The Lake and the Zoo

Travelling at break-neck speed on the Autobahn, I was deep in thought as the beautiful farmland blurred by. The lush countryside and gentle rolling farmland reminded me of Lancaster County. I felt very much at home.

As we exited the highway, a deeper beauty unfolded like a painted canvas as we entered the lush farmland framed with treelined fencerows. Hidden from the Autobahn, small farming villages, with picturesque quaint Germanic homes, dotted the countryside. It was like paging through a picture book of meticulously placed, air-brushed photos which passed by my window. The beauty was stunning.

Despite the beauty, I found myself quite anxious. Butterflies swirled in my stomach. As we passed through a number of small villages, the destination to which we were travelling began to appear on small road signs. At each village square, a sign announced the kilometers which yet remained and pointed toward our destination. As the kilometers slowly ticked-off, the butterflies were forming a large knot in my stomach. A sense of dread began to wash over me.

My thoughts drifted. Just days before, I was privileged to participate in a lake-side baptism. Sixteen adults, most whom fled religious persecution and certain death, escaped incredible opposition from nations throughout the Middle East. Each person had met Jesus Christ through incredibly dramatic and near-death experiences as they fled in makeshift boats across Mediterranean Sea, eventually finding refuge in Germany.

I recalled sitting by the lakeside as I heard their incredible testimonies. The miraculous stories were as if they were lifted from the very pages of Acts. As each baptismal candidate shared their story of encountering Christ, four translators stood next to them. In turn, each story was translated in five different tongues which was represented among the seventy witnesses seated with me.

As the water gently lapped the shoreline, I wondered: Is this what it was like to sit with Jesus as he taught along the Sea of Galilee. As each testimony was heard by everyone in their native tongue, I again wondered: Is this a foretaste of the many tribes and tongues that will worship the Lamb of God as pictured in Revelation 5.

My mind was yanked back to the present as our vehicle turned off a country road and entered a long gravel drive through the woods. No one spoke as we approached our destination.

The icy stare of a steel gate and a glaring electric fence with its ugly concrete posts greeted me.

Buchenwald.

A concentration camp which housed over two-hundred fifty-thousand prisoners from 1937-1945. A place of death as fifty-six thousand lives were exterminated here by the Nazi SS.

The large steel gate at the main entrance yet carries the infamous words, Jedem das Seine. Translated this means, “to give each his due.” Its bright red letters barked attention and stood in stark contrast to the white steel gate surrounding it. These words were purposefully placed facing inside so they are easily read and in plain view of the prisoners during roll call.

Over the next five hours, I numbingly stumbled through the camp buildings which yet remained.

The story of Buchenwald revealed a horrific, well-oiled killing machine which quietly operated within this beautiful countryside. The former Nazi Storehouse now housed, a museum which fully disclosed the secrets of Buchenwald and the lives of those it devoured.

The museum held nothing back.

Shrunken heads of prisoners and lampshades made from human skin were on display as gifts the SS provided their friends. We were introduced to the prisoners, their lovers, and their families. Pictures and letters revealed happier times among their families and told a story—a personhood—persons made in the very image of God.

In each story, Buchenwald was their end.

To walk in a place where this unimaginable story unfolded, I found myself dazed, short of breath, and overwhelmed.

Narrow steps descended into a dark, cold, corpse cellar. A blood-stained floor testified that the wall hooks used for torture and strangulation mercilessly performed their gruesome task on the souls placed in their ugly grip. Outside the cellar, a gallows reached heavenward as if still proclaiming a visible warning to the entire camp of the fate and dispensability of any who dared get in the way of the machine and its mission.

White ceramic tile still covered the walls and tables in the medical exam room. The whiteness made mockery of the inhumane medical practices performed as gold was harvested from the mouths of those laid on the tiled tables.

Steel tracks in the concrete floors allowed large carts to move like a miniature freight train human transporting human corpses to the gaping mouths of six crematorium ovens which lustfully awaited its fuel of human flesh.

Human ash from the ovens fertilized the manicured flower beds and gardens of the Gestapo officers and their families living in immaculate homes beyond the camp. When their fertilizer needs were met, a large earthen cavity received the ashen remains of thousands, its numbers unknown to anyone except God.

To add a cruel twist of irony, just outside the fence and visible to the camp prisoners, a zoo was built by the SS Commandant. The zoo housed various animals and four bears. Its sole purpose was to provide recreation for the camp guards, the SS, and their families. Incredibly, the SS commandant and his wife were known advocates for animal rights.

My God! How can this be?

As we left, we winded our way back to the Autobahn; the beautiful landscape staring back at me seemed deeply marred.

The capacity of the human heart—from the beauty of a lakeside baptism, to the horrors of Buchenwald—all within the same neighborhood in the mere span of seventy years.

Several years later, I still find it nearly impossible to hold the lakeside baptismal experience that was celebrated by many tongues, alongside Buchenwald silencing thousands of tongues.

Perhaps some things are simply not reconcilable; however, two takeaways I carry:

  1. The capacity of the human heart. Whether to love or hate—to do good or evil, is within each of us.
  2. Despite ourselves and our marred neighborhood, Jesus remains present. Jesus still enters our story. Jesus continues to redeem our neighborhoods.

Even so, come, Lord Jesus. Revelation 22:20b