It was the first of what would become sprawling set of immersive language camps, sponsored by Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. The inspiration of the camp came from a Concordia instructor, who had a vision of combining immersive language instruction with the fun of summer camps. Thus in 1961, that first camp, for the study of German language, named Lager Waldsee, opened near Bemidji, Minnesota. Nearly six decades later, the Concordia Language Villages include not just German, but Arabic, Finnish, Spanish, and Russian — fifteen languages total.
Earlier this year though, Concordia officials were forced to confront something about that original camp — completely unintended by its founders — they never envisioned.
There was another Waldsee. But this Waldsee was not a peaceful place of rest. It wasn’t even a real place. Steve Hunegs, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas (JCRC), put it starkly. “It was,” he says, “a horrible euphemism for Auschwitz.”
For decades, no one with Concordia realized the connection. Once alerted about it, language village officials were dumbfounded:
“Frankly, we were just not aware,” said Dan Hamilton, dean of the Waldsee village. “I’m a professor of international relations, so we were a bit embarrassed.”
Concordia College officials deliberated about what to do next. The horrors attached to what was supposed to be such a bucolic name could not be denied. As Fargo Forum columnist Jim Shaw noted in a recent piece:
Waldsee was a euphemism for Auschwitz, the notorious Nazi death camp. Many of the doomed Jews of Hungary were told when they boarded the trains that they were going to the beautiful and serene Waldsee, with its forest and lake. Upon arrival, under the watchful eye of the SS, thousands of deported Jews were ordered to write upbeat postcards to their loved ones. The postcards were postmarked that they came from Waldsee. This diabolical deception was meant to give the impression that they were at a peaceful place, were okay, and that their relatives should look forward to coming to the resort at Waldsee. However, there was no Waldsee. Waldsee was Auschwitz. After writing the postcards, the Jews were sent to the gas chambers.
Concordia officials moved forward by assembling a twenty-one person committee to study the matter. While this might seem like a typical higher-ed move to try and wait out a controversy, those who made up the commission took their duties quite seriously: “We went into it with heavy hearts.” [Concordia Language Villages executive director Christine] Schulze said. “As educators we were obligated to act on it.”
In the end, they decided to keep the name, but added context to help better explain what the name means, both good and bad.
In the end, the consensus was to keep the name, but turn it into a learning situation. A display was put up of the Waldsee postcards, other postcards won’t be sold anymore, a space of remembrance for Holocaust victims will be created, and Holocaust survivors will speak at the village.
Should they have just changed the name and be done with it? Perhaps. At the same time, this move allowed them to try and be educators, to strive for their mission. I’m sure there are those who may disagree with Concordia’s conclusions. On a difficult topic such as this, consensus can be elusive.
You can find the original article here.