You can still hike along old railroad tracks to the Buchenwald memorial site. It’s a beautiful part of Germany: rolling country hills, roads flanked by fruit orchards, the apple trees encrusted in white blossoms.
Despite the beauty of the morning, our three-person crew seems dispirited when we load up our gear to go back to Buchenwald for the day. As documentarians, we gravitate toward facts, the action that plays out in front of the lens. Ghosts don’t really fit in our worldview, but this place feels haunted, and we’ve all had trouble sleeping.
Buchenwald, situated over the hill, couldn’t be more different than Weimar, the bustling college town we drive through on our way to film. I wonder if this was true even through the darkest moments of WWII, and if the thrum of everyday life made it easier for the locals to ignore the trainloads of prisoners that passed on the tracks on their way to the concentration camp.
Over the hill and out of sight, the trees that surround the memorial site stand watch over a barren, rocky swath where the concentration camp used to be. Around the crematorium, one of the few buildings onsite, an acrid smell hangs in the air. The only sound, aside from the gravel underfoot, hushed conversations, and the occasional rowdy high school tour, are the songbirds. Like the groups of teenagers, they chirp away, ignoring the unwritten rule of respectful silence.
We’re here to film Paul Molnar, a Jewish Hungarian prisoner who was 14 when he was deported from Hungary to Auschwitz. Nazis killed his family at the death camp then loaded him onto a cramped boxcar. His first stop: a labor camp where he was put to work clearing rubble and rebuilding a munitions factory, which was repeatedly destroyed by American bombers. After a guard dog chewed up his leg, he was sent here to Buchenwald before ending up in Berga. Today, at 84, he returns with his family for the first time.
The passing decades play tricks on memory. Paul—whose mind is sharp, but who has difficulty walking on the uneven gravel that now covers the site between the laagers (small bunk houses where prisoners slept)—is walking between the remnants of two buildings. He swears he slept in number 85, but the records show he was in the children’s laager in a slightly different place in the camp. He pauses, and asks if I’ve noticed the sound of the songbirds.
When he was here as a child, the prisoners were governed by a group of political prisoners selected by the Nazis to enforce the brutal work regimen and keep order in the camp. He didn’t realize it at the time, but the seemingly unnecessary tasks they arranged for him (like sweeping the roof of the laager) kept him out of the Nazi guards’ sight while his leg was healing. Along with the less grueling tasks they arranged for the children, these prisoners also organized a primary school. The teachers were intellectuals who came from all over Europe, many imprisoned for being part of the resistance.
Paul recalls one lesson from the school. The goal was to educate the children about the outside world, a place many of the students could not remember. One teacher used the birds, which even then sang in the forest around the camp, as a reminder to the children that one day, like the birds, they will be free and live in the world beyond barbed wire fences.
Overall, Paul says he feels little connection to the memorial site: so much has changed. Even the crematorium with its brick chimney does not stand out in his memory. He explains that as a child prisoner, his sight was fixed on the few feet in front of him, his next moment of life. But he remembers, in vivid detail, the sound of the birds.