Salvage to Buchenwald and back
Whenever I return from away to our home in Salvage, I always feel a profound sense of calm come over me. Ever since people in boats discovered it, it has been known as a safe harbour on this part of the northeast coast. I feel safe here like no other place I know.
Before I went away in the early days of October I wrote a column contrasting the generosity and co-operation of our people during Hurricane Igor with the pure evil I expected to find when I reached the death camp where my uncle was murdered, at Buchenwald in Germany. Members of our family travelled to Germany to erect a plaque honouring the memory of those exterminated there. Frank Pickersgill’s name was among them.
I wrote then: “My hope is that, carrying with me, like a talisman, some of the spirit of profound humanity that is at the core of rural Newfoundland and Labrador … I will succeed in warding off the evil that permeates the terrible place called Buchenwald and be able return home safely to tell you more of what happened.”
I am home, I am safe, but it was a bruising ordeal. The thoughts and emotions I felt there had an effect that will be with me for the rest of my life.
In 1937, two years before the Second World War was declared, the Death Camp at Buchenwald was built on a country hillside just outside Weimar, the former capital of Germany. It was designed and equipped to emprison, use for slave labour, torture and ultimately murder all those who stood between Hitler and the realization of his diabolical dream for the planet Earth.
Down the hillside from the camp, beyond the perimeter fence consisting of three kilometres of barbed wire, sufficiently electrified to guarantee certain death, there were a number of viilages.
The villagers watched from home as the construction of Buchenwald proceeded. They could see the trucks and trains that brought the crematory ovens, specially designed and manufactured by the family-run engineering firm of Topf & Sons in the nearby town of Werfurt. People they knew might have had jobs there.
The villagers could see the trucks and trains that brought the prisoners, though they would have needed powerful binoculars to take in all the detail of the brutal beatings meted out to the new arrivals.
The villagers would have had no trouble making out with the naked eye the clouds of black smoke that billowed daily out of the the crematorium smokestack, its dark brick silhouette the tallest structure in view.
On Sept. 10, 1944, those clouds contained the last remnants of Frank Pickersgill, the uncle I never met.
He and 15 others were marched to the crematorium from their hut, Block 17. They were pushed down the stone stairs under a rain of blows into the “ leichenkeller,” the corpse cellar. There the beatings continued with increased savagery. The necks of the semi-conscious, blood-soaked men were encircled with butcher’s wire. They were hoisted up, and the wire looped over 16 of the 48 steel hooks imbedded high in the white-washed concrete walls. The last man took 20 to die.
The still-warm corpses were heaped on a purpose-built elevator and lifted to the Topf & Sons ovens waiting on the floor above to incinerate them. If the wind was blowing from the south that day, the window sills of the houses in thye village below would have been dusted with the last traces of my uncle and his fellows.
Of the 250,000 who entered the main gate, my uncle joined the 56,000 who did not come out.
Apart from the beatings, included in the procedure only for the self-satisafaction of the sadistic guards, the whole operation unfolded with well thought-out precision. As I look out the window across the harbour, this thought comes to mind. Here, we design fish plants to convert, as efficiently as possible, fish into food. The plant at Buchenwald converted, as efficiently as possible, human beings into smoke.
How could such organized monstrosity happen, I thought, and what can we do to ensure that it never does again?
The answer may lie in the life of another man from Block 17 — Stephane Hessel. A resistance fighter in France, he was delivered to Buchenwald chained together in the same batch of prisoners as my uncle. When those 16 did not return from the crematorium, Hessel knew he had only days to live. He and two others made a daring escape by substituting their identities for three other prisoners dying from the typhoid experiments the Nazis were carrying out on the inmates.
After the war he made his way home to Paris, joined the diplomatic corps, was posted to the newly formed United Nations in New York, where he participated in writing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Now 93, Ambassador Hessel has devoted his life to promoting the guidelines to human decency clearly laid out in that all-important document.
He did so again Oct. 15 when he stood in the courtyard of the Buchenwald crematorium and addressed the 75 of us at the ceremony dedicating a plaque to his fallen comrades. It is a rare occasion to feel you are in the presence of a higher being, a being who glows with a light from within. It is the light of Goodness. The light of Love.
I felt it when I shook his hand and heard him describe how my uncle had never stopped, with jokes, games and conversation, trying to keep up the morale of his fellow prisoners in Block 17.
We may never know how such a monstrous thing as Buchenwald could happen. How can we construct a society where it never happens again? The machine for that task is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. What fuels that machine is Love.