I don’t remember the first time I visited a concentration camp. I must have been 2 or 3. There is a picture of my brother David sitting in front of the gate with the foreboding words, “Arbeit macht frei” (Work sets you free) inscribed above it. I don’t remember that picture being snapped. All I know is that trips to Dachau, the camp nearest our home in Germany, became quite frequent as we entertained visitors from home.
The trip to the camp in the summer of 1998 began like all the others had. I was with my dad, my uncle, and two aunts. We were giving them the grand tour of southern Germany, and had just walked through the great castle of Neuschwanstein. The glories of the castle faded as we neared the town.
My lunch churned in my stomach. Maybe the seeded roll with the slightly warmed ham purchased at the dimly lit corner bakery, where the cashier had seemed solemn and aloof, had been a poor choice for my meal.
Dachau is a creepy town. Gray clouds hang over it, clinging to it like a toddler to a mother’s hand. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen the sun shine there. Perhaps I am being melodramatic, but the town just holds a sense of animosity and heartache. Rain falls often, as though the past spirits of those murdered are mourning still, spilling tears from the sky. When one walks through the camp, one feels as though a 100,000 eyes are staring, watching, observing.
The camp swarmed with summer tourists. My family and I squeezed into a row of seats, surrounded by the sweaty bodies of other foreigners, all there to experience the museum and see the documentary. As the black and white images flashed on the screen in front of me, the roll in my stomach twisted in knots. Sweat trickled down my face. How could humans be so awful to each other? Why did all of these things happen? Surely we are better. Can be greater. Can move in harmony, not disunity over race or creed.
Stomach lurched again.
I breathed deeply. “Dad,” I began in a strangled whisper, “I’m going to…” I said no more as I tumbled over him, hastening for the door, almost tripping on my skirt in the dark theater. The film flickered, flashing pictures of men and women in striped uniforms.
I ran out with my Aunt Sarah close behind me. I reached the bathroom and all the stalls were filled. Of course—the cursed school children and their holidays! Bile rose in my throat. I was going to barf on the white tiles. I could sense it happening. I could see the concerned faces. I could hear their murmurs, “Poor thing, the images—they were just so disturbing.”
The last stall on the right opened. A lady and her daughter bolted towards it but my Aunt intervened. “She’s ill! Can she go?” I didn’t wait for their response; I just darted past them.
I almost made it to the toilet. With great dignity, I spewed the seeded roll and ham onto the white tile and into the porcelain bowl. My Aunt Sarah, who called behind me, “I’m with her—I’m a nurse! I’m a nurse!”, slowly cleaned up the remnants while I crouched awkwardly in front of the commode. Commotion stirred around me. A cacophony of languages swirled in the women’s room.
I slowly stood up, walked to the sink, washed my hands, and rinsed my mouth. Many colored eyes followed me. Sympathetic murmurs echoed my footsteps.
It’s this place. So disturbing.
My uncle Fred gave me a Jolly Rancher. Green apple flavor. I sat in the car while the others finished the tour.
A disgraced, humiliated tourist.
I didn’t have much to say for myself. I wondered if the ghosts haunting Dachau would haunt me for my ghastly faux paux.
Or maybe, they would give me a break.
She’s learned her lesson, they’ll say. It wasn’t her fault. We’ll let her slide this once. After all, she’ll be back again another day with a fresh group of Americans to view this horrible history.
I did go back to Dachau. I took part in the remembrance that we should never allow history to devolve where we dehumanize a whole race to meet some evil purpose.
And I also avoided the warm ham.
So the ghosts of Dachau were pleased.