week trip didn’t exactly start out with a theme, but one certainly evolved after the first day or so.
I’d been to Berlin with my parents in the late sixties. My dad spoke German. His parents were of German descent, though their families had emigrated to the U.S. in the early 1800’s. Dad often traveled throughout Europe for business, buying and selling gears and manufacturing equipment.
I was only eight or ten that first time, and I remember Germany as a much different place. The Berlin Wall was intact; we took a bus tour and saw Checkpoint Charlie and the miles of barbed wire. Dad told me stories of people killed trying to escape from East Berlin. He talked about the Nazis and the Holocaust, the Communists and the Cold War. I remember asking how a country came to terms with the guilt over its own atrocities. He said he didn’t know, but that Germany had not done so then.
Forty-five years later, I found Berlin a beautiful, startling city. Lovely. And Germany has begun the complex process of restitution. Complex understates the problem. The evening of our arrival, we boarded a city bus and exited at the Reichstag. We wandered along the Spree toward the Brandenburg Gate where a concert played for the 75th anniversary of the Kristallnacht. We turned a corner and found the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe. The next day we went through a new museum called the Topography of Terror, set on the former grounds of the Gestapo, SS, and SA headquarters. Its design evokes a jail cell. The exhibit evokes horror, because the pictures of the officers showed them to look just like regular people. Just like us. And so few of them were ever prosecuted. It raises more questions than it answers. We walked from there in the cold and dark to Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum, an altogether different experience, a cultural memorial. The next day we left Berlin. And headed for Buchenwald.
Here’s a lesson I learned on my trip: Don’t go to a concentration camp on a full stomach. Because your stomach will knot, and cramp, and rise up. And it will be all you can do not to vomit. The horror accumulates.
At Buchenwald, the picture of a red cross on a medicine cabinet seems incongruous in a room where they pulled the gold fillings from the dead and took organs as souvenirs for the guards. And you realize that it’s one thing to see some graves or a cemetery; it’s quite another to read a name. But then you see another name, and yet another, and with it a picture, and another picture, more pictures, and the dates of death, and places of death, and sometimes the causes. And then another, and another, and another. It doesn’t make you numb, surprisingly. It makes you sick. It is visceral. You see the artwork, signed, by prisoners. Sometimes the artwork was created by children. Who died when they were twelve. Or thirteen. In Terezin. Or Auschwitz. Or Buchenwald. In the Jewish Museum in Prague, the names of the dead line the marble walls, wall after wall, floor after floor.
We happened to visit the camps when it was cold, a little bit windy. I didn’t bring a warm coat. I felt the chill. I could only begin to imagine the flimsy uniforns, the cold and the terror and the hunger. And then it struck me—it was only seventy-five years ago. Merely three generations. Almost nothing in the span of history.
It was not an easy vacation; we hadn’t exactly planned it this way. Friends and family have emailed: Did you have fun?
I would not say that we had fun. But I guess we had something more memorable than fun.