The Nazis didn’t discriminate at Buchenwald. They forcibly “welcomed” Jews, Poles, homosexuals, people with disabilities, the mentally ill, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Poles, Slavs, POWs, people born with birth defects… the list goes on. Prisoners worked mostly as forced labor in armament factories. More than 50,000 people died as a result of executions and hangings, widespread sadistic medical experimentation, disease and starvation. Today Buchenwald is a permanent museum and memorial, one which I am still working up the courage to visit.
My grandfather was liberated from Buchenwald in April 1945. Weighing only 100 lbs, he was stripped of more than his humanity and dignity, yet he rehabilitated emotionally and physically, and lived a full and vibrant life. Still, the demons occupied his soul, never relenting long enough for him to completely forget. What would he think of Germany’s decision to house refugees at Buchenwald’s old prisoner barracks, now equipped with carpeting, TVs and cooking facilities?
It seems appalling and insensitive at first glance. How can this place, where the flesh of thousands has been absorbed into its burning ground forever, be used to house refugees? But if this former hell, could serve a greater purpose so many years later, and redeem itself in this one small way, is it unethical? Is helping desperate displaced people in the very place that exterminated humans deemed undesirable by the Nazis, wrong?
This ethical dilemma is further complicated by reports that Syrian refugees still consider Israel to be their greatest enemy. Displaced by their own motherland and rejected by so many fellow Arab nations, many refugees still see the Jews as their enemy. And while this outrageous sentiment continues to permeate their collective consciousness, the Israeli government is actively debating whether to take in refugees – the very refugees that deny Israel’s right to exist.
The Times of Israel reports that “For Syrian refugees in Italy, Israel remains enemy #1.” Some refugees clarify that their issue is with Zionists, not necessarily with Jews. But anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are too intertwined and mincing words is pointless. Hate is hate.
When I first saw the headline announcing that Buchenwald was being used to house refugees it felt like a kick in the gut. But now I’m not so sure. What would my grandfather think? What I wouldn’t give to know…
My grandfather came to America in 1946. He had a wife, a one-year-old daughter and the proverbial shirt on his back. He was industrious and tenacious; failing was not an option. He never went back to Poland or Germany, and although he did speak of the past, he lived in the present. I suspect that he would brush off the usage of Buchenwald’s living quarters with an exclamation that “the world has gone mad.” I tend to echo that sentiment.
And while I’m truly baffled by the raging debate in Israel regarding taking in the very people who hate us, I’m proud to belong to a people who wage such debates. A people who value Tikkun Olam, humanity’s collective responsibility to heal the world.