It was almost an afterthought, as we parted with a newfound friend, the director of the Second Cavalry’s museum in Vilseck, Germany: “Long as you’re headed that way, you could go through Flossenbürg,” he said. “Yes, you can walk it in a half hour or so….” chimed in his colleague.
Good enough, we thought, and off we trundled on the next leg of our Czech Republic epic, motoring through the rolling hills where Western Bohemia melds with Austrian Bavaria. Distracted by the scenery, we almost missed it–nothing but a nondescript gravel lot, crowded on either side by restaurants and not much to see–just a modern-enough, grey blocky building set well back from the road.
If your mind was in the past, you’d think it was an old school building with its central passage and rows of windows. Were you more attuned to the present, it might be the “first up” building in a new office complex in some trendy suburb. Either way, it was scarcely stunning and as we crunched across the gravel I thought the half-hour estimate to be overblown by about 20 minutes.
A few interpretive signs within the breezeway confirmed what we’d been told: this was in fact once a Nazi concentration camp, and the building above us had once been the SS-staffed headquarters of the camp. The site map seemed to show mostly nothing–most of the camp has long-since disappeared, with only a couple spartan whitewashed buildings a football field away. But, we had our half hour, and we might as well walk over.
So, bright sunny spring day, crunch once more across acres of gravel, and into the whitewashed building you go–the old camp laundry and “shower” where inmates were processed. Yes, an info desk to the left; many displays crisply laid out spreading the length of this 80 meter long (more or less) building.
And somewhere within that 80 meters, if you have eyes to see and the slightest shred of a soul, your allotted-half-hour will be forgotten as you awake to hell on earth.
Those of my generation grew up with the history of Hitler’s death camps; I remember too well one of those times that my parents shared with me something that was beyond my years as a child–in one such instance, my mother (who joined dad in Germany in 1946 as he served in the postwar Constabulary) told me of looking into the gas chambers of one such camp, only months after the “showers” last hissed their death en masse. There was a chill in her warm mother’s voice that unsettled me then, and unsettles me now.
But hearing history is one thing; walking it, quite another. Flossenbürg, I learn, was created first as a work camp, where inmates quarried granite to build the Reich’s buildings–such as the SS headquarters we walked beneath. And it’s easy to think of those who labored as a homogeneous workforce–a moving landscape of striped humans, chinking and clinking and chafing raw rock into building blocks, then sending them on their way.
Only later did the camp devolve in step with Nazi psychosis to become what it became. And as I walked within that 80-meter building, I saw the brilliance of those who were determined to never forget Flossenbürg, that this may happen never again. Suddenly, my mental image of an undifferentiated horde of laborers blurred, then one by one, each became distinct….
The faces, the eyes; the words, the stories. Now, the striped shapes were humanized; individualized; atomized–each became a sole soul, as am I: a human, unique, differentiated; aspiring, hoping, loving, hating, despairing…. Blur of stripes became faces of man, woman, boy, child, baby…. Most would die; few would live.
Each striped figure lost their name and gained a number, yet the meticulous Nazis meticulously recorded the names taken, so that 71 years later, they may be known again in black and white, and listed that they might not be forgotten:
And now the numbers slowly approach my comprehension:
Name upon name, one at a time;
the indistinct mass of stripes
becomes each, a furrowed brow…
perhaps hope briefly gleamed…
yet always, ultimately
So. The striped masses humanized and quantified, I horrified lurched outside to the broad, empty yard; pristine now in the May sun, wanting to get away from those images, from those faces of people too much like me. Happily, a quiet chapel beckoned from a quiet, green corner a little ways off; surely a moment there might soften the instant memory of what I had just seen.
And so it seemed–indeed, it was pleasing to learn that this small house of God had been among the first efforts to know and memorialize the horror of Flossenburg. Fittingly, the architect had built the chapel so that it blended in with an old guard tower–perhaps symbolizing the failure of too many Christians to stand early against the evil that later sprouted such towers; perhaps to show that out of evil grows hope, and the promise of Redemption.
Yet as I gazed at it, a haunting swale pulled my eyes to the right in the hushed, bird-song quiet here in the back forty of Flossenburg….
Gwenn and I having wandered in separate ways, there was no reason not to wander down and see…so I did, and so I saw graved in granite the horror redux–as the undifferentiated mass of stripes had become individualized, now it became nationalized as each of too many nations recalled their wounds:
Row upon row; slab upon slab, line upon line, nations across the globe had suffered loss; their citizens had been enslaved, humiliated, tortured, murdered and ultimately:
Being a small camp, there was but one oven. A busy oven. An oven carefully stoked and tended. I noted the draft vents, and wondered at the man who once stood there, sweating, knowing no doubt just how many turns of the vent it took to get the flames just right; the right pitch of flame, to efficaciously dispose of the trash tossed out by the Nazis that day….
Surely, I thought, this would be the end of it….
For a few steps away,
the next room over;
so it drained toward the hole…
The drain hole in the stone table.
It is exactly what it seems to be.
Sickened; sick at heart; for once in my life utterly convinced that there is no bottom to man’s capacity for depravity, I left this charnel house, fled these thoughts charnel and dissected; I slow-marched out of this valley of death over which lay the silence of 55,000 lambs slaughtered….
slaughtered in this Valley of Death.
And only then, as wife and I rejoined our walk and wandered
into one of the few standing fragments
of a camp long dead did I read,
that we stood where Dietrich Bonhoeffer had stood,
hung until dead.
A few steps to the left, the jail block within which a cell; one that Dietrich knew too well.
Of course, as an Evangelical, I knew the outlines of his story;
(yes, I will get to reading the book!)
but the outlines had never informed me
that even as Dietrich Bonhoeffer had died,
did 54,999 others.
Each no less unique
In God’s image.
In His image they were created,
and in man’s hell, they died.
I was stricken with this thought–that I had somehow put weight on one martyr’s death, while being ignorant of so many like me who suffered and died. Weight of horror; sadness deep–we crossed once more the crunching gravel quadrant.
I sat in our rental car
Mercifully, we know this: The Americans came–liberators, and captives were set free….
These liberators were not content to free the captives, but rather rounded up the tacit captors, those who had lived their “normal” village lives next to the reeking camp, and invited them to see what they missed–
Having seen, they began what the Americans demanded: retrieving from the hasty graves and mortal piles the remains of those unburnt. Wagon upon wagon, body upon body, the locals slowly buried within the town square those they’d spurned in life–extending in death the shred of decency they’d denied in life.
Today, most of what was once here is gone…
Yet all of what happened is not lost to eternity, nor I pray, to our memory
For if we lose the memory–the reality–and the ever-awareness that a sophisticated, reasoned, post-religious,