sun moon stars rain
Reflections on (in)humanity on a rainy day in Dachau
For I have learned to look on nature, not as in the hour of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes the still, sad music of humanity.
—William Wordsworth, “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey”
My wife was invited to speak at a conference in Salzburg recently. I joined her on the last day of the event and, after spending a couple of days in Austria, we headed to Munich for a few days before returning. I had long wanted to visit the memorial at Dachau, which is located just outside the city, and I decided to do so last Sunday. To arrive at the camp, I left the city center and traveled northwest until I reached the pretty little town of Dachau, which looks much like any suburb of Munich: tidy, organized, and well-kept. Alte Römerstraße, the road that leads to the camp, is narrow, lined on both sides with the usual mix of small office buildings and retail centers. Once past the shops, I drove through a residential area of small houses with neat backyards that suggest nothing of the place to which I journeyed. Indeed, just before I arrived at the Memorial, I could just as easily have been visiting a friend or shopping for a new car. Then there appeared on my left a black stone monument on which I read KZ-Gedenkstätte Dachau (“Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site”).
I arrived around noon as a light rain fell. I parked my car and then walked through the entrance and into the visitors’ center. The Memorial is free to visit and, after stopping for an audio guide, I proceeded along a wide gravel path that terminates about fifty meters north of the center. Standing there, to my left I saw the remains of the concrete platform where the trains packed with prisoners arrived day and night. To my right, I saw a small bridge that connects the path to the large cream-colored, two-story concrete gatehouse that stands across the moat that surrounds the camp. The single gate was, for prisoners, the only way in or out of Dachau, and so I walked through its small iron door and stepped onto the large gravel-covered field that makes up most of the campground.
I walked silently, dark clouds moving slowly above me, a cold breeze flowing across the barren field. Perhaps because I visited on a Sunday morning, the camp was almost empty when I arrived, adding to the desolation I felt as I walked to the camp’s museum. With each step, I could hear the gravel shifting and crunching beneath my feet, and a sense of dread crept into me.
After a short walk along the western edge of the camp, I reached the exhibit halls where the stories of Dachau are told. Part of the museum stands within a large rectangular building — the “Bunker” — which housed the camp’s prison and torture chambers when it was operational. Inside the Bunker, one sees and reads about the lives of both jailers and prisoners, their tragic histories forever intertwined in this place of horror. It was difficult, as I walked through the displays, to understand the suffering that took place at Dachau. Our minds find comprehending the loss of one life easier than of ten thousand, and the sheer number of the dead, and the limitless cruelty of the jailers, render impossible a full grasp of the inhumanity of those who built and managed such a place in the name of a man, party, or ideology.
After exiting the Bunker, I moved across the roll-call area and entered a pair of reconstructed prisoner barracks. Inside them, I had a glimpse of the desperation of the inmates’ existence there: the inadequate bunks, cramped latrines, harsh instructions, inflexible discipline, unshakeable cruelty, and never-ending boredom that comprised daily life for captives within the camp’s electrified barrier.
My view of the barracks complete, I made my way down the central avenue that runs the length of the camp. The avenue is lined on both sides by large concrete rectangles that outline where the camp’s thirty-four prisoner barracks once stood, each marked with a stone that bears the building’s number.
At the end of the avenue, I reached the religious memorials built on the grounds after the war. Seeing them, I could not help but marvel that anyone would accept that divine goodness could co-exist with a deity that would tolerate the existence of such a monstrous place. The more I looked at the memorials, the more they struck me as large-scale equivalents of the little bouquets one sees at the sites of mass shootings: the grief-stricken attempt by the living to mark the site of senseless death, to console the bereaved, and to do something — anything — to bring a driblet of hope or beauty to the site of a great human loss.
The religious memorials are located on the north edge of the camp. Standing before them, I thought about the middle-class houses that lie just outside the camp’s southern edge. Perhaps similar houses were there during World War II, I thought, and then reflected on the people leading normal lives adjacent to the camp, probably aware of what was on the other side of the barbed wire. I also speculated about those who live there now, innocent of those earlier atrocities and yet the heirs of their legacy. What must it be like, I wondered, to grow up in the shadow of Dachau, knowing what it represents? Does it fill them with shame? Does the knowledge make them more humane? Did seeing the concentration camp at Dachau every day of their youth illuminate some truth about the place that I, a mere visitor, could never ascertain?
I turned from the memorials and walked toward the northwest corner of the camp. Crossing the moat once again, I soon reached the main crematorium. It is a medium-sized concrete building, and inside are four ovens next to a small gas chamber, that, though never used on a massive scale, nevertheless ended many lives. After several minutes in the crematorium, I crossed a grassy field toward a much smaller structure that resembles a barn. Its doors were open, and inside I saw the pair of ovens that had been used to burn the dead before the larger building was constructed. Unnerved, I stood stupefied before the two iron furnaces for some time in numb contemplation.
It was impossible for me not to think of the day we cremated Enzo, as my eyes were transfixed on this version of the apparatus that disposed of my son’s remains. As I stared into the empty chambers, I tried to place my personal loss into the context of Dachau. I lost a son, and I have written in honor of the young man who left my world much too soon. Staring into the ovens, however, a sense of shame overtook me, as I considered the hundreds of thousands of human beings murdered at Dachau without a single word of mourning for their deaths. My grief — which has overwhelmed my consciousness since last June — suddenly felt insignificant, unworthy of so much sorrow when countless others have lost much more. Thinking of the pain I had endured at the loss of a single life, I struggled to comprehend the limitless sorrow that Dachau represented. Even if it could be comprehended, I wondered, was it possible to express it? Could any human creation really capture the magnitude of what had been lost at this abhorrent place?
After some time lost in these thoughts, I left the ovens and the crematoria and returned to the gatehouse. On the way, the great black bell in the Catholic memorial tolled loudly, and I noted that more people had arrived at the camp. The wide expanse, empty two hours before, was filling with visitors. Seeing them, it struck me that we move through our lives as strangers to the multitudes around us, our faces a momentary blur as we pass them in the street. Most of us never achieve fame; thus, our lives are spent in circles of family, friends, and colleagues. When we are young, we dream of our lives to come; when we are old, we remember our lives gone by. Though we are unique individuals, we follow the same path as those who have traveled before us, the majority of whom left no visible trace of their existence. Even those celebrated in life, are now mostly forgotten, lost in the past, their ephemeral fame dismissed by time’s eternal indifference.
What significance do our lives have, I wondered as I exited the gatehouse, if we mean so little to most of present humanity and even less to posterity? What worth lies in the memory of my son as he moves farther from the living and joins all the others who are gone? What value lies in a life cut short, either by a random accident in a street or by the monstrous cruelty of an inhuman regime?
Searching for answers to my questions, I stopped at the Memorial’s bookstore before leaving, and there one title caught my eye: a slender volume by the Polish writer Tadeusz Borowski called This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen. Borowski was a Christian college student and member of the Polish resistance when he was captured by the Gestapo in 1942. He spent three years at Auschwitz, Natzweiler-Struthof, and finally Dachau. After the war, he published a collection of short stories describing life in the camps.
Reading the book, I realized that it goes far beyond anything that has been shown in films such as Schindler’s List or even Son of Saul. It is a harrowing voyage into a heart of darkness and a searingly brutal portrayal of the loss of humanity by Tadek, the main character, during his years in the camps; nonetheless, it is also a record of how even at his lowest point, Tadek’s love for his fiancée somehow kept him alive. In what is perhaps the book’s only respite from its bottomless pit of barbarity, Borowski presents a letter Tadek wrote to her on a piece of paper given to him by a new arrival at Auschwitz:
Do you know what I am thinking about?
I am thinking about Staryszeweska Street. I look at the dark window, at my face reflected in the glass, and outside I see the blackness occasionally broken by the sudden flash of the watch-tower searchlight that silhouettes fragments of objects in the dark. I look into the night sky and I think of Staryszeweska Street. I remember the sky, pale and luminous, and the bombed-out houses across the street. I think of how much I longed for your body during those days, and I often smile to myself imagining the consternation after my arrest when they must have found in my room, next to my books and my poems, your perfume and your robe, heavy and red like the brocades in Velazquez’s paintings.
I think of how very mature you were; what devotion and—forgive me if I say it now—selflessness you brought to our love, how graciously you used to walk into my life which offered you nothing but a single room without plumbing, evenings with cold tea, a few wilting flowers, a dog that was always playfully gnawing at your shoes, and a paraffin lamp.
I think about those things and smile condescendingly when people speak to me of morality, of law, of tradition, of obligation… Or when they discard all tenderness and sentiment and, shaking their fists, proclaim this the age of toughness. I smile and I think that one human being must always be discovering another—through love. And that is the most important thing on earth, and the most lasting.
Reading this passage, I recalled that at Dachau there were friendships and moments of human kindness — acts of grace that may be forgotten individually but whose existence ennobles the memory of those human beings who walked into, but not out of, that accursed gate. Though Borowski records the beastly cruelty of some whom the Germans imprisoned, the majority attempted, as best they could, to hold on to their decency and dignity even under the constant threat of death that darkened their waking hours. A shared experience of love in our anonymous and fleeting lives is the most we can value. In the time Enzo spent on earth, longer than many who died in the camps, he bonded with his family, friends, and the world around him. Most who perished at Dachau undoubtedly had cherished instances of discovery and love. Even as the inmates choked in the stifling air of the camp, these glad moments could not be undone. In the same way, the happy episodes of my son’s life will breathe joy and love through Bethesda — the town where he lived, loved, and died — a town not much larger than Dachau.
After finishing Borowski’s book, I returned to the questions the ovens at Dachau had raised in my mind. The more I thought about them, the more I recalled another work, this one by E. E. Cummings. One of his poems tells the story of “anyone,” a man who lives in “a pretty how town.” There, one day, he falls in love with “noone,” a woman with whom he shares his life and next to whom he is buried when they have died. The poem is the story of love experienced in obscurity and an elegy to two anonymous human beings, unnamed and unknown but to each other, who live their lives, as most of us do, trying to be kind and to be worthy of affection.
Thinking about Cummings’ poem, I found the connection I had sought at Dachau. Enzo may have been an anyone to most of the world, but he was a someone to me. My discovery of him, while he lived, gave my life meaning. Likewise, all those lost at Dachau — anyones to us — all had their someones, and the experience of having a someone is what we — all of us, past and present — share. It is also what gives us the license to mourn the loss of those who are close and those who are distant with equal force.
“Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind,” wrote John Donne centuries ago, “and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” The loss of all those souls at Dachau diminishes all of us, just as any child’s loss diminishes the world in some unseen way. I understand now that a parent’s mourning is not just for a son or daughter, but for the world that will never know him or her. Thus, for me at least, to mourn Enzo is, to mourn those who died in the camps whom I will never know. My grief is a coalescence of particular and universal diminishment: The ashes in the ovens belong to us all.
anyone lived in a pretty how town
(with up so floating many bells down)
spring summer autumn winter
he sang his didn’t he danced his did. -
Women and men(both little and small)
cared for anyone not at all
they sowed their isn’t they reaped their same
sun moon stars rain -
children guessed(but only a few
and down they forgot as up they grew
autumn winter spring summer)
that noone loved him more by more -
when by now and tree by leaf
she laughed his joy she cried his grief
bird by snow and stir by still
anyone’s any was all to her -
someones married their everyones
laughed their cryings and did their dance
(sleep wake hope and then)they
said their nevers they slept their dream -
stars rain sun moon
(and only the snow can begin to explain
how children are apt to forget to remember
with up so floating many bells down) -
one day anyone died i guess
(and noone stooped to kiss his face)
busy folk buried them side by side
little by little and was by was -
all by all and deep by deep
and more by more they dream their sleep
noone and anyone earth by april
wish by spirit and if by yes. -
Women and men(both dong and ding)
summer autumn winter spring
reaped their sowing and went their came
sun moon stars rain
Tadeusz Borowski, This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, Translated by B. Vedder (Penguin Classics, 1967), p. 110.