A visit to Buchenwald
From Take It Like a Soldier: A Memoir, by Victor Geller: We arrived at Buchenwald two and a half weeks after liberation of the camp, almost exactly a month following our makeshift field Seder. We were standing under the low archway of the main entrance, just below the mocking sign “Arbeit Mach Frei/ Labor Will Set You Free.” The entire regiment had come in a long convoy, on the orders of Gen. Eisenhower, our commander-in-chief. To his everlasting credit, he said it was important for Americans reared in decency to see and remember the horrors of the concentration camps.
A survivor approached slowly, with some hesitation. “Jewish?” he asked our group of 20 GI’s [American soldiers]. “Ich bin a yid/ I am a Jew” I replied. He offered to escort us around the camp and I would translate for our group.
We arrived at a one-story brick structure under a sharply gabled, red tile roof. All seemed normal – save for the chimney. It was a massive rectangular brick tower 60 feet high. We followed our survivor-guide into the House of Death, the Buchenwald crematorium.
No one spoke. Conversation was internal and private. I was trying to translate my feelings into expressible thoughts. Suddenly, I found myself thinking of my bar mitzvah back in the Bronx only six years previously. I recalled the final portion of the Torah portion I chanted from Devarim/ Deuteronomy 25:7 “…Remember what Amalek did to you as you left Egypt. How he struck your feeble ones in the rear when you were faint and weary. Blot out the memory of Amalek; you shall not forget.”
I listened attentively to what our survivor-guide was telling us and translated it for my buddies, but I couldn’t comprehend what I was describing. There was no one who could give meaning to this place.
Maybe the Jews of Buchenwald were brothers and sisters that I had never met, to whom I was linked by blood, shared and shed. We rode on, but now I carried a lifelong memory about this Amalek of our time.
Fifteen years later, my wife Hanya and I were leading our first of many summer teenage tours of Israel, and according to plan, we stood at Yad Vashem on Tisha Be’Av. Images and memories from that earlier April 1945 visit to Buchenwald overwhelmed me. I told the young people that in entering Yad Vashem you have a choice of two questions. You can go in and ask “What happened to them?” Rather, I would suggest, you must try to ask yourself: “What did they do to us? If you can ask that question, then their light was not extinguished because, by your question, you are offering to pick up and rekindle their candle, and if you keep remembering that second question, then their candle will continue to burn forever.” – J.P.