[This piece was inspired by a prompt chosen by some of the Drinkers writers at a recent meeting, A Monster Among Us.]
DACHAU, the front of the bus declared unapologetically. My friend and I climbed aboard, feeling like we were doing the right thing, however unpleasant, by leaving the beer halls of Munich for this sobering side trip. We were college students spending the year in Paris, and were traveling around Europe during our winter holiday.
The bus rolled along past Bavarian towns whose pitched roofs and timbered facades looked picturesque under a wan February sun. I wondered what it would be like to be a resident of Dachau, a place that will forever be synonymous with death. It was mid-morning when we arrived. All of the passengers disembarked the same way, tight mouths and downcast eyes, bracing ourselves.
We toured the small museum, reading about the past in a way that allowed us to intellectualize it, like studying from a textbook. The difference on this day was that we knew once we’d finished reading the placards we’d have to step outside into the camp.
We walked down a long path past the barracks, at our own pace. It wasn’t a guided tour. No narration would do justice to the horrors that had transpired there the way the silence could. The only sounds were our footsteps on gravel and our inner dialogues.
As we walked, I tried to reconcile the peace that blanketed the camp with images I’d grown up with — mounds of eyeglasses representing the dead, living skeletons, haunted faces. I tried to imagine what it would be like to be a child separated from one’s mother, or vice versa. My mind could only take me so far before throwing up a protective wall. Some things are simply unthinkable; and yet they happened.
I tried to put myself there in April 1945 when my grandfather was among the American troops who liberated the camp. What had he seen? He never said. The only reason I knew he was there was because my father told me. At that time my grandpa was on his way back to the States after having flown 100 missions as a fighter pilot. I wonder what he believed he was fighting for during those missions. His country, his comrades, his family, the ideals of freedom and justice, probably. Had he also known that he was fighting on behalf of these people, scapegoated by a wounded country and an opportunistic regime while the world looked the other way? Or had he heard the rumors and discounted them as preposterous? His father had immigrated to the U.S. from Germany. I doubt that he wanted to believe that people from his homeland were capable of such things, but I’ll never know what he actually thought. My guess is that the atrocious reality was far beyond what he anticipated, which is why he talked to his grandchildren about flying planes but never about that day.
After passing the barracks we entered the building that housed the ovens that were used to bake the bodies of human beings. I tried once again to put myself there, to imagine the smell, to force myself to believe that this actually happened. Not that long ago, either, just half a century between then and this day. I couldn’t stay in there for more than a minute.
I exited the building, putting the ovens behind me, and the daylight was some kind of relief. For a moment it was easy to pretend that we were touring another facility nestled among the trees and villages, like a soldier’s base or a defunct horse farm. But the ugly iron letters spelling out Arbeit Macht Frei on the gate wouldn’t let me keep up the pretense. What a cruel way to mock the people who were imprisoned, tortured and murdered here. Work did not set any of them free.
There was nothing to say on the bus ride home. My only consoling thought was that nothing like this would ever happen again. At least we’ve learned from history. At least the monster was exposed and expunged. At least everyone sees the madman for who he was. These thoughts allowed my friend and I to resume vacation mode, and to spend the evening enjoying our lagers and schnitzel with relatively light hearts. It’s funny how we can compartmentalize our experiences.
My visit to Dachau was sixteen years ago. What endures is the heavy stillness that I felt walking through the camp, a visceral knowledge of this tragic history. Since then I’ve learned that textbooks often teach the What but not the Why or the How. I’ve learned that one madman a holocaust does not make. I’ve learned that as smart as humans are, our hubris prevents us from learning from the past, which is dangerous. A monster still lurks among us, and if we are not vigilant, if we turn a blind eye, if we deny its existence, then we are him and he is us.