The sky is gray and dull and a cold wind blows over the ruins of the prisoner barracks. It's March weather in June. It would be hard to imagine a more dismal day to visit the former concentration camp in Weimar, Germany.
And no, this wasn't the usual celebratory appearance the US president is accustomed to making.
At Buchenwald, Barack Obama wanted to learn what he had until now only known from the stories of his great-uncle Charles Payne. Obama was told during his childhood that Payne had become introverted and avoided contact with his family for months after he returned from duty in World War II because of the horrors he had observed as a US solder, especially during the time he helped liberate a Buchenwald subcamp in the town of Ohrdruf in the eastern German state of Thuringia in April 1945.
More than 60 years later, on Friday afternoon, Payne's great-nephew walked across the square where prisoners had been summoned for roll call at Buchenwald. In his hands, he held a white rose and he was flanked by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and two of the concentration camp's survivors. One was Elie Wiesel, who was interned here as a 16 year old and lost his father at the camp. The other was Bertrand Herz, chairman of the Buchenwald Committee.
It's just a few steps from the entry gate, with the cynical inscription "Jedem das sein," or "to each his own," to the memorial plate. The steel plate is constantly heated to 37 degrees, the body temperature of a living human being, in memory of the victims of Buchenwald. Obama laid down his rose, paused for a moment, and was then followed by Merkel and the two survivors. The group then proceeded to the so-called "small camp."
It was a moving brush with history for the United States president. Wiesel, a good friend of Obama's, had tears in his eyes as they visited the small camp. After all, they were standing at Buchenwald's former crematorium.
Suddenly, a place where more than 50,000 people perished had become palpable for the guest from Washington. "These sights have not lost their horror with the passage of time," the president said, visibily moved. He also criticized Holocaust deniers, saying: "To this day there are those who insist that the Holocaust never happened -- a denial of fact and truth that is baseless and ignorant and hateful. This place is the ultimate rebuke to such thoughts; a reminder of our duty to confront those who would tell lies about our history."
Merkel, for whom this wasn't the first visit to Buchenwald, had clear words. "Buchenwald was not a place for living, but a place for dying," she said. The chancellor added that the memory of the murdered had to be preserved in the future, too, and the Germans must "show an unshakeable resolve to do everything we can so that something like this never happens again." Merkel paid tribute to the victims, too, saying, "I bow my head before the victims."
At Buchenwald, Obama -- the president upon whom people all over the world have placed enormous hope for the future -- was able to view the past insanity of the Nazis first-hand. Once the president turned over his microphone to Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Literature Prize recipient recalled the death of his father, the pain it caused him and his feeling of helplessness. It was a moving plea for people to look at the past in order to learn of the horrors. "Memory has become a sacred duty of all people of all people of good will," the aging man with tousled gray hair said. "Mr. President, we have such high hopes for you."
Within minutes, Obama was back in the air -- he had already been in Egypt on Thursday, then in Dresden on Friday morning. On Friday evening, he visited a US military base and hospital in the western German state of Rhineland-Palatinate. Obama's life as president, it seems, is an endless stream of appointments.
But his two hours on Ettersberg mountain, where Buchenwald is located, were more than just an appointment.