What’s in a name? Well, those involved with Concordia College’s Language Villages realized quite a lot. Thousands of children have attended one of the 15 language villages. The German village is located on Turtle River Lake near Bemidji, Minn. Its name is Waldsee, which means forest lake.
Alex Treitler of St. Paul sent his children to Waldsee last year. Treitler is a linguist and translator. Something struck him about the name, so he went on the internet to check it out. “I was shocked. I was outraged with what I found,” Treitler said.
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.
“I feel fine. Hopefully you are all healthy…I send many kisses to you,” wrote 33-year-old Agnes Bamberger shortly before she was gassed to death.
What Treitler learned, painfully hit home. Three of his great-grandparents were murdered at Auschwitz. So, he contacted Christine Schulze, executive director of Concordia Language Villages. He encouraged Schulze to change the name.
“It was really a surprise,” Schulze said. “There was shock, amazement and disbelief as to how we could not have known about this.”
So, what do you do when you learn there’s a connection between your language village and perhaps the most evil place in the history of mankind? A place where more than one million innocent people were put to death.
Concordia could have downplayed the issue. Instead, it impressively tackled the matter head-on. A 21-person advisory committee was formed, comprised of Holocaust experts, educators, museum officials, Treitler and others. Alumni and students of Waldsee were also contacted for their input.
“We went into it with heavy hearts.” Schulze said. “As educators we were obligated to act on it.”
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.
“They took the issue very seriously,“ Treitler said. “I was very impressed with how thorough it was.” “It was a powerful learning experience,” Schulze said.
Thus, a tragic episode was turned into a meaningful teachable moment. Concordia did itself proud.