I don’t remember learning about the Holocaust. Words like Hitler, gas chamber, and Buchenwald were seemingly engrained in my vocabulary, not formally introduced. As a granddaughter of a survivor, the Holocaust is reflected in my family, my name, my identity. My grandpa, Sidney Finkel, has dedicated the last 20 years to telling his story, and I grew up introducing him to audiences around the country. So when he invited me to travel with him to Germany, to the concentration camp Buchenwald, where he had been imprisoned during the war, I immediately started packing my bags.
April 11, 2015 marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Buchenwald. In commemoration, the Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora Memorials Foundation (Mittelbau-Dora was a subcamp of Buchenwald) brought around 80 survivors and their families to Weimar, Germany for the week. I flew from Tel Aviv to Berlin with 15 other Israelis. On the bus to Weimar, we didn’t start conversations with questions like, “Where do you work?” but instead with, “What barrack were you in?”
We traded stories, discovered that our families were from neighboring Polish towns, and connected in a way that only Holocaust survivors and their families can. When we arrived in Weimar, we were introduced to other survivors and their families. Never before had I been in a room with Jewish survivors, former prisoners of war, and even some of the American fighter pilots who liberated them from Buchenwald.
Weimar is an enchanting little town. Between the pastel-colored buildings and the sound of horse drawn carriages against cobblestone streets, it feels frozen in time. The Hotel Elephant is in the center of town and by far the most elegant hotel I’ve stayed in. There are marble-lined walls, a spiral staircase carpeted in deep red, and a lovely balcony overlooking the town square. It also happened to have been one of Hitler’s favorite hotels—and he had that very balcony built so he could address the town. When I heard this, I felt a sense of eeriness, followed by pride, and ending with an elongated exhale—all within approximately 30 seconds. It was the first of many brief, polarizing jolts of emotion I would experience on the trip.
On Saturday, the anniversary of the liberation, we headed to Buchenwald. I had been mentally preparing myself for an overcoming wave of sadness at the camp since the day my grandpa asked me to join him. I stuffed my pockets with tissues, just in case I were to collapse and weep in the shadow of the crematorium.
What I wasn’t expecting was anger. Yet when I walked through the gate beneath those haunting words, “Jedem das Seine”—the Nazi slogan meaning “To each what he deserves”—I felt my stomach drop and my head cloud with frustration. Standing with my grandpa at the spot where he last saw his father, surrounded by the echoes of death, completely silenced me. I didn’t use a single tissue.
I finally told my grandpa how numb I felt, and he told me how he remembered the gates being so much bigger back then. Because he was a child when he lived in this hell. The gates stayed the same size, his perception changed as he grew. Staring at those same gates, my perception of his story changed as well.
For me, surviving always meant overcoming, exercising resilience and hope. Hearing his story and reading his book taught me that. But being in the place where he was robbed of a childhood forced me to confront what else his survival meant. It meant that he was a victim. Suddenly I saw survivors’ responsibilities to tell their stories and expose the consequences of bigotry as a burden.
I had never felt this resentment before, and later asked my grandpa if he ever felt that there was a responsibility thrust upon victims like him. He assured me he didn’t.
“We’ve got to go on with our lives,” he told me, “We can’t be burdened by hatred and guilt. It doesn’t mean you forget it, but you have to put it aside in order to live a normal life. So you can’t be thinking that you’re a victim. You were a victim once, but I’m not a victim anymore by any means.”
This was my grandpa’s second time visiting Buchenwald since his liberation and my first. Where he found closure, I found an opening to delve deeper into his story in order to continue his legacy. And I hope to return to Buchenwald with other third generation survivors for many commemorations to come to do just that.
Bari Finkel is a radio producer currently working for Israel Story in Tel Aviv.