Today I went to the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site. It was really… frightening, scary, sad, depressing, shocking, and the like. What took me most by surprise was the beauty in the midst of all the horror. I think some of the architects of the memorial forgot that they didn’t have to make things look warm, comforting, and attractive. I had a hard time capturing the look, but the information building courtyard wall, made to look like a pretty, big, imposing fence, with the red tree leaves and blue sky was beautiful, in a very sad, sad way.
There were also a number of shrines, memorials, chapels, and the like within the main grounds. The Jewish memorial was really well down. To enter, you walk down into the memorial, while the walls rise up out of the ground. There are no lights, but a few candles along the wall, made of huge black stone-bricks. At the very end, when the floor is at the lowest and the ceiling is at the highest, there is a small hole in the ceiling for light to shine down through, giving an immense sense of depth, isolation, and hope.
I remember the Holocaust Museum in DC was really well done (dare I say better done than the Dachau site itself?) The absolutely shocking and horrifying things were displayed in such a way that you could choose to look at them or not, but there were also really moving displays, such as a pile of shoes with a description of what it meant. The Dachau site actually had a lot of the infrastructure - barracks, the bunker, guard towers, crematoriums, and space, a lot of space right near a city with a hunger for real estate. It was very moving and shocking. Any one display or part of the site is worthy of horror and contemplation, but seeing thing after thing after thing that were each individually horrible really painted a picture of how monstrous the machine was systematically (very systematically) and cruelly destroying so many lives.
What I wished I had seen more was an address to the psychology of the machine. As sad as and horrible as the crimes were, as much as every life needs to be individually mourned, we cannot just say, “Never again” (one of the many memorials said this), and leave it at that. How can we be so sure that the same horrible things will not happen again, or is happening, just on a smaller scale? The same ingredients exist today that existed then: fear and lust for power, maybe a little bit of self-righteousness and just-look-out-for-yourself mentality. I don’t even know what’s happening in Darfur other than it makes people buy bumper stickers. Both baby killers and gas-guzzlers have names to call each other.
There were many heroes of the Holocaust, who risked their necks to help others, ease suffering, or help destroy the machine, but there were many, so many more who kept to themselves, used the weakness of others to strengthen their own position, or blithely were caught up by the propaganda. This still happens every day.
I finally found a quiet spot next to a mass grave along the well-manicured and landscaped trail leading away from the crematorium, and buried my face my hands and tried to process everything I’d seen that day. A nice old man (who from the back at least looks like my uber-boss, Steve) came and patted my head as he walked by. It startled me at first, but that moment of a stranger’s kindness stuck with me, and helped temper all that I saw today.
I finally left, and not ready for bouncy happy children or trying to muster a smile about anything at all, I walked to the nearby city of Altstadt, which is supposedly over 1000 years old. After walking for nearly an hour with a heavy book bag that was killing my back, all I found was a two- or three-hundred year old church that looked like it belonged in Mexico. There were gilded figurines everywhere, and some were really cheesy. I sat down in the pews, and thought about the Holocaust some more, and then nearly laughed when I saw the angels on each pillar: angel with sword, angel with spear, angel with scythe, angel with battle axe, angel with hacksaw?
So I left, and got directions to the nearest S-bahn (subway) station from a kindly old man who spoke clearer English than most Americans, and left. Right as I got to the station, a train headed in the right direction was leaving. I got help to buy the ticket from a girl waiting for the train in the other direction, and between her little bit of English and my ein bissien Deutsch, I got the ticket. Then I waited. And waited, and waited. Finally, after maybe half an hour or more, I got worried that there were no more trains, and found a time table. The right train only came every hour, and the next one was in 10 minutes. The train was a little local one and would take me to a station on the main S-bahn line: a station I could have walked to in maybe 15 or 20 minutes. So, I took the train to the S-bahn, and got on the line that would take me a little closer to main Munich so I could switch and get on the train that took me to Elke’s. There, with a pushing crowd, I followed the signs for Gleis 1 and hopped on the train just arriving, but only once the doors closed did I see it was the wrong train. Going in the out of Munich. For a long time before the next stop. So, I had to wait to get off, take the line back into Munich, and finally catch the right train to Moosach. I hated myself just a little bit.
Before all this though, I met a blogging-friend of my mothers. Turns out my mother never physically met the woman, but since we were both in Munich, I got to serve as an ambassador. I’m really glad we did. We met for breakfast (good bread, bad eggs, expensive orange juice) and talked and talked and talked. Laura (code name Honeypiehorse) and Elke both worked for the same employer at different times, and Laura and I both are from the states and know how much my mom kicks ass. Breakfast lasted past noon.
Laura did bring up a very interesting thing to cogitate on: being an au pair. An au pair is a foreigner who provides some childcare and basic housekeeping in exchange for room, board, and an allowance. I know a friend of my step dad’s had a daughter who wanted to be an au pair, and this was looked down upon. It’s not a good life ambition (neither was being a princess, it turns out), but it seems to be a great way to travel to a new country, try out a new culture with a family as a guide, and have a good standard of living with reliable stipend too, all with a term limit. I have an engineering degree and student loans, by all means I should be getting a real job, but… a real job is really important when one has a spouse, a mortgage, a kid. I know I have a domestic streak a mile wide; I want a garden, babies, and unlimited access to a fabulous kitchen. Why not move freely, adventure, explore, and live up the single life while I can, so I have no regrets about not misspending my youth when I’m older?