A REPORT FROM GERMANY WITH THE ST. ANDREW’S ACADEMY CHOIR
Yesterday, as of this writing, the St. Andrew’s travelers went to Buchenwald, the first major death camp of the Nazis to be liberated by American troops. Sobering is the only word I have found thus far to describe it. Even in 2015, 70 years after its liberation, without the barracks standing, it is a barren and harsh place. The weather helped to make it more so, as we had grey skies, light rain, and a cold wind during our visit.
We entered through the same gates where so many thousands entered from 1939 to 1945. After our visit, we exited those same gates. The vast majority of those other thousands did not. We spent some hours walking on bloodied ground, and it was impossible not to remember and think about the inhuman suffering that took place within the barbed wire fences and sentries’ outposts. The scenes that met the American GIs when they entered the camp were so shocking that the command thought no one was likely to believe it, and ordered photographers to Buchenwald as quickly as possible to document it. Within a couple of days, the shutters were clicking.
These were the photos the travelers saw on their visit. The exhibits that St. Andrew’s students looked at were blatant in their depictions, of things like corpses stacked like wood in the courtyard of the crematorium. The photos of the prisoners who survived tell the story clearly, their bones protruding from their flesh. But viewing the photos, walking through the camp, seeing the cells where prisoners were kept and tortured, many to death, and seeing in this place the Nazis’ culture of death…well, sobering is still the only word.
The ovens in which so many were burned are still in the crematorium—a building hard to miss with its giant chimney. Any who were scheduled for burning who had the temerity of not already being dead were herded into the basement of the crematorium where they were systematically strangled. The Soviet prisoners were always treated especially harshly by the Nazis; they were shot by the thousands in Buchenwald alone—always, apparently, in the back of the neck.
From this horror, barely more than a thirty minute drive away, we found ourselves at the childhood home of Johann Sebastian Bach in Eisenach. The contrast could not have been greater: transitioning from one of the greatest horrors the world ever wrote down, to the creator of some of the most beautiful music in the world.
The Bach family was so musically gifted that well over 100 professional musicians came from their ranks within a few generations. The term musician, for a time, was almost synonymous with the name Bach. Bach’s genius is still considered by many never to have been equaled. The Bach home now houses an exhibit on the man and his family, and, of course, his and their music. Bach always considered himself to be an Eisenacher; home was always Eisenach, though he lived and composed and played in other cities for the remainder of his life.
Eisenach also happens to be the childhood home of Martin Luther. In fact, Luther and Bach attended the same school, The Latin School, as it is still known. Much work is being done currently on a house in Eisenach which Martin Luther lived in for a time, to get it ready for 2017, the 500 year anniversary of his nailing up the proposed 95 theses on Wittenberg’s church door. A visit up to the grand Castle Wartburg on the very high hill on one end of town showed the students the room where Luther translated part of the New Testament into German.
The contrast of this day in Germany is startling, but is it just the Germans who can or do give us such extremes of evil and beauty—both Buchenwald and Bach—and within half an hour’s car drive? I think not. The beauty of Bach is the beauty of creation and the grace of God in His creation, and that beauty is a gift to all of us. Similarly, the horrors of Buchenwald are for all of us to own, not just the Germans. Man is capable of great evil, and of great goodness and beauty.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn says it well:
If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart? (The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956)