His uncle came to this spot in rural Germany 65 years ago, as a private in the U.S. Army, carrying a rifle.
Last week President Barack Obama made a pilgrimage to Buchenwald, as a civilian and as commander-in-chief, bearing a single white rose.
Accompanied by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel and another survivor of the Nazi concentration camp, Obama made the first presidential visit to Buchenwald, in the middle of an extended overseas trip that included a historic speech in the Middle East and a D-Day ceremony on France’s Normandy beach.
He placed the flower, as a symbol of peace, at the base of a Buchenwald memorial — 56,000 people, mostly Jews, right, died at the camp — and spoke of his great-uncle, Charlie Payne, who served in a unit that helped liberate Ohrdruf, a nearby satellite camp, in April 1945.
“He returned from his service in a state of shock,” Obama said, “saying little and isolating himself for months on end from family and friends.” His uncle, the president said, carried “painful memories that would not leave his head.”
Obama, in a politically balanced speech, called sites like Buchenwald a refutation of Holocaust deniers, cited the Holocaust as giving birth to the State of Israel, praised Israel’s capacity for empathy as giving optimism for eventual Jewish-Arab peace and criticized Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.
“This place teaches us that we must be ever vigilant about the spread of evil in our time, that we must reject the false comfort that others’ suffering is not our problem,” he said.
“It is incumbent upon us Germans,” said Merkel, “to show an unshakable resolve to do everything we can so that something like this never happens again.”
Wiesel, who was liberated as a teenager from Buchenwald, said the camp provides a memory “of bringing people together.
“Memory must bring people together, rather than set them apart … not to sow anger in our hearts, but on the contrary, a sense of solidarity with all those who need us,” Wiesel said.
On a chilly, overcast day, the group viewed crematory ovens, barbed-wire fences and guard towers, walking between rows of barracks, set on a wooded hill.
“If only these trees could talk,” Wiesel said to the president.
Obama challenged Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, an outspoken Holocaust denier, to come to Buchenwald too.
Ahmadenijad “should make his own visit,” Obama said.“I have no patience for people who would deny history. And, you know, the history of the Holocaust is not something speculative.”