I'm working on a new novel set in Munich and Berlin during WWII. For detail and realism, I need to experience a place. Reading books, listening to on-line lectures and watching videos are no substitute for trudging through a city, absorbing through my pores the buildings and people and language, the smell of wurst and rich taste of Augustiner beer and slant of light through chestnut trees.
Munich is a lovely city in which to practice the writerly art of osmosis. Its buildings rollick through the ages, from the Romanesque Peterskirche to the neo-Baroque Justizpalast to the modern skyscraper Hypo-Haus. In the center of town, the Marienplatz bustles with a heterogeneous mix of people. It's easy to get around because of the dazzling array of public transportation choices: the bus, the tram, the S-bahn, and the U-bahn--all very efficient.
In this world of dialectic, dichotomy and duality, where there is beauty, there is found ugliness, and where there is light, comes the darkness. Lovely Munich's history harbors astonishing cruelty. Dachau, the first Nazi concentration camp and the deadly prototype for all others, lies twenty kilometers outside of town.
A story set in Germany during this time necessarily references concentration camps. Germans seem to agree. When I joined a tour to Dachau, which had been a munitions factory during the First World War, Tom the Welsh tour guide commented, "Germans study what happened here, they face it honestly. I regularly see school classes."
Indeed, I spied a group of young people who looked like high school students. They listened carefully to their teacher, a bespectacled woman who spoke with a fierce thoughtfulness that elicited from them a corresponding intensity of focus.
Inside the rebuilt bunker, they sat on rough benches in a room with signs describing conditions during the three phases of Dachau's existence: as work camp for German political prisoners and means for the Nazi regime to consolidate power; as a tool for political policy, when prisoner labor had death as its goal and a network of death camps was constructed across occupied territories; and finally as a resource, when prisoners made armaments.
Our group meandered into the next room to hear about brutal capos who oversaw the prisoners, about twelve starving men sleeping in plank-board bunks built for three, about floggings and pole hangings and prisoners who specialized in hospital corners on hay mattresses, about a child who drowned to death in excrement raining down from the bunks above.
During Tom's speech, the school group broke into quiet applause.
"My tour finishes in the crematorium," Tom said grimly. "Don't applaud for me." I valued his respect for propriety, in that place of horror that we make sacred through remembrance. I also understood the kids' spontaneous desire to honor their teacher. It's not easy to teach a subject so repugnant -- which had been created by some of their grandparents and great-grandparents.
Tom himself spoke with the perfect mix of passion and dispassion, giving us facts and figures that underscored the terror of Dachau. Some 32,000 deaths are recorded, but countless numbers are not: Jews, Roma, Soviet soldiers, Russians, Czech, Poles, homosexuals, and Jehovah's Witnesses. Tom said, "These numbers you read, these are all low estimates."
En route to the crematorium, we passed barbed wire that had been electrified to discourage escape attempts. Only one man ever made it out of Dachau. Guards were given permission to shoot prisoners who approached the fence; those who hit their targets were rewarded with leave.
While walking, we heard about experiments performed on the prisoners: decompression, freezing water. I thought of the Isar River running gently through Munich, while just twenty kilometers away, scores of people were dying in agony.
Not just dying: they were being psychologically broken down into shards who no longer believed in goodness or justice or even their own humanity.
Finally we crossed over a remaining section of the four-meter-wide ditch that had circumscribed the camp. Tom framed it for us with arresting immediacy. "I thought I could make it across the ditch, because I did the long jump in school. But that was without being starved and weakened by beatings and twice daily roll call in minus twenty degree or boiling thirty degree weather."
After the crematorium and the ash cemeteries, we paused by the sculpture memorial to the unknown prisoner, who stood with noticeably large shoes, because prisoners wore wooden clogs, and with his hands in his pockets, because prisoners were forbidden to do so.
"I've heard that this isn't even the worst genocide in history," Tom said. "It's the twelfth worst."
"What's your source?" I asked, as we walked back out to the gate emblazoned 'Arbeit macht frei,' work will set you free.
Tom squinted at me and mentioned Pol Pot and Stalin. I thought of Rwanda, Darfur, the Native Americans, Mao Ze-Dong, Idi Amin, Milosevic, the partition of India between Pakistan and India, and the Armenians. I never found Tom's source, but I took his point: there is no place on Earth, no matter how beautiful, that is untouched by atrocity. To face it honestly is the best that citizens can do, subsequently.
During, the task is to speak up, to dissent.
Then there are the shadowy corridors of the future. Saddened, humbled, I rode the S-bahn back to a city I liked and enjoyed, and I wondered if any sliver of redemption was possible. In a spirit of reverence, both for lives lost and for the potential inherent in human creativity, I ask: is there a lesson to take with us? Can Dachau instill in us any essential truth, or empathy, to avert unbounded aggression in the future? Because when we dehumanize The Other, we throw away our own humanity.
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