(A reprise post from the early days of the original mil-blog, Sgt. Stryker’s Daily Brief, which was posted so long ago that the only place I had it preserved was in a collection of posts about matters historical.)
In the month of September, 1985, my daughter and I spent a couple of weeks in Italy, before I took the Autostrada north, over the Brenner Pass. I had decided to drive across Europe, when I got orders transferring me from Greece, to Spain. The Air Force generously provided passage on the car ferry from Patras to Brindisi, and Blondie and I were off on a six-week long ramble.
In the space of a day, we went from flat northern Italian landscapes of cypress trees and square campanile towers to green terraced fields clinging to a steep mountainside, and chalets and the onion-domed church towers of Bavaria. Just north of the Austrian border, I got tired of driving. In a little town just off the highway somewhat short of Munich (now, since we were in Germany, it was an autobahn) I spotted a sign for a “Zimmer frei”, and for a night rented a guest bedroom from a nice elderly German woman whose guest bathroom provided hot water only in the sink tap. Complaint in rusty college German only roused mutual incomprehension. The bedroom seemed to be that of her long-grown and departed children, with twin beds and a wardrobe upon which someone had painted a view of the nearby village, as seen from the bedroom windows.
She served us a lovely breakfast the next morning on what seemed to be her best china, and lavished affection and attention upon my daughter. We had gone from the Mediterranean, where fair blonds were a rarity and a focus of attention on that account, to Northern Europe, where they were a focus of attention because they resembled grandchildren. Not too much to chose between, it seemed: my daughter still promised to take a bite out of the wrist of anyone who petted the top of her head as if she were a small dog.
I skirted Munich and the suburbs, following the map on page 44 of my Hallwag Euro Guide, a telephone book sized atlas of maps to all of Europe west of Russia, showing all those major and a good slice of the secondary roads. It was my Bible in navigating the Pumpkin across Europe. There was a turn-off road to look for, if I began seeing directional signs for Augsburg, I had gone too far. There it was . . . there was the town, a nice little cluster of houses and duplexes. I kind of wondered what they called their local sports team. Perhaps they borrowed the name of the next hamlet over. Or they could have just gotten used to it. I must have seen a directional sign there, because I found the right road, heading out towards the countryside again, so lush and green on a foggy weekday morning, even the unkempt waste places looked like a garden to someone used to the Mediterranean, or the scrub chamisa of Southern California. A tidy, organized country, Germany, everything beautifully groomed, trimmed and the scraps swept away… except for this. Especially this.
I didn’t need a sign for the place, when the fence line and the guard towers suddenly appeared, along the left-hand side of the road. Goddamn… it looked like a movie set. It looked like all the pictures I had ever seen of prison camps. It looked like the set for Stalag 17. This was the place all right. I parked in a nearly deserted graveled parking area. The fog was beginning to burn off, but it lent the place a sense of being stifled, of sound being muffled.
“What is this place?” Blondie asked, looking around dubiously.
“It’s called Dachau, it was a special kind of prison camp, sweetie. The Nazis… you remember who the Nazis were? They put their enemies in camps like this, and treated them horribly.”
“Enemies? Like Indiana Jones?”
“Made-up story, sweetie. But yes, they rounded up all sorts of people; mostly people who disagreed with them, or people they wanted to blame things on.” How to explain it to someone five years old, someone who has the Greco-Roman pantheon well mixed up with the concepts gathered from attendance at the general Protestant services? “Like the Jews, and the Jehovah’s’ Witnesses.” She looked a little baffled, “People who went to different services,” I explained. “They also rounded up the Gypsies . . . you know, the people who used to come around selling fruit, and fixing chairs and things? And people who didn’t agree with them politically, like Communists . . .”
I am drawing a blank again. But it is important that she see this, to know what happens when people hate, how it can poison a person, how it can poison a country. I took her hand, and we walked towards a long building at the end of the compound.
“You’ll be starting school, when we get to Spain,” I said, as we climbed a couple of steps. “And sometime, and at some point, someone will start being hateful to someone else, calling them names because of where their family comes from, or what color their skin is, or how they worship. That first someone will want you to hate that other person. But you must not, not even if that first person is a friend, or you want them to like you, or even if you are afraid they might turn everyone else against you. What they want you to do is wicked and wrong, and you must not do it. A place like this is what could happen, if you went along.”
Inside our footsteps fell on the wooden floor with the peculiar hollowness typical of temporary buildings. A sign in several languages recommended that children under the age of 14 not be taken into the exhibit rooms; I paid for us both, and ignored the look of disapproval. The exhibits were fairly mild, as it turned out, mostly old black and white photos. We walked out into watery sunshine, and across to the remaining barracks building; a reconstruction, at it turned out. It had the same hollow, temporary feel to it as the main building. The originals had been bulldozed or burnt down at the end of the war, apparently – I could not imagine anyone wanting to preserve them as they were, not even for historical purposes. A small wrought-iron gate stood over the single-lane roadway, where another compound had adjoined the first.
“It always looked larger in pictures,” I said out loud. “Arbeit macht frei; it means, ‘Labor Liberates.’ I suppose so, if you are working people to death. I never thought of Himmler as having a sense of humor.”
A narrow gravel path led to a small grove of trees, well planted with flowering shrubs, and another small building with the flimsy temporary feel of the other two; the crematorium. The pretty landscaping around it seemed rather an obscenity. This was a horrible place, where horrible things had happened for years.
Even if I had known nothing about Dachau, it seemed to me that I should be able to feel the horror still lingering.