Berlin - April 20, 2009
I am writing from the picturesque little German village of Furstenburg, which sits across a beautiful lake from the site of the Ravensbruck concentration camp. Our group just returned to our hotel from Ravensbruck, which is now a memorial site and education center. We were given a tour of the site by Laura Radosh. Laura is the daughter of WJC member Alice Radosh, who organized this extraordinary trip. Laura and her partner Zilke live in Berlin and one of their professional activities is working and teaching at the Ravensbruck site. I have never visited a concentration camp before, and the debasement and horror of the camp’s history take my breath away and leave me at a loss for words. In the center of anything I might write tonight there is a void, a place of numb silence.
Our trip has traced the Nazi machinery from its bureaucratic office buildings in Berlin to the tidy suburban train station where 50,000 Jews were transported to their deaths and now to one of the concentration camps where the SS calculated how little food an average slave laborer could subsist on in order to work for approximately three months before dying of starvation.
It appears that human beings are capable of convincing themselves that any behavior is acceptable if their ideology supports it and their leaders enforce it. This of course is not news, but tracking the footprints of evil demands that I bear anew some sort of witness.
Since the fall of the Third Reich Germany has built the first stable democracy in its long history, and clearly strives to remember its horrific past and to build social institutions that will withstand the resurgence of intolerance. But for me as a Jew, and I know I can speak for the rest of our group, even as we enjoy modern, exciting Berlin we sense the dread of the recent past barely concealed under our footsteps.
Here in Furstenburg during the war one could see the smoke from the crematorium chimney rising clearly across the lake. The ashes of the victims were sold to the local farmers as fertilizer. Siemens Electronics built a factory next to the camp to take advantage of the free labor. Nearly everyone in Germany was complicit, whether enthusiastically, passively, or under duress.
From our extraordinary guides we have received an intensive course in the causes and progression of Nazi rule and terror. But despite my deepened understanding of the history, and I have learned a great deal, my mind still rebels against the outcome, still demands that it can not be. Yet here in Germany, it was.
This evening we ate dinner in the youth hostel just outside the memorial. Ravensbruck was a women’s concentration camp, and the youth hostel occupies the houses where the female guards once lived. We are here to take part in the annual Liberation Day ceremonies. Joining us at dinner were elderly survivors of the camp and their families, from Poland, France, Germany and elsewhere. Following dinner we walked across the huge site of the former camp to one of the few remaining buildings. It is the former textile factory in which the prisoners worked. There we joined several hundred people for a concert by Ars Choralis, the Ulster County Chorus who provided the incentive for our trip. Perhaps some beautiful music could cleanse some of the dreadful energy from this place. Perhaps profound good intention and skilled musicianship could offer some small redemption to this hell on earth. The Mendelssohn Concerto in A Minor uplifted the room. An excerpt from Leonard Bernstein’s Mass moved me deeply. The Choir’s prayerful and heartfelt songs paid homage to the survivors and to the victims of this camp.
Until tonight I had felt too overwhelmed to write to you about my experiences thus far during this trip. But as the chorus and orchestra played the last notes of a Chopin Etude tonight, I felt my own words returning in this small way that I share with you now. Ars Choralis’ music somehow strengthened me or cleansed me or harmonized within me. I am very grateful.
This has been a painful but invaluable pilgrimage. I left for Europe during Passover, and my mind has been filled with analogies between Pharaoh’s dehumanizing, murderous treatment of the Hebrew slaves and the Nazis’ systematic dehumanization, enslavement and extermination of Jews and millions of others in our own time. The story of Passover has much to teach us about the dynamics of human oppression and repression. I will return to Woodstock on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, and this tour has certainly been the most visceral and intensive remembrance of the Holocaust that I have ever experienced. If all goes well, I will be at the WJC this Tuesday evening for the Ulster County Yom HaShoah commemoration. I have much more to share and look forward to offering a fuller report in the weeks to come.
L’hitraot (see you soon) and Shalom,