Sunday, April 11, 2010

Visiting Dachau With My Half-Jewish/Half-German Son - by b

Reading, Dachau

On our recent trip to Munich I visited Dachau with Arel.

I did not take him on our last trip a year ago—he was too young. And I had thoughts of my own to synthesize.

When we ended up visiting Munich again -- for an 80th birthday of Kristin's uncle – Kristin and I both felt Arel was ready. And I felt ready as well--as ready as I was going to be. Because Arel himself is a synthesis of German and Jewish families, I wanted this very intense introduction to the holocaust and world war II to be as synthesized (vs. one-sided) as possible.

The visit reinforced for me just how much I have thought about this event in history --- from since I was a young child. And how little my core view of it has changed. As I was growing up many questions were asked and answered around me that centered around whether there was something inherently evil about Germans, and inherently weak about Jews. Even as a young child I felt the answer to both questions had to be no.

Arel and I set out early on our last day in Munich. It's a short ride on the metro from the center of town--- and then a bus ride from the train station in the town of Dachau to the concentration camp itself. We could have walked instead of taking the bus --- there is a clear path with instructional/memorial plaques (starting with the one in the photo above).

We arrived a few minutes before the camp opened. There were few people at that hour.

It is paradoxically very beautiful there... I remember this from visiting Terezin on the outskirts of Prague---the setting is very pretty, very much natural, and the birds chirp. It is a strange sensation.

The camp itself (officially it's called a memorial site) is a wide open space ... there are no barracks anymore, just their long, narrow rectangular foundations sticking up perhaps a foot or two above the gravel. It is hard to imagine the six thousand people the place was built to imprison being there ... let alone the 32,000 who were there at the end of the war. The place does not give that impression.

It was chilly but there was some sun.

We spent two hours there... including quite a long time in the museum that attempts to explain how a place like Dachau could come to be. At one point I asked Arel if he was ready to look around the camp. He wanted to keep reading and studying the photos.

It was a bit warmer when we went back outside. I wondered whether there were moments if one was a prisoner there, if the sun would shine and things might feel ok for a moment ... could that have been possible?

Arel and I talked a lot... How in the age of Facebook status updates and knowing what ones' friends are up to wherever they are in the world what it must have felt like to not know where your friends and family were-- to know if they were alive or not... how it might have felt to live like that? In the camp. And outside too where life was also in turmoil.

At the far end of the camp are memorials built by various groups ... the camp had prisoners from a variety of backgrounds.

We visited some of them. We also walked into a small chapel just outside the camp where Arel lit a candle in memory of Kristin's father. Bert used to light candles if he would ever wander into a church on his travels... so our kids sometimes do this for him.

We went to the crematorium. It is also at the back--and off to the side-- I gave Arel the option of not going in. But he came. It is extremely sobering to walk through the succession of rooms ... the room where prisoners were told to remove their clothing so that they could shower. The shower that was actually a gas chamber (the doors were what got me the most). The next room where bodies were stacked, and then the crematorium where the bodies were burned.

This was strange. And numbing. And confusing. Ironically this most horrible core of Dachau was surrounded by its most beautiful nature. At one point, Arel and I caught sight of a field mouse scurrying by.

It’s impossible to stand there and not ask oneself how this happened?


The words displayed prominently above the Jewish memorial are from Psalm 9:21... "let the nations know they are but men."

Traditional Jewish translation/interpretation would say that "the nations" are the nations other than the Jews... as in "goyim" which simply means "nations". That's not always the case though. The word goy refers to the nation of Israel itself in a number of biblical references.

I read this warning as applied to all nations --- that we are all made up of human beings and we all might be capable of imposing, allowing to happen or suffering the unspeakable cruelty that occurred at Dachau and the camps it served as a model for--- and during all the other massacres and genocides and horrors that people did to people before, during and since WWII all over the world.

Sometimes when I am in San Francisco I imagine a loaf of bread shooting up in price to 200 million dollars (a loaf cost 200 million Deutsche Mark leading up to the rise of the Reich) and unscrupulous leaders using very savvy media techniques to effectively target a scapegoat---while simultaneously creating a totalitarian system of control. I'm not sure how long the SF ethos of crunchy universalism would hold up. And how would I act?

I feel almost any of us could be on either side and we have the power and responsibility to work to prevent sides having to be drawn.

On our door in San Francisco we have a traditional Jewish object.. it's a mezuzah.. it is traditionally placed on the doorpost of homes where Jews live---it harks back to the story of Passover when Jews painted their doorposts with blood of a sacrificial lamb so that god would pass-over their homes when handing out the final plague on the Egyptians --the killing of the first born sons.

Mezuzah cases can be very beautiful objects of art..despite the dark story the object recalls. And they all have a prayer inside. I wanted a mezuzah on our door... but I wanted something more searching inside... not a statement of faith. I replaced the prayer inside with the lyrics to a very beautiful ... but dark and haunting song called "dona dona"...

It was written by two Jews in the early 1940s. It is a song of a calf being sent to slaughter in a farmer's wagon. The calf is looking up at a swallow flying freely. The farmer asks the calf, why aren't you a swallow? And the chorus is darkest of all: "how the winds are laughing.. they laugh with all their might"

At any given time in history --- due to circumstances beyond our own control---we might be a calf or a swallow (or the farmer driving the wagon). We might be able to change our own position. Or we might not. We do have the power now to know this and to work in any way we can to prevent our victimhood or our creating victims. At some point a society gets too far down a path. The time to think and act is long before that time.

If you like, here are the words to the song. You might know it. It was made quite popular in the 60s and translated into a number of languages.

Oyfn furl ligt dos kelbl,
Ligt gebundn mit a shtrik.
Hoykh in himl flit dos shvelbl,
Freyt zikh, dreyt zikh hin un tsrik.
Lakht der vint in korn,
Lakht un lakht un lakht,
Lakht er op a tog a gantsn
Mit a halber nakht.
Dona, dona, dona, ...
Shrayt dos kelbl, zogt der poyer:
Ver zhe heyst dikh zayn a kalb?
Volst gekent dokh zayn a foygl,
Volst gekent dokh zayn a shvalb.
Bidne kelber tut men bindn
Un men shlept zey un men shekht,
Ver s'hot fligl, flit aroyftsu,
Iz bay keynem nit keyn knekht.

On a wagon bound for market
There's a calf with a mournful eye.
High above him there's a swallow
Winging swiftly through the sky.
How the winds are laughing
They laugh with all their might
Laugh and laugh the whole day through
And half the summer's night.
Dona, dona, dona...
"Stop complaining," said the farmer,
"Who told you a calf to be?
Why don't you have wings to fly with
Like the swallow so proud and free?"
Calves are easily bound and slaughtered
Never knowing the reason why.
But whoever treasures freedom,
Like the swallow has learned to fly.