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Three Waldsee Villages: A View Using the Wings of History

By Alex Treitler | Published: February 11, 2019

In my second language, Swedish, the expression historiens vingslag (“the wingbeats of history”) gives a vivid, multisensory image of the passage of time that has become so frequently used in Swedish language tourist brochures as to have become the object of satire. Yet it is how I best can describe what I and many others felt just over a week ago. The wingbeats of history stirred up winds that brought back the stench of Holocaust slaughter: on January 27, it had been 74 years since Russian troops arriving at Auschwitz took its remaining prisoners into care and began dismantling the camp.

The wingbeats of history are also what I felt in discovering that before being used to name the Concordia German Language Village, “Waldsee” was the euphemism given to Auschwitz, the death camp in German-occupied Poland during WWII.  Concealing their true destination was part of a ruse to coax Hungarian and Greek Jews onto trains that would carry them to their death.

For many readers, news of the earlier Waldsee will be familiar. Through the website, emails, letters and public gatherings, Concordia Language Villages’ leadership has openly shared information and invited input.

In June last year, I was invited to join a diverse advisory group made up of scholars, teachers and stakeholders of various kinds. This group continues to discuss the ramifications of the discovery of Waldsee history. Concordia Language Villages Executive Director Christine Schulze strikingly describes the issue: “We have begun pulling at a loose thread—and that’s been good—but we don’t want to unravel the whole cloth!”

This is where “wings of history” are helpful. Donning them, I rise above the horrors of the Holocaust to be able to see two places from two different tines that share a name. On one side I see Auschwitz, on the other I see a very different place.

Waldsee, 2019: a Village holding
dual histories and associations
for its learning community. 

There is Waldsee, the German Language Village, when it opens in 1961. Just two years later, JFK would visit Germany and give his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech, welcoming a new alliance with Germany. With the horrors of war past, Germany and America looked purposefully forward rather than back. U.S. financial support helped West Germany rebuild its infrastructure, economy and government. During the 50’s, West Germany was becoming a prosperous “social market economy” and parliamentary democracy. By 1961, there would have been no reason in either the U.S. or Germany to wonder if Waldsee referred to anything other than a forest glade.

With the wings of history, I fly higher still and see three villages: Waldsee, 1945; Waldsee, 1961; and Waldsee, 2019. Each Waldsee has its own history with which its name is inseparably associated. Somehow the most recent Waldsee has absorbed the meaning of both of its predecessors: it is neither the Nazi death camp, nor is it any longer an idyllic, innovative home of language learning; it embodies associations with both. This new Waldsee bears scars. It is older, perhaps wiser. Through its scars, perhaps it can also show a path to healing—though this new Waldsee is nothing if it is not both 1945 and 1961. 

As part of the Waldsee Advisory Group, I have agreed with other members that changing the name Waldsee would mean losing the dual associations of the name. And yet, I fear that 2019 Waldsee will be absorbed back into 1961 Waldsee and end up obscuring 1945. We need this older, wiser Waldsee. We need to be able to communicate to villagers now and into the future that paradoxically, the hateful past thrives when buried, and that the whole point of language learning is to foster communication, dispel ignorance and encourage an understanding of difference. The advisory committee has more work to do in helping to build this new, more complex Waldsee identity. Yes, Waldsee is older and wiser, yet it is also being born again.

About the Author

Alex Treitler is a graduate of Columbia University and has master's degrees in theology from Uppsala University in Sweden and Columbia University in NYC. The son of a German Jewish WWII refugee and a Swedish Scotts-Irish American, Alex has spent much of his life living and traveling abroad, spending extended periods in Sweden, Switzerland and Australia. He grew up hearing Swedish, German and smatterings of Yiddish and Polish spoken at home, and as an adult has been drawn to the polyglot cities of New York, Chicago and Stockholm.

Alex has a background in teaching Swedish, English as a second language, and remedial Swedish to immigrant students in Sweden  He has worked as a marketing and communications professional, a fundraiser, and in elder care as a counselor focused on  working with individuals with dementia. In 2018, Alex started Your Story Shared, LLC, a business focused on producing books, audio recordings and websites that gather and share the stories of a family’s oldest generation.

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