University of Minnesota
Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies
chgs@umn.edu
612-624-0256


CHGS

A Holocaust Memorial

By Reidar Dittmann

'There was no Holocaust,' said Ernest Zundal, Canadian educator. `The idea of such a horrendous act of inhumanity is the vicious figment of the imagination of International Zionism,' he went on to say, `created exclusively for the purpose of establishing a Jewish homeland.' This pronouncement was seconded and elaborated upon by Ream Arnouf, executive of the Red Crescent Society—the Arab equivalent of the Red Cross: 'The historical and political importance of the gas chambers for the Jews,' said Arnouf, 'was the advantage that comes from the benefit of propaganda and international politics. Though the alleged crime is a great historical lie... the reparations the Jews received [from it] was a real fact.'

Such views, advanced by clusters of extremists, here in North America, in the Middle East, and increasingly in contemporary, post-reunification Germany, are the unfounded yet carefully calculated claims of hate groups inspired by well-established, age-old anti-Semitic sentiments which in the past generated their own widespread holocausts, as precipitous, although not as monstrous as in recent years, from the Spanish Inquisition to the Imperial Russian pogroms and Soviet persecutions, from thoughtless linguistic invectives and metaphors in broad elements of society to neighborhood cemetery vandalism—carried out sometimes by individuals acting on their own behalf but more often by groups advancing the program of self-serving extremist movements, and, as in recent and also more distant history, even by church and government. Today such antiSemitic tendencies are further fueled by the ongoing, unhappy situation in the Middle East, where the Israeli presence in a Jewish ethnic homeland long held by an Arab population has led to a precarious, and in its present territorial division no doubt ultimately untenable status quo. Yet the Holocaust, the single most dire travesty and tragedy in modern history does not relate to the current Israeli-Arab conflict, nor is the commemoration of its devastation a matter of interest and meaning to Jews only. It is in fact an observation of singular significance to gentiles as well, reminding us as it does of our total human frailty, of the limitless potential of our own inhumanity, threatening each one of us not as a possible victim of anything approaching the horror of that sequence of acts, but clearly demonstrating to us how low we are capable of sinking when determined to further our own misguided patriotic goals, as we not long ago allowed our bombs to fall on the guilty and, as inherent in any massive military action, far more so the innocent, and we and our allies, even in the aftermath of a totally terminated Cold War, unhesitatingly continue to spend billions of our funds, your funds, on the most sinister tools of destruction ever devised, while refusing, mostly on the grounds of supposed budgetary deficiencies, to lift our hands to alleviate the lot of the starving millions.

If you had associated with a German, any German— die Frau or der Mann in der Strasse - in the early 1930s and with uncanny and really impossible forethought had suggested that within a few years the group she or he so enthusiastically had elected to power would take the destiny of a particular ethnic group of the European population in its own hands by a systematic killing that would reach proportions far beyond human experience and comprehension, you would, quite understandably, be met with the most emphatic denial and disbelief, rationally based on the premise that one simply does not do such things. Yet it was done, and I was a witness, seeing it done not by an uninformed, ignorant populace but, like ours, one of the best, most broadly educated nations of Europe, a nation of scholars, professionals and creative geniuses, religious reformers and philosophers, scientists and humanists, poets and towering musical giants. It was a nation of such spiritual and intellectual quality that built the concentration camps, developed the gases to facilitate the genocide—they are still producing them—it was that nation, so very much like ours, that carried out the Holocaust. So let us not rest on our fading laurels and claim that it could not have happened here.

The Jewish people, from times immemorial having established for themselves moral and spiritual standards that know no compromise, have, in part as a consequence of such demands and despite the Covenant, God's often distant promise to His chosen people, a seemingly endless history of suffering. Beginning with the fratricide beyond the Garden of Eden it continued with the near-sacrifice of Isaac, with the slave labor in Egypt and the forty years roaming in the desert. And there was the Babylonian captivity and the suffering of Job. 'My life is disappearing like smoke,' says the Psalmist, 'my body is burning like fire... All day long my enemies insult me; those who mock me use my name in cursing.'

In expressing such anguish the Psalmist comes prophetically close to that perpetual phenomenon we call anti-Semitism and especially its twentieth century ritual genocide which we are here and now remembering. Moreover, though less flagrant, less overtly aggressive, that same spirit is still at large, not somewhere out there in the abstract but in our own inner circles, in our own hearts, in an attitude sometimes discretely camouflaged yet always there and closely linked to that which generated the most horrendous travesty not only in modern history but possibly in the entire history of mankind.

Strange to say—strange only in view of what would happen in that particular part of Europe—one of the most impressive cultural regions of Germany was the state called Saxe-Weimar, ruled back in the 17th and 18th centuries by a culturally progressive, benevolent dynasty that opened the doors of its capital city, Weimar, to philosophers, artists, poets, among them Bach, who appeared as organist and choir conductor, Goethe, the uncrowned king and leading spirit of modern German culture, and his contemporary Schiller, whose dramas earned him the title 'The German Shakespeare.' In the history books called 'The Athens of the North,' Weimar in much more recent times, following World War 1, again became a center of progressive activities, when a broken and defeated Reich, determined to rise from the ashes, wanted to draw up a democratic constitution freed from the shackles of Prussian militarism. Then it was Weimar with its gleaming cultural slate that was chosen as the site of such negotiations and inspired the name of the new realm, the Weimar Republic, The Second Reich.

The city, gateway to one of the most beautiful forested regions of Continent, provided Goethe with great inspiration as he wandered in these beautiful woods reaching from his door-steps high up into the Thuringian highlands. Yet in the mid-1930s the western section of that wanderer's paradise, that nature reserve, was mercilessly ravaged by the onslaught of another new age, The Third Reich, its ideals quite the opposite of those of the Weimar Republic. At this new stage, bulldozers mowed down the pines and beeches and stripped the ground of its mossy verdure to make room for a village of gray concrete barrack fanning down the hill-side. Built to accommodate those in opposition to the new system, the camps was planned for three thousand inmates. Yet when I arrived I entered as number 32232, and by the time the last captives walked through its ritual gateway the number had reached 272,000—although our population from one day to the next never exceeded 40,000.

In the deep darkness of a wintry night, at the pre¥Stalingrad time in World War II when the Germans were winning on all fronts, I entered Buchenwald Concentration camp as an active, though obviously unsuccessful opponent of the German presence in Norway. Having tumbled with hundreds of others, all bewildered and frightened, out of a boxcar after days and nights of confinement, we were herded by pistol-swinging guards and snarling dogs along a broad avenue into the gate area, the narthex, of this temple dedicated to the new Germanic spirit. In the active play of acutely intersecting beacons of searchlights I caught sight of the camp's motto em-blazoned in brass lettering above the towered gateway. 'Recht oder Unrecht, mein Vaterland,' it said, a sentiment then striking me as viciously German, entirely in tune with the spirit that had brought me and thousands of others before me to that ravenously gaping port of entry. It was only much, much later that I learned of its origin, then to my astonishment finding out that it wasn't German at all but American! Stephen Decatur, a naval hero, once, lifting his glass to fellow officers, saluted them with this toast: 'My country, may she always be right, but right or wrong, my country.' In a language as guttural as German it may sound more belligerent, threatening, Recht oder Unrecht, mein Vaterland, but let us not forget that we said it the first time, also that much of that spirit remains with us, as we have certainly been experiencing in the past decades when an unquestioning loyalty to the country, a consideration towering above all others, even our moral consciousness, has dominated our political thinking. Let us not be proud of that but instead remember that such patriotism gone astray was considered a most fitting apologia for a system, a cause we all abhor, a cause that ultimately brought an entire nation not only to its knees—from which it subsequently and quickly rose again—but to its pit of human depravity.

In the heart of Buchenwald rose a gigantic, then and now entirely naked tree. Having been spared from the devastation necessary to provide space for the building of the camp's iniquitous facilities, the tree, in my days, was no more than a petrified memento of its former grandeur, its uniqueness and the cause for its singular survival spelled out on a bronze plaque placed on its huge gray trunk: 'Hier ruhte Goethe auf seine Wanderungen in diesem Walde'- 'here Goethe rested on his wanderings in these woods.' While near ly impossible in the prevailing surroundings to imagine Goethe as part of such setting, I succeeded now and then, if only for a fleeting moment, to erase from view my actual daytoday experience and envision the great poet, his wanderer's staff placed against the tree and he himself seated in the cool shadow of its generously spreading branches, contemplating the tranquil pastoral landscape cascading down the hillside toward the fertile farmland to the west. He may even right there have conjured up the transcendental vision resulting in his single most famous short poem, Wanderers Nachtlied:

Über alien Gipfeln ist Ruh',
in alien Wipfeln spürest du
kaum einen Hauch.
Die Vöglein schweigen im Walde—
Warte nur, balde
Ruhest du auch.

Two images in this six-line poem speak to us in our present context: Die Vöglein schweigen im Walde...'the birds keep silent in the forest'. In my years in that setting, then only a barren slope carved out of this onceverdant deciduous forest and still surrounded by towering silvery beech trees, once and only once did I hear a bird sing, and then it was the distant, plaintive call of the nightingale, a faint elegy as though nature herself was voicing her dismay. And the other phrase, Warte nur, balde ruhest du auch...'just wait, soon you too will be at rest'—yes, there too, a certain rest lay ahead, but not the pleasurable unwinding after a day's wandering on mossy paths in the shelter of a cool, green forest, nor the deserved rest at the end of a working day, but the only rest available to a Buchenwald inmate, death, and not a soothing repose approached in dignity and hope but death, deliberate or lingering, the inescapable consequence of the most gasping despair and deprivation.

I was there in a seemingly endless sequence of bleak Novembers. There must have been Octobers and Decembers and even Aprils and Mays, winter, spring, and summer, but with all that grayness without and within and no anticipation of a regenerative season, the months and years have floated together into the memory of a perpetual, vacuous, bone-chilling, deathly pale November.

In this community of the doomed—slightly larger than an average prairie town and surrounded by electric fences and beyond them menacing machine gun towers—where hosts of gaunt, emaciated people—a daily average of forty thousand—stalked around as their own skeletons and where hundreds, sometimes thousands, died in a single day, there were rows of gray concrete blocks flanked by gray gravelly lanes extending in rigid fanshaped order from the roll-call area with its gallows and sooty crematorium chimney down the hillside, past the Goethe Oak, to the grayest place of all, Niederlager, the lower camp, which served each group as a transit station on its way to the gas chambers.

On one of these chilly November mornings, lingering outside my barracks following the five-thirty reveille, I detect a distant grating, rasping dissonance: thousands of clogs shuffling against the frozen gravel, a familiar gray sound entirely in tune with the grim surroundings, only this time more compact, more disquieting, than on our ordinary days. And soon, while on the lane by my barracks masses of inmates five abreast begin to pass me by, a new, even more ominous sound registers on my ears: the massive mechanical grinding of engines signifying the arrival at the roll-call area of the impatiently waiting mobile gas chambers.

And out there on the frozen lane, passing before me in a mute trance, are these thousands of male members of humanity—the females having been shipped elsewhere. They are the very old, the middle-aged, some i n their best years: there are youths of my own age back then, and there are the children, yes, children too. Among the aged some are so frail they can no longer walk and need the support of stronger legs and arms, and among the children are the unsteady toddlers holding hands with each other and their elders, and there are many so young they have not as yet learned to walk and are carried by fathers or brothers or grandfathers—all in a slow but relentless trek passing me, and the Goethe Oak, on their way to the waiting vehicles, the mobile gas chambers, near the crematorium.

More than ten thousand took part in that dirge in the November dawn, all Jews of course, this time from Hungary, having arrived the night before after a prolonged and tortuous transport from their homeland. And as those morning hours passed and the smoke, dense and never-ending, billowed forth from the crematorium chimney, daylight totally failed to break through—as indeed was proper, because what I witnessed was an act belonging only to the deepest darkness of the human condition. In retrospect, the importance of the event for me personally and today is that I did witness this one manifestation of a ritual slaying that was occurring with horrendous and devastating frequency throughout occupied Europe, to the extent that once it was all over, the Continent had been deprived not alone of a mass of people greater than the population of many of our American states but also of a major and irreplaceable portion of its productive, creative and intellectual treasure.

Some years ago, in Israel, I walked through a low concrete structure brooding on a hillside beyond the city of Jerusalem, the Yad Vashem, Holocaust Memorial Monument, where eternal flames flicker beside certain names and numbers. The names are those of the concentration camps providing the setting for the genocides, and the numbers the estimates of the victims in that particular place: Ausschwitz and Treblinka and Thersesienstadt with numbers of incomprehensibly dizzying magnitude, Ravensbruck and Neuengamme, Dachau and Bergen-Belsen—and, yes, Buchenwald too, my place. And as I paused and contemplated that familiar name, in itself so innocuous and innocent, signifying nothing more than the topological nature of its setting, the Beechwoods, once a place of inspiring and poetic silence, and the number next to it, I felt suddenly as though the figures took shape and were transformed into human beings I had once known, if only for a brief hour of a bleak dawn, the young and the mature, the infants and the aged, all rising toward me through the ritual flame and in a massive but mute plea asking to be remembered. And I promised myself then, as I had done that very first morning and then over and over again in years to follow, to dedicate and constantly rededicate myself to such remembrance, which was not a difficult decision to make, for never, never in this life where I have been so generously showered with blessings and benevolences, will I forget that November dawn on the barren slope below the the skeletal forest where the birds no longer sang and the poet's ancient oak tree had turned to stone. 'Wane nur, balde ruhest du auch...'