In their 1992 documentary Weimar: Klassik, Kult und Stacheldraht
(“Weimar: Classicism, Cult and Barbed Wire”), the German television journalists Peter Merseburger and Sabine Brüning capture a historical moment: 47 years after the liberation of Buchenwald in Weimar, Jorge Semprún returns to the site of his internment. In the opening scene, the screen is filled by a section of the former camp muster ground. “Inmate 44904,” as the novelist is introduced by a voiceover, crosses it from the top. As the camera zooms out, the concrete surface of the muster ground gradually expands and the figure of Semprún—filmed from the elevated perspective of a watchtower—shrinks. In the process, the figure shifts to the center of the screen and finally disappears in the shadow of a building at the bottom edge. Even if the muster ground dominates visually, the septuagenarian’s energetic stride dominates the scene. The message: here is someone who, far from succumbing to the overpowering past, defeated that past and is in command of it today. The next shot shows Semprún close up, next to the charred stump of the Goethe Oak.1
How does it feel to return to Buchenwald for the first time after half a century? Semprún lets his gaze wander briefly across the grounds, apparently searching for words. The answer is spoken hesitantly, but in good German: when Semprún gropes for words, it is because what he has to say seems so reprehensible:
Es mag sonderbar erscheinen, vielleicht ist es sogar schrecklich, dies zu hören. Für mich ist es schrecklich, das zu sagen: Ich fühle mich zu Hause. An diesem unheimlichen Platz, der vielleicht der unheimlichste Platz für alle ist …, bin ich … heimgekommen.
(It may come across as very odd; maybe it is even horrible to hear this. For me it is horrible to say it: I feel at home. In this uncanny place, which is perhaps the uncanniest place for everyone … I have … come home.)2