WEIMAR - Barack Obama looked over the ruins of Buchenwald on Friday and said of the concentration camp's inmates: "They could not have known how the nation of Israel would rise out of the destruction of the Holocaust."
The U.S. president's visit to Buchenwald was widely interpreted as a direct continuation of the "reconciliation" address he delivered in Cairo just 24 hours before, a kind of counterweight to his "salaam alaykum" speech intended to pacify Israel and its supporters in America, and refute the claim that the president had compared the suffering of the Holocaust to that of the Palestinians.
The Buchenwald visit is also widely seen as an attempt to convince the Arab and Muslim worlds that reconciliation between them and the West obligates them to recognize that Nazi persecution, and the Holocaust in particular, figure centrally in the West's moral constellation. To that end, Obama again condemned Holocaust denial, distressingly common in the Arab world.
Buchenwald was erected in 1937, and by the end of World War II at least 56,000 and up to 250,000 inmates were killed there - roughly a quarter of all those who passed through its gates - including at least 11,000 Jews. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel, who accompanied the president on the tour, was among the 4,000 inmates whose lives were spared when the camp was liberated by American troops in 1945.
Within touching distance, when not reading polished sentences from the teleprompter but simply "speaking," Obama is even more impressive, trustworthy and charismatic than he appears on television. Instead of the frozen gloom typical of state memorial ceremonies, he exuded casual contemplation. For over an hour he walked through the camp's remains, his hands in his pockets or crossed over his chest, listening to stories told by Wiesel and the other two survivors accompanying them.
The president also visited the "little camp" or "Jewish camp" as it was once known, where Wiesel was also held and where the infamous photograph of Wiesel and his emaciated fellow inmates was taken. Obama learned that those prisoners who staked a claim to one of the horse stables were the lucky ones - those less lucky were forced to share space on the filthy floor with the deceased. Half the prisoners held there were eventually sent to death camps.
Obama had originally intended only to visit Buchenwald, but at the behest of German Chancellor Angela Merkel he extended his stay to include a visit to the city of Dresden, bombed extensively by the Allies and to this day a symbol of German wartime suffering.
In her remarks at Buchenwald, Merkel referred to those Germans imprisoned at the camp by the Soviets after the war had ended, most of them suspected of Nazi activity.
Volkhard Knigge, head of the Buchenwald Memorial, said that during communist rule in East Germany, students learned about the terrors of Nazi oppression, but very little about the destruction of the Jews. Merkel agreed. "In school we hardly learned anything about it," she told Haaretz, using the Hebrew term "Shoah," as she often does. When asked how she eventually learned of the Holocaust, she replied that her parents had told her. "They were wise people," she said.
As we left the crematoria, Obama appeared to be shaken. He spoke of the humanistic lessons to be learned from the Nazi tyranny and attempted genocide of the Jews. In addition to anti-Semitism, he mentioned other manifestations of hatred which must be confronted - xenophobia and homophobia, to name a few.
Wiesel was not scheduled to speak, but toward the end of the president's remarks he turned to him and asked to do just that. The aging survivor spoke of his pain at seeing that the world had yet to learn the lessons of the Holocaust, and made an emotional plea to Obama to forge peace in the Middle East.
He spoke of his memories as a 16-year-old inmate imprisoned alongside his father, who was growing weaker by the day. When his father asked for water, no one responded. Wiesel said he didn't dare fetch his father water for fear of being attacked by the other inmates. His father died several days later. "I was there but I wasn't there," Wiesel said.
'I was powerless'
Twenty-one years ago, Daniel Gaede, now director of educational activity at Buchenwald, was a 22-year-old living in Israel as a volunteer at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Authority. Like many Lutheran youth he was involved in peace activities between Israelis and Arabs and between Jews and Christians. His brother Christoph, then 19, had come to visit, and together they embarked on a visit to the West Bank city of Nablus.
During a stop in the trip, a Palestinian terrorist had planted an explosive on the bus. Gaede's brother and a female volunteer were killed, and six others were injured. "I knew exactly what needed to be done to save my brother, but in the hospital in Nablus, they couldn't help him. I was totally powerless," he said. Gaede himself lost his left eye, and his right eye remains severely damaged.
Several years ago, Gaede told Palestinian students visiting Buchenwald from the Gaza Strip city of Rafah that to truly understand the pain of the other, they must learn to stop saying the word "but." He said the students would claim it's true the Jews suffered, "but" today it's they, the Palestinians, who suffer.
Gaede tried to convince them to replace the word "but" with "and": The Jews suffered, and the Palestinians suffer. The ability to respect the tragedies of others without ranking them is one of the primary educational goals he set for himself when he began working at Buchenwald 15 years ago.
Close to 600,000 visitors arrive at the camp annually, the majority of them German students.
The main message Gaede seeks to impart to them is not to construct their lives at the expense of others. It seems the U.S. president expressed something similar in his own remarks.
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