MARCH 2006 – NO. 4
I had thought the "Arbeit Macht Frei" sign would be grander, more foreboding and dystopian. Given what I knew about the Nazis' brand of showy cruelty, I had imagined it would be maybe ten feet tall and 30 feet off the ground, not the small wrought-iron structure I gazed at now, which in a rustic New England setting could have read something like "Welcome to Maple Farm."
I was at Dachau concentration camp with two friends from my study abroad program in Spain. We were traveling through Europe on our Spring Break, currently staying in Munich, and had come to the concentration camp out of a sense of duty, not only to the past but to the rules of being a young tourist in Germany (you must drink at the beer gardens, eat the schnitzel, and see a gas chamber before you leave). Officially, I had the best reason among us to show interest in the camp: my great grandparents and a number of other relatives had been deported from their homes and killed at Auschwitz and other death camps during the war. Though I had grown up with a strong sense of my family's history, I had never visited an important Holocaust site save the Anne Frank House.
Our tour group flocked around the friendly German guide. I pulled out my sunglasses case — it was late afternoon already, and the April glare was getting in my eyes — only to find that my sunglasses were nowhere to be found. Panicked, I goofily slapped the pockets of my shorts the way one does when wallet, keys, or phone are missing. No sunglasses. I speedwalked back to a small rock on which I had been sitting a few minutes earlier — nothing. I swore, kicked up a cloud of dust and stuck my hands in my pockets.
The group was ambling across the flat central area of the camp, about 30 feet away now, and in a couple of minutes they would reach the gas chambers. We were nearing the end of the line. I thought back to where we had come from. ("Where was the last place you saw them?" my family's unhelpful refrain in these situations, echoed in my head.) We had toured the bunks where prisoners were forced to sleep on top of each other, their urine and feces often dripping onto prisoners below them; we had stood outside in the open, gravelly expanse where the notorious lineups had forced starving and injured prisoners to stand for hours at a time; we had seen the posts where Nazi guards had tied prisoners to maximize their pain and physical and mental exhaustion. I was pretty sure I had not put my sunglasses down at any of those places.
As I jogged to catch up with the crowd of visitors near the gas chamber, there was a vivid image in my head of my sunglasses, neatly folded on whatever obvious surface I had left them, patiently waiting to be discovered. Our tour guide was now explaining that the gas chamber at Dachau was never actually used; inmates would be transferred to other camps if they were to be exterminated with Zyklon B. I was thinking of the morning train we had taken from Munich, then the bus after that. Was it possible I had absentmindedly placed my case on a tray table somewhere, perhaps in the midst of digging my iPod out of my pocket? My eyes glazed over as I pondered the endless possibilities. I had bought the sunglasses at a mall in suburban Boston for $50.
I recall thinking that a description of this incident would have been a "funny" way to start a short story, or at least a self-consciously strange one. Maybe I even thought of the vast disconnect between my family's history and my comfortable station in life as cool or exotic; to weave the whole thing into a tale about teenage disaffection, or bored American kids in Europe, or whatever one wants to write about in college, vaguely excited me. But the guilt was still there in the background, along with the sense that I simply couldn't process what had gone on at Dachau. I had always liked history as a subject, enjoyed the solidity of it — it was even my major back at school. But I felt at that moment the awesome gulf between imagination and reality that history created, even when my own family was involved. The refrain in my head that went something like "this really happened, this really happened, this really happened" could only go so far. My primary focus was still the sunglasses. All the awareness in the world couldn't change what I was feeling.
And there was probably a touch of indignation, too. Was I supposed to abandon my search immediately just because I was visiting a concentration camp? Regular people came here every day now; standard life events were the norm. People went to the bathroom, worried about obligations at the office, texted their friends about tonight's plans. Where was the line between respecting the murdered and moving forward with the undramatic banality of modern life? I was ashamed to put so much thought into the question.
A cursory check of the Dachau Lost and Found yielded nothing. As we were about to board the bus to take us closer to our hotel in Munich, I convinced one of my friends to scour the grounds with me one last time. The sun was setting by now, and the chances of finding anything were becoming slimmer by the minute. But we combed the place anyway, walking briskly where unspeakable horrors had once taken place, staring at the grass and dirt as if we were inspecting the scene of a single crime.
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