In 1971, Marge and I were on Honeymoon in Germany. We had been in the lovely village of Garmisch and were going north, toward the end of our stay. We saw the sign for Dachau and decided to get off the Autobahn for lunch in that historic city. The following piece took many years for me to write. I’ll let it tell the story.
“Visit Dachau, the 1200 years old artists’ centre with its castle and surrounding park offering a splendid view over the country.”
Sign along the Autobahn, May 1971
It seemed the appropriate thing –
after Munich’s beer halls,
toward the marching torchlights of Nuremberg,
filled with Bavarian spring glory;
– as a traveling artist might
for schnitzel and beer;
for a May afternoon,
where so many lived their lives
“We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds . . ..” Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Houses and shops stand like unmoving spectators
edging medieval streets
whose cobbles pound our tires,
slamming in rhythmic thumps,
echoing from claustrophobic walls
like jackboots at quick march.
The gasthaus windows hold blurry leaded panes,
ancient as its yellowed mortar and bricks.
It slumbers the days beside shops with newer glass
-a comfortable quiet neighbor,
as old as evil.
Our host, bespectacled and fat,
knows us for Americans,
and waves aside our bookish German,
welcoming in robust English.
We sit in sturdy oak chairs,
before a round hand-made table
under shelves with pewter plates and tankards
high above, on clean white walls.
Dark lager (cold for tourists),
and bratwurst with potato dumplings
blend with holiday gemutlichkeit,
fill us with stealthy languor
until the question
stops genial smiles,
stops talk that had eddied in holiday air
like swirls of pipe smoke.
where is the prison camp?”
The concentration camp.
He doesn’t know,
can hardly understand;
-business keeps him close,
perhaps another can tell,
good-bye, thank you,
The waitress has heard;
-is young, with a dirndl only for work.
Follow the old railroad;
look where a branch splits in weeds to a siding
where things were once unloaded.
We will see chimneys,
then, the road inside is near.
She tells us a story she had heard;
when only a youth,
had crept silently in the night
to throw loaves of bread over the walls.
It was always closer than we knew.
From any higher vantage,
-a public building, standing tall
or church with a strong steeple,
we might have seen the camp before,
but persistent soot darkened their windows,
hiding the sight.
We traveled on the prison road
before we knew where it led.
once bright hard German steel
that barely flexed under loaded cattle cars—
lie obscured now,
camouflaged in rust and silence.
“ARBEIT MACHT FREI”
Work will make you free,
the sign above the gate promised each morning.
Everyone worked then,
The Fuehrer led us to our tasks.
I typed and filed for the SS Doctors;
crimes against The Reich,
cross indexed by tattoo number
All the family has poor vision,
-I’m almost blind without heavy glasses
given me by the party-
but wanted to wear the black shirt;
had envied hordes of SS ranks at Nuremberg,
following swastika standards,
stepping to the pagan roll of kettle drums,
emblazoned with lightning and death-heads.
That night in thirty-four, my family joined the march;
bearing our torches toward The Fuerher’s stand,
down that dark path
where a column of spotlights pointed skyward,
and disappeared in emptiness.
The doctors gave me the storm trooper shirt
pinned with silver runes and skulls
-made me one of them
as an honor,
after I assisted in a medical experiment.
-I only followed orders,
only kept records.
They called him their Test Pilot,
-laughed at the irony of a Jew
dressed in Luftwaffe flight gear,
testing North Atlantic water survival
beneath the walls of Dachau.
He sat in a wooden tub,
chained to his task,
submerged to the neck in icy brine
that mocked the life vest he wore.
How long, the doctors had asked,
should we search for pilots
downed at sea in winter?
-How long, they wanted to know,
would it take the Jew to die?
I held the stopwatch.
watching both hands circle,
until his work had made him free.
Late in the night,
as the SS doctors drank and ate,
telling stories and laughing in our gasthaus,
I stole bread from the kitchen,
found my way in darkness,
and threw loaves over the wall.
The picture hangs in the camp museum;
-part of the records we kept-
A doctor counts the Jew’s slowing pulse,
another ensures the water is cold enough.
Two others watch.
I stand away, to one side,
wearing the SS shirt that doesn’t fit,
looking down at stopwatch and clipboard.
Everyone else looks at the camera.
and the Test Pilot.
No one in town knows
who that young clerk was.
Now, the path into the camp;
-a long entrance way,
whose high, whitewashed walls,
blank and mute,
keeps all sights enclosed.
One blind guard tower watches the gate.
It could be a schoolhouse,
an innocent white frame building,
where children hang bright crayon drawings
down long hallways with fragrant oiled floors.
It was once camp headquarters.
Inside, we submerge into the Third Reich:
black and white pictures in iron racks,
enlarged beyond reality,
stare back at us.
Hitler points and screams,
his grainy, sightless, long-dead eyes
storm from the poster
with erupting blackness
like a sudden rush of vulture’s wings.
–a man chained in a wooden tub,
freezes in ice water.
Doctors in SS uniform watch.
–a “Test Person” locked in a steel tank,
– a series of pictures
taken through a small thick window,
panics as his air is sucked out,
claws his face,
contorted in the vacuum,
until his lungs rupture.
–bodies, living and dead,
like stick-figures drawn by an insane child,
stare out from their wooden sleeping bins,
or lie stacked in a pit;
arms, legs, necks jutting in broken angles.
written in a precise hand
translated on another book to English,
to French, to Russian,
as exact transcripts of torture and death
-a daily journal
of ordinary horrors
–a long, slatted oak table,
concave across its breadth,
specially made for beatings,
-stained from its work,
stands highlighted by a sudden shaft of sunlight.
I am only a simple carpenter
my thoughts lie in my hands,
and follow the grain of German wood.
I could not see the crooked Nazi design
beneath the lines and print that held their plan.
They used my work
…stained my pride,
bloodied the pores of clear young oak,
shaming the art of my ancient trade.
I am only one man,
…a poor carver of wood,
I made the tables where they drank at night,
-and whipping tables for their prey.
What would you have me do?
Is a carpenter,
the son of a carpenter,
-to try to save the world?
We see nearly all of it now,
tall schoolhouse windows admit the sight.
The May sun is still not warm enough,
but we surface into newer air,
limestone gravel crunches and echoes as we walk.
Only one hut stands,
a replica from new wood,
For the rest,
empty ranks of concrete foundations,
like indelible tracks from an army of giants,
stand squarely aligned in stone formation;
like casts of dinosaur footprints,
of what once stood here.
Two chapels at the far end,
grown on this dead ground
like bright fungus
leaching sustenance from a fallen tree,
Even from this vantage,
where once we would have smelled them,
we still cannot see gas chambers
THE CHAPELS AT DACHAU
Like constructs from an alien reality,
the chapels sit on this barren ground
along the path to gas chambers.
Catholic and Protestant, they lie
unaligned with the vacant, squared foundation ranks.
Their modern concrete,
sweeps in flowing curves,
and brown rock from distant quarries,
artfully forms a vertical cylinder,
holding its sheltered crucifix behind a steel fence
with points like tips of bayonets.
comfortable backdrops for pictures,
or sites for occasional brief prayer
by pious tourists who come to visit.
These would have been a place to pause,
where those driven down this trail,
could kneel in meager comfort,
before a cross whose arms were not deformed
into a swastika.
But this dead earth lay unblessed,
churches and their architects — distant:
the Vatican tending her own affairs,
and preachers, heeding the voice of Luther,
could not see
beyond the Nazi walls.
We finally make our turn,
where the walls seemed to break,
what we knew without seeing.
The gas chamber,
three tall brick chimneys;
by later production standards
-at Auschwitz, at Buchenwald,
Short, thick, white candles,
burn in stretcher-shaped iron beds,
-that had committed the flesh to the flames-
sending thin guttering smoke
up chimneys still crusted inside with darker soot.
Like an oasis,
like water in desert places,
standing aside from the “Fumigation Chamber”
surrounded by greenery, flowers and grass
a small statue of a small man,
dressed in tatters and a too-large coat
focuses tired, resigned bronze eyes
on a place beyond our view.
A symbol, the sign says,
of all who suffered here.
There were always the walls,
as a man, I could never see Germany beyond the ghetto,
could only hear the rhythmic stamp of boots,
grinding whine and clank of tanks,
shouts and commands of Nazi officers;
noises in the distance,
My violin, my brother, Bach, and other friends
made music a comforting blanket
covering our small spaces in practiced familiar sound.
Then the night of torch lights,
doors smashed open,
armed men cursing, laughing,
their dogs growling, snapping,
herding us down streets we no longer knew
shoving my twin against me,
packing a boxcar in a strange rail yard,
new in the town
where I was born.
Wind and train whistle screamed,
tracks of the Reich hurried from our origins,
distance stretching terror inside like violin gut,
bowed with constant rushing slap of steel to steel,
moaning in discordant minor keys.
Brought at last to Dachau,
because we were twins
because our hair was red,
because we were “untermenschen”
because we were Jews;
we piqued the Nazi curiosity
we made amusing subjects
for the doctors’ experiments.
I am Nathan.
I was here,
stacked like cordwood
waiting for fire.
My life was dirt
beneath the Nazi boots.
Fire transformed the last of sinew and skin
The grinding wheel of years made me dust.
Dust, with all the others.
I am Nathan,
I am here.
I am dust.
Dust on your shoes you will carry away;
dust you breathe
-even as you try to hold your breath
my dust with the dust of millions coats your lungs,
seeps in your veins
I will be here
I will be with you