I went to bed last night looking forward to (not) a long day of traveling and shmoozing with a bunch of pastors. I was a little disappointed that I didn’t really get to see more than I did while in Berlin. We got up at 6:30 to go catch a 7:45 train from Berlin to Leipzig, and from their, Kurt (pastor of CC Leipzig) was going to drive six people to Siegen. Just as we got out of town he said, “Hey, you guys wanna see a concentration camp?” At first blush it seems like kind of a gory thing to want to go see a place where thousands of people were systematically slaughtered. But being a novice history buff, I definitely wanted to go see one, as did everyone else.
Were it not for a massive tower-like monument on the scenic hillside, you would never know that, nestled in the little forest on the top of an ordinary hill surrounded by quaint villages and farms, there was a facility whose entire purpose was to process, store, and dispose of human beings of a certain ethnicity. Along the side of the road up the hill there are signs that basically say, “If you go past these signs you are taking your life in your own hands because there are still land mines in here.” Close to the top there is what is called, “The Blood Road.” A cobblestone road made by the prisoners. Not far past that is the train depot where the prisoners were brought in. Past that are the barracks for the guards, which today are apartments. (That just sounds kind of creepy to me.)
Past this is a road that leads to the gates that leads to the facilities where the Jews lived. The gates themselves are in the middle of a building that I will come back to later. Coming out of both sides of this building are barbed wire fences with guard towers.
Then the American soldiers made it into the camp they saw this view. In the second picture below on the left you can see one remaining barracks. The rest were burned down because they were so filled with cooties.
My understanding is that, for the most part, the prisoners didn’t know what awaited them. In that building with the gate, their countrymen were being tortured to death. Room #1 (first picture below) was where most of them who came into this building died. Across the hall were basic toilet facilities. Some sinks and a couple of toilets.
Just past Room #1 was a gate and a long hallway where there were many cells. Many people leave little flowers to pay their respects for those who suffered and died in this place. but in another part of the camp, an equally brutal fate was reserved for the rest.
I have to pause and tell you this. In this next building, as soon as I passed through the door, it physically felt as though there was this weight pressing down on my head and shoulders. It’s like someone put a pile of bricks into my backpack. It was difficult to breath. There was a definite funk in the air. It was powerful and tangible. There was a presence there. And I didn’t even know what I was walking into.
As I said, the prisoners didn’t even know what was going on. The main reason for this is because the Germans didn’t broadcast what they were doing. Instead, the brought the prisoners to their deaths in a rather orderly fashion under the guise of the chance to shower and/or a medical exam. Those who were offered a shower we brought into a room that looked like a shower room. Drains in the floor, shower heads in the walls. In reality, poisonous gas came out of those shower heads. (We either didn’t see this place or it didn’t exist anymore, so I don’t have any pictures of it.) The facility where people were brought in for medical exams was still there. They were brought into a room that looked like a doctors office. Cabinets with medicines, an eye chart on the wall, a heater, a table.
They were then brought into a room to have their height measured. The floor of the room is painted red and has what is essentially a wooden grate in the floor. The prisoner would be brought in and stood against the wall with the hight scale on it. Build into the wall, but invisible from within this room, is a slot wide enough for the barrel of a gun to fit in. As the prisoner is simply standing there, they were shot through the back of the head. The first picture below shows this room. That’s Kurt who happened to poke his head in the door way. At least it give you some sense of scale. His head is nearly in the spot where the prisoners would have stood. The next picture is the hidden room behind the wall where where the soldier with the the gun stood. The prisoner would have walked right by this room, perhaps assuming it was a closet. It didn’t occur to me why the floor was painted red with a grated. It was so that they could quickly hose it down for the next prisoner.
As soon as I left this building the weight lifted. It was like a switch. But I didn’t have to wait long for it to come back. In the basement of the building next door there is a chute from the outside. The bodies of the dead were slid down this chute and stored or staged to go on the elevator that led to the upstairs of this building. The reason they were staged there is because the Germans didn’t want them left out in the open for the other prisoners to see. And again, once I came out of that basement, the pressure left. Something lives there after all these years and through all that death. Once they were brought up to the lift the bodies were dissected to see if they had any gold fillings or if they had swallowed any gold jewelry. After this the bodies were brought to the crematorium. The bodies would go in one side (first and second photos), and their ashes would be collected collected from the other side (third photo), then placed in urns (fourth photo). Outside of the crematorium there is a plaque talking about the company commissioned to build these ovens. I wonder if the people who made them knew what they were making as they built them. (Last pho
to is crematorium building. The roof to the left is where the doctors “exams” took place.)
It just seems so unimaginable. The things we humans are capable of. In Genesis 6 God says that whatever we put our mind to we can do. The people who did these things, from their perspective, were committed to their ideals. They had a vision. They were devoted. And look at the lengths to which they went. The same could be said about many Muslims today who blow themselves up, pray five times a day, etc. It makes me feel like a very whimpy Christian. Those people are/were willing to go so far with their lives to believe in something that is false, farther than it seems I go with God’s truth.
I also tried to put myself in the boots of the American soldiers who would have had to fight their way up this hill, through mine fields, seeing their buddies getting blown up, crawling through the forest. They had fought through the winter. The had suffered. They had endured serious hardship, some of them for years. Then, to finally reach the top and enter those gates, the Germans left piles of bodies. They left the dead in the crematorium and showers and doctors office. The living weren’t much better off. Many were living skeletons literally piled up in their sleeping shacks, not to mention those locked in the cells being tortured. Many of the soldiers just started throwing up because of that they saw and smelled and heard. I imagine they didn’t think they had it so bad after all.
In the end, God used this tragedy (the word doesn’t do it justice) to compel the UN to create a nation for these people. If I remember correctly, Uganda was a proposed place for the Jews to have a homeland. Ultimately, they were given back their homeland of Israel, just as God had promised. God used these events to fulfill His word. God demonstrates His faithfulness through tragedy. It can be hard to recognize while one is in the midst of it, but He is and He does. That’s one thing I can take with me from Buchenwald.
I feel like I’ve come full circle in my own interest in WW2. In 8th grade my grandmother took me to the Island of Oahu. I got to visit Pearl Harbor and the Arizona memorial. I got to look down on the ship where dozens of sailors are still entombed. I got to see the skyline where the planes would have been buzzing. I got just a taste of the Pacific Theater. I had always wanted to come and see the European Theater. I got a very up-close and person look at that stage.
It seems clear to me, now more than ever, that there are things worth fighting for. War isn’t a bad thing, so long as the thing you are waring over is right and true and just. The sacrifices are worth it, whatever form they may take. Sometimes, war is the answer. Things worth fighting for cause division. We are going to be in Acts 15 this Sunday. There is a fight in the church in Acts. “No small fight.” It’s over whether or one has to abide by the Jewish law in addition to believing in Jesus in order to be saved. Paul felt this was something to fight for, to cause division over. There are some things we shouldn’t fight about, some thing we need to have more unity. There are some things we need to and should fight over and divide over. God’s word is absolute. It is absolute truth, justice, love, and grace. It’s worth dying over. Many have done that through the years as well.
I think I need to start thinking bigger. I think more Christians need to start thinking bigger. What we suffer today, the cost of our faith today in America is next to nothing. Thank you Jesus for paying the ultimate cost and buying us with your blood. I want my life to be worth that.