Friday, January 7, 2011

"War Stories" - a snippet

In 1985, I backpacked through Europe for almost two weeks after working for nine days at a trade show. When I returned home, I wrote an essay, "War Stories," that I've never sold. In email the other day, Sam Montgomery-Blinn, friend and editor of Bull SPEC, suggested that I visit the Holocaust Memorial in Boston while I'm at Arisia. His suggestion led me to recall the essay. Here's one small bit of it, exactly as I wrote it then, never before published.

We toured Dachau for several hours on an early May afternoon. The reconstruction was largely faithful to the original, although the old barracks had been destroyed. Two replicas of the barracks stood in the stead of those now gone.

The Dachau museum and grounds were an assault on the imagination. Several months past I had attended a Bruce Springsteen concert. My seat was very close to the stage, and the music was very loud. The music and the feeling of community lifted me into a state of near euphoria. It also left me unable to hear correctly for over six hours. The week before I had learned that the greatest art man can produce can only be absorbed for a sadly small number of hours. After four or five hours in the Louvre I was ready to beg for no more Da Vinci's, no more Raphael. My head and eyes hurt even as my heart rejoiced in the good that man can produce. Both of these were attacks on my senses and emotions. My recovery from each required some time.

Neither matched the gut-level battering that Dachau delivered. I doubt I shall soon recover from it. In self-defense, I seem to let through only a few memories at a time. Still, several images have not left me.

As I walked past the guard towers and into the complex, it began to snow. The temperature was around thirty degrees, and the wind was whipping about small trees like a child playing with a noise maker. I was freezing. The snow was not sticking, but it was wet and cold nonetheless.

Inside, about an hour into my tour and warm and comfortable, I came to an exhibit that explained some of the common prisoner punishments. A first offense, mild reprimand, the plaque explained, was to be forced to stand at attention for twenty-four hours on the parade ground. Thinking about it briefly, that did not seem so bad. I had to stand for long stretches at the trade show a few weeks before, and, while unpleasant, it certainly had not been torture.

On the way out I saw the last of the snow falling. As I opened the door I was hit with the strong wind and was instantly chilled to the bone. It was the third day of May. I was shaking cold in under a minute. I had on a long-sleeved shirt and an old army coat. The average prisoner uniform was a thin gray shirt and matching pants.

Only two images brought me to tears. I covered my face each time, unwilling to share them with my companion. The first was a picture of a room. The room seemed to be about ten feet by about fifteen feet, with a nine foot ceiling. With the exception of a few empty square feet near the ceiling at the front of the room, it was filled with the bodies of dead men. These were the bodies of those who had not yet been cremated in the camp's ovens. They were the backlog. There were two large ovens at Dachau. Both were run around the clock near the end of the war.

The picture alone did not make me cry. However, I later visited the room in the picture. It was scrubbed clean now, its walls eggshell white. It was larger, more like fifteen feet by twenty feet. It was not a reconstruction, but the same room as in the picture. I stood in the middle of it, and then I cried.

The second image required no visit. It, too, was a picture of a room, this time one in Auschwitz. It was a room seemingly nearly twice the size of the first one, filled almost to the point of overflowing with shoes of the cremated dead.

According to the book I bought at the museum, over two hundred and six thousand prisoners were kept at Dachau from its opening in 1933 until its liberation in 1945. Over thirty-one thousand deaths were reported. This does not count those assigned to Dachau by the Gestapo for execution, Soviet prisoners of war who were sent there for execution, or those who died in evacuation transports and death marches.

A sign just outside the museum and at the head of the main parade grounds offers an admonition and a promise. In four languages, including English, it says



Michelle said...

You will appreciate and be greatly saddened by the Holocaust Museum in Boston. It is humbling and sad and shameful and honoring all at the same time. The immediate scene are glass towers, one for each of the concentration camps with prisoner numbers etched on them. So many numbers. The Holocaust Museum in DC left me that same way. The pictures, oh the pictures. The one that brought me to my knees was of all the children's items: stuffed animals, shoes, bits of clothing. It took days to stop trembling and I still feel the raw emotion of the exhibits. But, it is important to experience this. Because the sign is right, it must never happen again.

Mark said...

I still don't know if I will have time to go to the one in Boston. I do know that it is very sad that genocide is still going on around the world.

Elizabeth said...

I love the resolve of the sign outside the camp. But I've read articles in the last few years, talking about the growing dissatisfaction in Germany's political and economic circumstances, rumblings and whispers of anti-Semitism and anti-Islamic sentiment, underground racists circumventing the laws against such rhetoric, an evil and festering wound just below the surface. It's frightening that in a country where evidence of such evil is available for all, that anyone would harbor such distasteful ideas - such wickedness, such malevolence. It's sad. It's terrifying.

Mark said...

It is sad and terrifying. I also find, however, that it's at least as sad and terrifying that we have the same sorts of rhetoric in America. I wish we as a species would learn.

Ticia said...

"I wish we as a species would learn."

Yes, exactly this.


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