“What was the best living history program you ever saw?”
It is a question that is regularly asked of me and one that has many answers as there are many “ best” living history programs I have witnessed that meet different criteria, however, the most memorable and influencing occurred 45 years ago this June.
Father had been sent by the NPS to Europe for a year of research and contact initiation in preparation for the American Revolution bicentennial. Recognizing that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity for the family he paid for my mother, brother and myself to accompany him. Additionally he hired me to be his official runner and set up person, making contacts and appointments as well as hotel arrangements for the family. Part of this ‘job’ included the use of a bicycle or motorbike (depending on the country and availability), a modest travel account, and camera.
In other words, Father was insane enough to set his eldest son lose on Europe.
In my travels I was able to visit numerous cultural and historic sites and museums sans the accompaniment of my younger sibling and my mother. Through the months I established a pattern where I could accomplish my assigned tasks and then visit these wonders with my own tastes being met. Early on I decided I would explore and research the sites where many of our relatives lived, and died. This involved visiting numerous concentration camps and way stations.
The list began to increase; Dachau, Essen, Salza-Thuringe, Dora-Mittelbau, Ravenssbruch, Natzweiler-Struthof, Berga, Belsen, Westerbork, Amersfort, Vaght, Budenwald, Ellrich, … At each my anger mounted, my frustrations grew, and my thoughts turned dark in wondering how anyone, any government, any peoples could initiate and conduct the inexcusable actions that occurred during the Holocaust. Augmenting this were trips to war torn towns, battlefields, Anne Frank’s home, and numerous villages were the local museums and historic sites regularly displayed the debris and remains of the Second World War. It was still a recent bit of history, but 25 years before in 1970, and many locales were still rebuilding and repairing. While many historic sites and museums had been rehabilitated and refurbished, some cities and town, such as Nuremberg still showed scars and ruined streets. My reaction was upsetting. While I enjoyed many of the museums, art galleries and other classic tourist areas, each time I endeavored to find the towns of my kin, their life records, and their places of death I was angered by what had happened to them. The story was too often the same; removed between 1936 through 1944 to various relocation centers throughout Europe, better known now as concentration camps. There the records grew dim or disappeared entirely. Fifty three names haunted me at nearly every stop in my quest. Dachau had struck me especially hard as many of the names led me there. I wondered if any had been part of the early occupants when the camp was filmed and displayed by the Nazis as a “model” reeducation and relocation camp”? Had any known Jean Voste, the only black person in the camp, a citizen of Belgium? Had any survived and made the death march from Dachau to Wolfratshausen passing through,m and being photographed through a window at Gruenwald? The tensions increased with every stop at these sites.
Finally the families travels moved into Poland and we approached the area near Oswiecim-Brzezinka: Auschwitz.
Few of my kin were listed as being sent there; less than ten, all from Ansbach. I took the tour.
The aspects that are common now to so many were included, the gate, the stark buildings, barbed wire, the stories of the crematoriums, the stories of the crowed barracks, the selections, the static displays, all explained by an excellent guide. The chip on my shoulder grew larger as the tour progressed. My anger grew. How could anyone does these things? How could they do these things to MY family?
The guide, an impressive dark haired man in his 40’s continued with the group until we reached a field on the far end of the camp and there he stopped.
The place where we stood was a flattened area covered on flowers. Nothing spectacular was noted, just a flat field.
Slowly the guide bent down and scooped up a handful of nondescript soil.
“ Do you know what this is?” he inquired. No one spoke.
“It is Utopia. It is the bone remains of over 180,000 people.” There was a distinct intake of breath from the tour group.
Slowly he let the handful of material sift through his hand and fall to the ground. “It is the bone remains of thousands of people and as I watch it fall I can not tell you if it is the bones of a German, a Austrian, a Pole, a Hungarian, a Romani, a Protestant, a Catholic, an agnostic, or a Jew. I can not tell you if it is a male, female, old man, mother, or a young child. I can not tell you if it is a political prisoner, or an undesirable, or just someone who was caught up in the wrong place at the wrong time. They are all as one, blended together as one people, one entity, one soul. It is Utopia. As a boy when I was between the ages of fifteen and sixteen it was my job to grind up the bone remains from the crematorium and bring them here.” At this point he raised his sleeve and displayed the tattooed number on his arm.
“Here is where I realized that God existed because he made us all one people. It is my favorite spot in the camps. It is Utopia.”
Smiling, he left. There was not a dry eye or face in our group. Many knelt and touched the ground and the flowers. Some had their arms around each other. Oddly, I do not remember anyone taking any soil, or a flower, or a photograph; it just seemed out of place.
As I walked away I realized that the chip, the dark heavy angry chip on my shoulder was gone. I realized I had been searching for my kin with the wrong purpose: anger and hatred. I recognized that I needed to celebrate their lives, their bravery, their foibles, and even their suffering and deaths. They were all one with the world, held together with so many others on many fields and death camps mixed with the people, all the peoples of Europe. It changed how I searched for them from that moment on.
That, is the most moving and influential “living history” moment I have ever had; having a tour and hearing the accounts, and emotions of someone who was part of and witnessed the Holocaust.