The following offers a recap, an update and another perspective to the Waldsee issue previously discussed in this blog 3/25/3019 by George Dalbo under the title “More than a name… .  The current author discovered the history of the Waldsee name and has remained actively engaged in the Concordia Language Village response.

“We learned that our journey’s end was a place named Waldsee. When I was thirsty or hot, the promise contained in that name immediately invigorated me.”

Trains to Waldsee

This excerpt from Fatelessness by the Hungarian Jewish author Imre Kertesz, holocaust survivor and winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Literature, does not reveal the awful truth of where the train would take him.  “Waldsee”,  “Forest Lake” in English, was the name used by the German SS to ensure smooth transport of 440,000 Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz – Birkenau between May 15 and July 9, 1944.  This was nearly half the total number of Jews murdered at the extermination camp. “Where are we going?” fearful passengers might have asked as they were pressed into train cars. “To Waldsee” came the soothing response. Once arrived, Hungarian Jews were forced to write postcards to their families back home, reassuring them of safe arrival.

Postcards from the edge

“My dearest ones, I feel fine. Hopefully you are all healthy. Please send an answer by postcard. When I’m healthy, I think of you a lot. “ So wrote Agnes Bamberger to her family in Budapest. Perpetuating the fiction, the card was stamped with a specially manufactured postmark, “Waldsee”.  Agnes Bamberger was murdered in a gas chamber at Auschwitz. Her family’s address was noted and passed along for the next transport.

At the other Waldsee, the German language camp in Bemidji that uses the immersion method of language teaching, the postcard rack stands empty. “Why don’t we sell postcards?” the sign reads, then explains the history of the Waldsee postcards from Auschwitz.

Happening upon history

I am not a scholar of the Shoah; I am not a trained historian of anything other than language. However, because of a recent connection with Concordia’s German Language Village in Bemidji, out of old habit, I put the search term “Waldsee + Nazi” in my Internet browser—what can I say, I’m Jewish.

Try it. All of the hits in some way reference the Nazi ruse (George Dalbo’s excellent blogpost is one of them).

With a sense of outrage, I wrote to Concordia Language Village’s (CLV) Executive Director Christine Schultze about my discovery.  “I can only assume that you knew of this and decided to keep the name anyway”, I wrote. Schultze wrote back immediately, “We were not aware…” More followed. I did not expect so comprehensive a response. There was an advisory group formed. I was put on it. There were meetings with alumni of CLV, current “villagers”, parents, teachers, staff, etc. Reactions were invited and then shared. A list of measures was decided on and the advisory group was kept in the loop.

I was hooked. Things were happening, but not fast enough. Months would go without an update. I felt a sense of ownership of this little controversy and so I would write reminders to my contact at CLV and cc: members of the Advisory Committee, “Dear…, I hope you are well. It has been … months since the last update on progress with the measures committed to by CLV…” Soon after, there would be another update to the group.

The Devil in the Detail

The Waldsee issue has become my private obsession. Is it really worth paying it so much attention? Of all the things to obsess about, it is after all, just a name. If my concern is about anti-Semitism past, present and future, surely there are larger and more relevant targets?

And yet, this is my target. The opportunity to offer hundreds of students from all over the US safe entry into what continues to be the most taboo topic in German history is priceless. That I can continue to be involved in this opportunity is not just a private obsession, it is also, a mission.

It is a just a name, but the devil is in the detail.

It’s Personal

I have a connection to the Shoah. My father was a refugee from Dortmund, Germany during the summer of 1938. According to the Yad Vashem list of Jews murdered in Auschwitz, three of my great-grandparents were among them.

Every Jew is touched in one way or another by the Shoah. For me, it is in my blood, my nightmares and my unbidden tears. Happening upon the history of the Waldsee name didn’t just affect me, it punched me in the gut.

I suppose every educator who delves into the horrors that humans visit upon each other struggles to balance outrage with cool academic rigor. I suppose what motivates any researcher of the Shoah is not morbid fascination, but a sense of the precious opportunity to change the future by carefully documenting and teaching about the past. That at least is my hope.

It is just a name, but the devil is in the detail. For me, my motivation to continue watching Waldsee is, to paraphrase Michael Corleone, “Keep your angels close and your devils closer”.
I do.

Alex Treitler has his BA and Masters from Columbia University. He has a second Masters from Uppsala University in Sweden. He is a translator and writer and runs his own business,