Friday, June 5, 2009

Germany: Obama Visit Draws Attention to History of Buchenwald Camp

Buchenwald, Germany. Little Camp Memorial, designed by Stephen Jacobs, dedicated 2002.
Photos courtesy of the US Commission for the Preservation of America's Heritage Abroad

Germany: Obama Visit Draws Attention to History of Buchenwald Camp
by Samuel D. Gruber

President Barack Obama’s visit today to the concentration camp at Buchenwald, Germany brings new attention to the extensive site in site in Eastern Germany. Despite it being liberated by U.S. forces in April 1945, Buchenwald remained for many years – at least for Americans, Western European and Israeli, the unknown and almost forgotten Holocaust Camp. Located outside Dresden Buchenwald was part of former East Germany (Democratic Republic of Germany), and thus was off-limits to most non-Soviet bloc visitors until 1989. Since then, the site has been undergoing a major and continuing process of reinterpretation and new presentation. Focus has shifted away from the monumental and heroic Soviet-era monument designed by Fritz Cremer and dedicated on September 14, 1958. Instead, interest and visitors have shifted to newer monuments including the 1997 memorial to Roma and Sinti victims and the 2002 monument to Jewish victims erected on the site of the infamous Little Camp.

It was at the Little Camp that Elie Wiesel was imprisoned, and there that the famous photograph of the emaciated sixteen-year--old Wiesel was taken. The famous photo is now on view at the camp and was shown to Barack Obama. The Little Camp site and the history of its Jewish victims was largely ignored by East Germany’s Communist regime and their history-arbiters who maintained the camp. Indeed, the camp commemorated victims from thirteen countries of origin, but did not specifically commemorate Jewish victims.

The creation of a modest and sensitive monument; and space for contemplation and commemoration on the Little Camp site was a project of a U.S. government agency, the United States Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad. The project took many years, and was finally completed and dedicated in 2002. Warren Miller, first as a Commission member and then as Commission Chairman stayed with this project through the arduous planning, design, review, funding and implementation process, a story which he related in his speech at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in a ceremony prior to the monument’s dedication.

To me, the importance of this monument is considerable, but three aspects stand out and deserve attention. First, the monument was designed by American architect Stephen Jacobs, himself a child survivor, like Wiesel, of the Little Camp.

Second, the monument avoids any semblance of sentimentality, bombast or empty architectural rhetoric. It is simple, austere and elegant and instead of proving a monumental backdrop for official ceremonies (as Cremer monument did) it provides a quiet space for contemplation. The same distinction exists in Warsaw between Nathan Rapoport’s heroic Warsaw Uprising Monument and more sober and nuanced Umschlagplatz Memorial.

Lastly and most important, the monument at the Little Camp has a lengthy and detailed narrative of the history, events and horrors of the Little Camp – literally spelled out in six languages. This was Warren Miller’s most important contribution. He insisted there be no ambiguity about what had happened. Abstract monuments open to different interpretations would not do, nor vague inspirational language, like “Never Again.” Communist-era monuments were already heavy on symbols and rhetoric, but light on specifics. Unlike many previously memorials that function on the assumption that the viewer already knows what happened, the Buchenwald monument assumes the viewer knows nothing. In this sense, the Buchenwald design is the first truly made for a post-Holocaust generation, and surely one that confronts the venom of Holocaust deniers head-on.

Click here to view pictures of the memorial.

The text on the monument reads:

On this site was the infamous "Little Camp." Separated by only a barbed wire fence from the Main Camp, its inmates were subjected to the greatest suffering of all those at Buchenwald. Begun in late 1942, its first inmates were Polish, Russian, French and Dutch prisoners. By January 1945, the Little Camp became known as the Jewish Camp because most of its prisoners were Jews, including children whose parents had been murdered by the Nazis. Most of the Jews were transferred here from Auschwitz and other concentration camps in Eastern Europe. In 1945 a large percentage of the deaths at Buchenwald occurred in the Little Camp, which imprisoned as many as 20,000 inmates at a time. Conditions were barbaric. Windowless stables with dirt floors intended to house 50 horses at times contained nearly 2000 people. There was no running water, no sanitation, and virtually no heat in the stables. Some inmates lived in tents. Thick mud was everywhere. Rations were only a percentage of those given inmates in the Main Camp. Drinking water was often not provided. With only one latrine, many inmates were forced to use their food bowls as night latrines. By 1945, an ever present stench of human excrement pervaded the site. Corpses lay about in the open as the death toll increased daily. The Little Camp was a place of deepest despair for those left there to be forgotten and to die from cold, starvation, dehydration, debilitating labor, torture and rampant epidemics of diseases that went untreated. In the last days before liberation, more than half of those selected for the death marches and railway transports that resulted in tens of thousands of deaths were inmates from the Little Camp. After liberation, although the main camp was preserved and various memorials established, the Little Camp was totally obliterated and allowed to be overgrown with trees and brush. The site was neglected by the East German authorities until 1990. Some of the survivors eventually settled in the United States; they and their descendants supported the creation of this memorial.

You can read more about the Commission’s Little Camp Memorial project here, with links to various speeches.

For more information about the entire Buchenwald camp and museum and extensive photo-documentation see:

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