WHAT REMAINS? An ugly American in Germany

My fellow American,

We don’t know each other but you and I both recently visited the German city of Flossenbürg, in the Ober Pfalz region of Bavaria. You should remember Flossenbürg, it’s an idyllic community, picturesque in a real-life Disney sort of way, nestled in beautifully forested hills and crowned with the ruins of a 900 year old castle looking down on the village. However, as is the case for many visitors to much of Germany, neither of us were in Flossenbürg that day for the quaint beauty and rugged antiquity but rather for a tour through the darkness of 20th century history.

Flossenbürg in the Ober Pfalz. A portion of the castle ruins can be seen in the lower left. Photo courtesy: Samantha Weinstein

Hopefully visitors to the Flossenbürg Concentration Camp come away with a better understanding of the nuanced consequences of human cruelty, perhaps even some self-reflection of how horrors like the Holocaust come to be inflicted on, and by, normal people not so different from ourselves. In fact, as you should remember, museum visitors are actually invited to share their thoughts at a memorial wall inside one of the Camp’s museum buildings. After seeing dozens of exhibits on what happened there between 1938 and 1945, people are given a chance to write on provided postcards titled “Was bleibt?” which means ‘What remains?’ or ‘What stays?’ and place the card on the memorial wall.

After watching videos of malnourished and beaten prisoners, seeing the testimony of children separated from soon-to-be-murdered families, listening to former prisoners describe their literal torture, learning about the camp’s evolution as they built crematories and expanded in lethality, discovering the brothels where women prisoners were sex slaves for guards and prisoners alike; after immersing yourself in the full depravity that humanity has to offer, leave your thoughts behind. The wall was filled with white squares showing what people took away with them from this experience. Remember that? Because the card you left behind is why I’m writing to you now.

After the liberation of Flossenbürg, two US army infantrymen examine a pile of shoes belonging to victims of the camp. May 1945. —US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Arnold Bauer Barach

Most of the postcards were short messages of solidarity, sympathy, and sorrow. “Never again,” “We remember,” “My prayers are with you,” and other such expressions were repeated all over the wall. Some of them were longer, more personal, and specific in what touched the writer: a father who cried when he saw pictures of children’s bodies; a woman who was shocked by the exhibit on the sadism from the female guards at the camp; a student horrified by how badly Jews, gypsies, and many other Nazi victims were treated even after the war.

In case you don’t remember, this is what you wrote on the wall: “You’re welcome – USA.”

Yes, elements of the US Army’s 90th and 97th Infantry Divisions liberated the camp in April of 1945. Yes, Americans were responsible for the housing and relocation of prisoners from Flossenbürg and many other camps. Yes, Americans and our allies ended the hateful regime responsible for the very existence and purpose of the Flossenbürg Concentration Camp. Yes, I am proud that my countrymen were liberators in Europe.

But, after witnessing what the former residents of Flossenburg Concentration Camp went through, after standing next to an oven used to discard dehumanized human lives, after walking through a scene of a crime against humanity, you wanted to be a wiseass. 97,000 human beings were reduced to chattel, a third of them executed and disposed of with less dignity than dryer lint, and you thought it was a good time to make a joke.

I am proud to be an American. I am ashamed that someone like you was produced by our system and that we let you loose into the world; a world with enough reasons to dislike Americans. You may have thought you were being patriotic but what you were actually being was an asshole and idiot.

The postcard. Image courtesy: Some asshole

“You’re welcome?” For what exactly? Was it you that led the 90th Infantry Division through the forests and mountains in 1945? Did you hurt yourself jumping into France? Did you sacrifice anything for the war effort? Don’t say you’re welcome on behalf of men that you’re not fit to polish the boots of.

The ugly American is finally no longer the most despised tourist around the world. The Chinese took the title from the Germans who took the title from the Russians who took the title from the English who took it from us (we still are in the top five, though the Indians seem to be taking it from the Chinese and may *fingers crossed* edge us out). But Americans aren’t seen in the best light around the world right now. Considering what you wrote on the memorial wall I doubt you even tried to speak to anyone outside of your tour group who you weren’t paying for some sort of service. Trust me when I tell you that most Europeans are not happy with Americans right now. When they’re not angry with us, they’re either laughing at or feeling sorry for us.

By the way, I tore your little remembrance off the wall. Nobody else will experience the disappointment and shock that I did. Please, my fellow American, if you can’t behave with some respect when travelling, stay at home.

Thomas Brown is a history teacher and recovering political consultant hiding out in the American South. He is also managing editor of The Swamp and has been published in The Bipartisan PressAlaska Native NewsGENHuman EventsTimes of IsraelDialogue & Discourse. Follow him at his Medium page and argue with him on Twitter: @reallythistoo.

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Categories: America, Germany, Holocaust, Society

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