I live in a small village in Bavaria. It’s peaceful and beautiful here, and I love it.
Not far from my house, however, are dark reminders of a turbulent and troubling past. Flossenbürg concentration camp is a twenty-minute drive away. Memorial Day 2021, my husband and I visited the camp but there was so much to see and take in that we decided to do it again.
So we took another walk through the Valley of Death on this Memorial Day.
The Valley of Death
The site is laid out to resemble a Christian Stations of the Cross, and begins at the crematorium where dead prisoners were first harvested for the gold in their teeth or anything else deemed valuable by the SS and then stacked like firewood awaiting the ovens.
As I walked across this swath of land, passing graves and memorials, I was struck by the beauty of the surroundings and the feeling of reverence that pervaded the area. In the center, is the Pyramid of Ashes, built from the charred remnants of former inmates to stand as a witness that they are not forgotten.
Further along is the Square of Nations, two rows of grave markers representing the different nationalities of fallen prisoners. And—in at least one case—those who fought to free them. One of the markers is dedicated in memory of two unknown American pilots killed while fighting for the liberation of oppressed nations.
Two chapels, side by side
At the far end of the Valley of Death, the Catholic chapel rises to meet the sky. It’s a solemn edifice, constructed with stones from the demolished guard towers. Next to it, a small and simple Jewish chapel sits beneath the spreading branches of birch and oak.
Both years, when I’ve visited this chapel on Memorial Day, I’ve found a single nest filled with a mama bird and several silent babies. They peer at us from their high, protected ledge but make no noise, as if preserving the peace of the monument and its message of hope and refuge.
Beneath the chapels is a stone wall with three bronze plaques. The central plaque is dedicated to the memory of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor who never flagged in defending freedom and human dignity and was hanged for it at Flossenbürg about a month before the camp was liberated.
On the left, hangs a plaque in honor of the 90th US Infantry Division which liberated Flossenbürg concentration camp on April 23, 1945. And to the right, an acknowledgement in gratitude to the 97th Infantry Division of the USA 3rd Army.
A fitting way to spend the day
We were fortunate to meet a wonderful tour guide who took us on a short hike up to the quarry where prisoners were forced to mine granite stone to supply the voracious building demands of the Third Reich.
Here, inmates were worked literally to death and then discarded. Conditions were hazardous, the labor difficult, and it continued day after brutal day.
It is still a working quarry today, though now there are large machines to do the work and safety measures in place. It’s strange to see ordinary houses on the hill overlooking the camp where the barracks used to sit. A residential road runs right through the camp on its way up the hill to those houses.
How strange would it feel to drive through a concentration camp on your way home and to see it out your window every day?
It’s an amazing world we live in, full of the wonderful and the horrendous. Often side by side. The wheat and the tares.
All in all, visiting the camp at Flossenbürg seemed a fitting way to spend the day and I’m grateful we had the opportunity to do it.
How about you? Have you been to a concentration camp or a Holocaust museum? Tell us about it in the comments.