As I feared, this second semester of my exchange is flying by way too fast. This is one of those times in my life where I just want to be able to pause the clock and hold on to all of the wonderful things happening to me – really soak it in and enjoy the places and the people. But because I’m not Hermione and I don’t own a time turner (or any other time changing or stopping device) my 2 hours of travel time each day have to be enough to think about just how wonderful this experience is. I have a true love-hate relationship with that time on the tram to and from school – sometimes it’s simply too boring and at other points it’s really a good opportunity to appreciate it all. Just about every aspect of everything in my life is more than perfect and I can’t help but smile my way through everyday, sometimes mouthing the words to particularly happy songs on my way to and from school (the people in the tram all think I’m crazy but that’s never been a big worry of mine.)
At the beginning of March I got to meet up with all my wonderful ASSE friends and we had a great time together in Weimar. What used to be a city full of smog and smoke and DDR block buildings has been transformed into a really beautiful city in the last 15 years or so. We got to visit the houses of the esteemed Goethe and Schiller, as well as the original “Bauhaus” – the model for today’s modern houses. At the Bauhaus Museum we were able to see many of the prototypes of simple things we use every day, tables and chairs for example! It felt really cool to be in a city with so much culture regarding writing and architecture!
As interesting as these places were, the best part of Weimar was, of course, the people. I know it’s probably rather uninteresting to hear about how much I appreciate all of the other exchange students in my group, but I can’t say it enough. Seeing old friends from DC and Language Camp, as well as finally getting the chance to get to know some of those I hadn’t met yet was great. I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that they are some of the best people I’ve come across so far in my life. We all relate to each other so well and can talk endlessly. We filled the week with sand volleyball, exploring Weimar, talking, eating too much pizza, ice cream, and döner and enjoying the American atmosphere and each others company. There is something to be said for being with a large group of Americans in a different country. If I were at home with a large group of friends it would just be another day but after months of almost only German company, being with kids that share your own language, nationality, and have similar personalities is an incredible feeling and a huge portion of the exchange experience. Just the fact that I don’t have to second guess my sentence as it comes flying out of my mouth feels wonderful. No more double checking the grammar and phrasing and pronunciation, and no more making horrible mistakes. It’s hard to explain, but transitioning from German to American company is like letting a really deep breath out. I’m more myself with them. I don’t notice myself change at all when I’m with Germans, but in American company I notice myself slipping back into a more comfortable and confident state of mind. Plus, I’m finally able to understand every single joke. It doesn’t get any better than that.
So up until this point in the post, I’ve just focused on the positive. Unfortunately, it would be completely inappropriate to skip over the negative in this situation. The Germans have a lot to be proud of in Weimar, but just a short bus ride away from the city lies Buchenwald, one of the first concentration camps that was built during the Holocaust. This was the second concentration camp I’d been to so far but even though it was 400 kilometers from the other, the atmosphere and the air felt identical. As we neared the bus stop, the noise level dropped and a feeling of respect fell over our generally loud group of Americans. A pit grew in my stomach, almost comparable to nausea. The horrible deeds that were done there may have happened almost 70 years ago, but a sickening feeling hung over me as I walked across the landscape. It’s built on a hill, making the temperature much colder than the surrounding area. It’s a chill that you can’t imagine going away, and the snowy winters for the prisoners who were dressed only in thin garments isn’t something you want to think about too much. On the gate to the camp stands the saying “Jedem das seine.” This translates to “To each his one” and the cynicism of such a statement was a slap in the face to the prisoners and their basic rights as humans.
Most of the buildings were destroyed shortly after the war, but the crematorium is still standing. Looking at the huge ovens used to dispose of the innocent prisoners’ bodies sent chills down my arms, and made the pit in my stomach even larger. One of the many sickening facts of this hell was that the Nazis would sell the ashes of prisoners back to their families – as if the right to the remains of their relatives was something to be bought, not simply deserved. This really hit home to to me, such dehumanization is unbelievable. In the middle of the ovens, stands a small collection of drawings, poems, and letters from German children that are younger than I am. These kids are apologizing for what they’re country and relatives did long before they were born; it is both touching and heart breaking. As I walked through all of this, thinking about it all, I didn’t cry. I just felt incredibly, incredibly empty.
Seeing the place of the crime(s) – where Nazis tore families apart and ruined and ended thousands upon thousands of innocent people’s lives is by no means a happy experience, but I do believe it is a necessary one. Both for Germans and others alike; out of respect for the people tortured there, as well as out of respect for the future of the world. I think that if we are aware of what happened, and let ourselves realize and think about all the harm it did and how extreme it was, it will be easier to prevent such a thing from ever happening again. If we don’t learn from history, it’s bound to repeat itself. If you ever have the chance to go to a camp, do it.
So, back to the positives!
Saying goodbye to all of the Americans was a little tough (I don’t want to think about June at all) but I was able to slip right back into life here in “real Germany” really easily. I feel so at home with my class, my friends, and my host family and I don’t want this to end!
Last weekend my host parents surprised me with the news of a trip to Paris during Spring Break and I am so so excited! Paris in April is going to be beautiful! I’m also still looking forward to a Hamburg visit, a trip to Cologne, the Berlin trip, the Prague trip, and of course a crazy Europe adventure with my wonderful Mommy!
Until next time!