From the group photo taken at the end of our tour, it’s hard to tell the Americans from the Germans, in the parking lot before we got on the bus and they went back to work.
What happened that day at Bergen-Belsen Gedenkstatte, the memorial grounds of the concentration camp 63 miles south of Hamburg, where, after their arrest by Dutch police, Anne Frank and her sister Margot succumbed to state-sponsored murder by the government of Germany; what happened to me that July day, and what stayed with me throughout our Holocaust and Jewish Resistance Program teacher trip visits to the ghetto fighters memorial and the abandoned Jewish cemetery in Warsaw, to Schindler’s factory and the empty chairs memorial square in Krakow, to the death camps called Majdanek, Belzec, Auschwitz, Birkenau, and Treblinka, and what came home with me to stay is that my definition of “here” changed.
It had become a common question for students in a class that considers the Holocaust and I was used to it.
“Mr. Shroyer, do you think something like that could happen here?”
And before that summer day at Bergen Belsen, I’d say something like, “Well, I suppose it could, but I don’t really think so. Our democratic institutions, the checks and balances built into our system of federal government, the separation of church and state and then there’s the power of the state and local governments that would stand in the way of something like that, and the world, don’t you think, the world has learned its lesson.” I’d say that to my class because one of the things we have to do as teachers is give our students a measure of hope beyond the despair that goes with the awful realization of the Holocaust; that’s what they tell us at the Holocaust museum in D.C. and at other Holocaust teacher training workshops, and it seems like the right thing to do, anyway, without anyone telling me it’s the right thing to do, and of course I like to believe it’s true, just like you, that the world has learned its lesson and then I say,
“And besides that, the good people of the United States of America would never allow something like that to happen here.”
But that day, in Bergen-Belsen, where Anne Frank was slowly murdered, along with her sister Margot, and 50,000 others whose names we do not know, I met some of the good people of Germany who say that they would never let something like that happen, again.
That day, I looked inside the concrete foundations of disappeared wooden barracks where spoons and buttons still ooze upward from their graves into the daylight. Then, I looked away, at the grass, and at the trees, and I bit my lip when I looked at the sky.
‘I’m really “here,” at Bergen Belsen, in Germany. This is what they saw,’ and it dawned on me, that ‘it looks like home.’ The trees are green and the sky is blue.
That faraway place where terrible things happened, that some other place in some other time was now here.
As I recall, what happened in that moment at Bergen-Belsen was that my definition of “here” changed.
‘What is “here” anyway? My house, my street, my town, my state, my country? And at the border of which of those does “there” begin?’
From now on, if someone asks me if the Holocaust could happen here, I knew that from having stood on that ground, that my answer would have to be, “It did. It did happen here.”
And from that point on, I’d tell my class about what this American had learned from his German teachers at Bergen Belsen.
Our guides were teachers, too, but not in New Carlisle, or Tulsa, Oklahoma. They were teachers in the schools of their nearby towns, and guiding people through the horror of what happened here was for some of them, a summer job. After we toured the grounds in small groups and after we looked at the textbooks Germans use when they teach the Holocaust, we gathered in a conference room, all of us, and them, together.
“Our fathers, grandfathers were perpetrators,” Bergen Belsen State Memorial guide Carola Rudnick told us, and them. “The younger generation is not to blame. But”, she continued, “they have a great responsibility to acknowledge and to teach.”
“It did happen here,” I tell my class. There became here.
“And for tomorrow, class,” I might say, “could you be ready to tell me a little something about the words ‘us’ and ‘them.’”
Music: Man in the Mirror - James Morrison