Once, this one encountered a German woman, call her Else, at a drab hotel along the southeastern seaboard. She had gone to great lengths to visit Buchenwald many times over the years, possibly in a quest to understand her father. On one of her recent visits, she'd noticed that the main set of steps in the work site had been changed. Buchenwald executed directly, but Buchenwald was also a labor camp; like all prison systems, it provided a lot of cheap labor to a belligerent republic.
Primo Levi writes of his long labors in Auschwitz; of the deaths from starvation, exposure, disease, and guard, but there is no major worldwide work on Buchenwald, which is usually remembered only amidst the rhubarbing of a Spielberg movie, the angry shower-room analysis of a Holocaust denier, or the battle-plan trivia of post-D-Day buffs.
Inmates at Buchenwald did hard labor up and down the camp's emblematic steps, carrying heavy loads up from a quarry. These stairs in their original form, as built by early industrial lords and improved upon by the Nazi construction bosses, were a terror: tall steps of stone brought to corners so firm and sharp they were jagged; narrow footing; great elevation changes between each level. Towering stories high, fenced in on three sides, the stairs gave inmates a way to carry seventy-pound loads of shale between mud-choked sluices that regularly overfilled onto the steps in the rain.
On a recent visit to Buchenwald, Else noticed that the steps had been improved: upgraded, for safety reasons, so that, in the words of curators, young and elderly visitors taking pictures at the site--during designated visiting hours on clear days, after the groundskeepers had tidied the concentration camp up for the public--would have a more pleasant, safe experience.
Covering much more space, with low elevation changes, broad footing on each step, smoothed edges, and many handrails, the steps were no longer a danger to tourists. As they made their way to pictorial renditions of Nazi evils and wall-pictures of ghettos and gas chambers, visitors would not need to worry about slipping on the steps and hitting their jagged edges.
When the few--very, very, pitifully few, even in Germany--squeaks of protest about the change have been still more buried over by history than they are now, an even smaller percentage of the planet will be aware of the gloss that has been applied to the camp. It's just a flight of stairs, after all.
At Buchenwald, how many Jews, gays, communists, gypsies, contrary academics and unlucky little kids fell under the weight of their loads, carrying 70lbs. of shale at 6AM in winter while impatient guards with machine guns looked on? How many missed a step, jostled someone else over, tumbled forward, and snapped multiple bones on the edges of those steps on their way to the bottom? How many died right there, crushed by their load, their skulls or necks split immediately on impact? How many were rushed off, broken and catatonic, for onsite medical experiments or a bit of fun before they perished? How many children or elders struggling to brace their loads looked upon those steps with the greatest terror of their days?
How many broke just one limb, struggled to the end of that day's work shift, then lay on a slab to die of infection? How many merely spent that last night thinking about how people who couldn't work any longer disappeared when the guards discovered snapped ankles in the morning? As Else marveled after that visit, "Those stairs were killing machines."
Buchenwald's steps, in a Germany, and a west, that can't get enough of describing how evil the Nazis were--even those steps have to be sanitized. It's good to guide people toward hating blatant acts of death, but it's a different matter entirely to allow them to remember that not every cruelty is a machine designed just for cruelty, with a sticker on it reading Evil Machine - Use Only For Creating Mass Terror.
How many fell on the steps? The number is lost to history, buried behind silly mustaches and giant robots.
How many such stairways have we forgotten entirely? How many innocent killing machines, as innocuous as a flight of stairs, are buried in plain sight?