Is Germany Really Honoring the Memory of the Holocaust?
In one episode of the TV show Band of Brothers, the liberation of a concentration camp is intensely portrayed. The camp in question was situated just outside the town of Landsberg am Lech, along with another 10 concentration camps. These 11 camps, called Kaufering I-XI, were built to house slave laborers — mostly Jews from all of Europe — who were forced to build several underground bunkers for airplane factories. Living conditions were considered among the worst of all slave labor camps, with one survivor claiming that it was worse than Auschwitz (he had spent time there, as well). This gives us a glimpse into the hell that it was.
I went to visit what was left of the 11 Kaufering concentration camps, along with the equally numerous mass graves containing camp victims. To my disbelief, even with maps, exact GPS coordinates, and a reasonable sense of my whereabouts, lots of time was often needed in order to find these sites. Directions are sometimes non-existent, and once a camp site is reached, there are often no indications at all that it was part of the worst crime in history.
On one camp ground, Kaufering VI, family villas have been built — with a McDonald’s conveniently nearby. Other camp grounds now have houses, small garden allotments, forests or agricultural fields. Having food grown on the place of a concentration camp seems, well, awkward.
Next to one camp site, Kaufering IV, and a nearby mass grave, a hunting tower resembling a camp guard tower has been built overlooking both the mass grave and the camp site. To me, this is rather disturbing.
Entering the nearby town of Landsberg am Lech, I realize that it is anything but hellish, deserted, or depressive. On the contrary, it looks like a postcard of an old Bavarian small town. It is all very jolly and traditional. One would say very traditional; the town has a plaque centrally placed telling us to remember missing German soldiers and the ones taken prisoner during World War II.
Thouogh the people there do know what happened in and around this town, its history and its surrounding camps seem like air; you know it is there, but you don’t see it.
But then again, what should be done with these camp grounds? Using the grounds for more pragmatic purposes is clearly an option to many city planners. Furthermore, some — quite many, actually — argue that it is time to get over the war and think of more practical things in life. The perpetrators are mostly gone, and it was a long time ago.
Regarding the surviving victims, they are now at least in their 70s. Even though they get fewer and fewer as time passes on, studies have shown that the children of these survivors are also often victims and scarred for life by their parents’ trauma. These people cannot forget, nor should they have to. Nor should anyone else forget, lest we want to risk this again in the future.
Furthermore, for the Jews who did not experience the Holocaust, the very knowledge that their brethren were left alone with little place to escape in a sea of perpetrators supported by a silent mass, causes an unseen and vague mix of anger and fear even today.
Consequently, the number of people who will not forget are plenty, and Germany shall probably have to live with this situation for generations to come. Even though Germany is today considered as one of Israel’s best friends, two ministers in the present Israeli government refuse to visit Germany for historical reasons. It should also be mentioned that Holocaust education is part of the curriculum in German schools, and more so than in most other countries (save for Israel).
Still, Germans travelling in Israel may notice that locals — especially older Israelis — look at them strangely when they hear German spoken. Say what you want, but to many people Germany will remain associated with its darkest of periods for a long time to come.
I wonder if the “discretion” of its past helps life in Landsberg am Lech move on, or if it simply angers outsiders who already have a problem forgiving Germans. Possibly both.
On the one hand, our rational conscience tells most of us that children of perpetrators should not be held accountable for their parents’ individual deeds. On the other hand, it took quite a culture to perpetrate the Holocaust — and culture is not easily changed from one generation to the next. Victims and their descendants will go on asking how much this culture has changed today, no matter what Germans themselves will claim.
Having visited Landsberg am Lech, as well as its surrounding Kaufering concentration camps, I am highly ambivalent to what I have experienced. Whereas some locals work hard to keep history alive, there is still a permeating feeling in Landsberg am Lech that life should move on and that history belongs to, well, history. How else to explain that some hunt, walk their dogs, play with their children, tend their gardens, and barbecue on concentration camp grounds — thus somehow mixing peaceful beauty with murder?
And what about the bunkers built for the Luftwaffe airplane factories and for which the Kaufering concentration camps inmates slave-labored until death? Did they disappear as well? Well, one of them continues to be used by the Luftwaffe (as the German air force is still called) for repairing planes.