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Goethe’s Oak

Yesterday I went on a tour of Buchenwald, a former concentration camp. We were taken round the site by a guide who told us a number of stories about the place and the people who used to be there – some of the stories had been told to him first hand by former inmates and others he had simply come across during his time working at the Buchenwald memorial site.

Goethe's Oak

Goethe’s Oak

The picture above shows what is left of an oak tree which stands right in the middle of the grounds. The guide explained to us that when the camp was built in 1937, all the surrounding forest land was stripped away in order to make room for buildings. Everything was destroyed except this one oak. He said that there are two theories as to why this oak was never chopped down: Firstly, some people say that since the camp was built so quickly and little to no machinery was used, there just wasn’t enough manpower to move such a big tree. Secondly, people say that this tree was famous in the region as it is supposedly where Johann Wolfgang von Goethe sat and wrote some of his most celebrated pieces of literature. Since Goethe is such an important aspect of German culture and its heritage, it is thought that the SS decided the tree was too valuable to destroy.

The guide then told us about a legend amongst the prisoners of the camp regarding this oak tree. Every year this oak tree, like all other deciduous trees, would lose its leaves in the winter and the leaves would then bloom again in the spring. The prisoners used to look at this tree and say “the year that the leaves on this tree do not grow is the year that we will all be freed.” They used to say this as they never thought they would make it out of the concentration camp alive.

However, in August of 1944, the oak tree was hit by a bomb and caught fire, which caused it to almost burn down completely. As a result, in the following spring the leaves on the tree did not bloom, and sure enough in April of 1945 the camp was liberated and the prisoners were set free.

People still come and visit the tree today in order to remember their ancestors who were held in Buchenwald. Some place a stone on the tree stump as a sign of remembrance. The picture below shows part of the memorial at Buchenwald. It lies just around the corner from the camp itself. Out of all the concentration camps in Germany, the memorial here lies closest to the original site where people perished.

Memorial

The memorial at Buchenwald. 

Vida, Germany

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