At the age of 13 I was a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp called Buchenwald outside of the town of Wiemar in Germany. In the year 2011, I received an unexpected invitation to come back as an honored guest for the celebration of the 66th year of the liberation of the camp, which is now a Memorial.
I had never been back to Germany and yet after all of these years I had the feeling that I wanted to experience being there again. The idea always lived in my mind and I was wondering what would occur, how I would react to being on German soil, and especially in Buchenwald. I wanted to go and my wife was supportive of me. When my daughter Ruth and son Leon decided to accompany us I felt much better. I knew that I could rely on their love and support. Yet, as the date drew closer, I began to have terrible anxieties. I was not sure if I really wanted to go, but it was too late to change my mind.
We flew into Frankfort, Germany where we were greeted by a young German woman from the Buchenwald Memorial. She made us feel very welcome. During the drive I was thinking to myself, “What will it be like? How will I feel when I actually step into the camp?” I was anxious to go through with it and to accept the consequences of my emotions.
Upon first entering Buchenwald, I finally was face to face with the infamous gate that led into the camp. We looked at some of the historical exhibits. We stood where Barrack 23 and Barrack 66 (the Little Camp) had once been. We stood at the railroad tracks where I had arrived as a prisoner. Feelings began to stir in me. How could this have happened? How could a 12 year old kid be so brutally treated? What crime had I committed? I felt anger toward the Nazis for what they did to me.
At the hotel we had very nice accommodations and we met other Survivors who had come for the celebration. I was made to feel comfortable. The (mostly) German young adults who worked at Buchenwald treated every Survivor with respect, kindness, interest and genuine care. They were wonderful people. With the community of the Survivors and my beloved family I felt a sense of camaraderie, and that made me feel much better.
The next day we had an appointment with a young man named Torsten who worked in the archives of Buchenwald. We had communicated with him in advance and he was researching my family, looking for documentation about when we arrived and what happened. The Nazis kept perfect records of each prisoner; everything from the date of arrival, departure, and destination to physical characteristics (even nose size!). Torsten shared many documents pertaining to me, my father, brother and uncle. We were the remnants of a big family having survived four years in the ghetto, slave labor camps and finally in Buchenwald concentration camp. I was handed my registration card with my number on it, date of birth, and it said I was a Jew, and at the age of 13 I was a political prisoner. I didn’t know what that meant. Handed to us also was the registration card of my father and on it were the names of my grandfather and grandmother that I never knew before. At the bottom of it was my dad’s signature. This is my only physical link to my father since I don’t have any photographs or other signs that he was alive. And that meant a lot to me. As I looked at the documents being passed on to my daughter and son, I got the feeling that maybe I was being excluded. And then I realized what was happening. My son and daughter were accepting my family’s past as their own. And that was extremely satisfying to me. Our short time in the archives made me grasp the reality of what had really happened to me and my family. And with this knowledge, I began to forgive myself and my anger lessened.
One of the things I wanted to do at Buchenwald was to honor the people who had been shot on our death march from the camp to the railroad station in Wiemar (the same station which was across the plaza from the hotel in which we were staying). This road is now known as Blood Road. As I walked down the road with my family, I couldn’t help but remember how 66 years ago the population of this beautiful little town would not look at us, but diverted their eyes as we marched to the railroad station in Weimar where cattle cars were waiting. It was a strange contrast for my family and me to be in this same town as honored guests.
Earlier in the book I told the story about seeing my father for the last time in Buchenwald; how I felt completely indifferent toward him and rejected him. Even now it hurts when I think about how I treated him. On the last day of the trip I decided to enter the camp one final time. I asked my family to follow me to where the Little Camp had been; the very spot where I had rejected my father. Jean, Ruth, Leon and I stood in a circle with our arms around each other and I talked out loud to my father, asking him to forgive me for being a teenage jerk. I told him that I loved him. I asked forgiveness for what I thought was abandoning him. I told him that he had grandchildren and that his death was not completely in vain. Afterwards I felt good that I communicated with my dad and that he had forgiven me. And now I am learning to forgive myself.
As we were leaving the camp and I stepped out of the gates, I realized that the gates swung in both directions and that I could go into the camp and I could step out of the camp. So I said, “Ruth look, I can get into the camp and out of the camp. I am free.” I could now let go of the prison that I had made for myself in my mind. I was free.
As a result of the trip, our family bond was strengthened – we now had a common history. The trip also changed the way I told my story. When giving a talk, I now have more insight. I have a clearer picture and much better understanding of the things that happened to me. I confronted my past and I feel better for having done so. The experience of going back to Buchenwald with my wife Jean, daughter Ruth and son Leon helped in my healing process and will better enable them to share our story with their children and grandchildren.
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