the first thing we do—
Line ourselves into categories.
Labeling you lessens your humanity,
Removes you once from me,
Justifies how we use
One another as grist for
Clinking against tea glasses
Our tailoring, our tales, our wars.
I was ready to walk out the door, alone, to go on a tour of Dachau Concentration Camp. Breakfast, first then. I picked up a book to take down to breakfast. I had time to come upstairs and brush my teeth and put my book away before I left.
Then I thought not today. Today, I’ll be naked. It’s just me, there in the cafe. I’ll stay open today, I’ll be absorbent.
In the café my server, Mandy, greeted me with a cheerful, “Guten Tag.” I sat facing the Munich train station, dainty cup of coffee pressed to my lips. Watching people press out of the train station. Listening to the men sitting next to me; one hadn’t slept all night. He had a stomach ache. The other, chatty, perky. He traveled from Hong Kong, and spoke of his children in tones of affection.
I wondered what this area around the train station was like during the War, when the soldiers and supplies wove through. Did they spill out of the exits in every mood like now? What did the women in the houses across the street wear as they went about their daily chores? Did they push open their windows and smoke while the radio played in the background?
Standing outside of the guide office; I was early, but so were the others. The nervous milling that we do when we’re not quite sure. A group of college students. I surmised they were on holiday together from the states. Tall, thin bodies, perfectly straight teeth. Lots of jockeying for position. A boy, wishing he could get the girls to pay attention. The girls, granting him tentative status in the group, on its outer fringes.
The guide. A man from England, about my age. He anticipated the story he was about to tell. I knew much of what he’d say, because I’m an adult. The students, whose high school prom pictures still line their parents’ walls, they didn’t know what the guide would say. They hadn’t begun to guess the story of the first Concentration Camp in Germany.
Eleven minutes on the train to Dachau. The train, like the rest of Germany, clean and efficient. As if the memory of all that transpires on them is swiped by a night crew. The bus ride to the camp, which is well outside the city of Dachau itself. The green-eyed college girl who approached me and said a bold hello as we walked to the camp site. She was from Iowa. She knew I was alone, and she didn’t want me to remain alone.
The guide, Steve, holding us at the entrance to the camp. His explanation of how the camp started, the gaps he filled to help us understand how the Germans were able to justify racial cleansing. The unanswered questions he tried to address in the hour he had us as a captive audience.
The broad sweep of dirt ground where the prisoners stood for roll call each morning. How my pictures didn’t replicate what my eye saw, the sheer size. The knowledge that this was one of the small camps. Imagining the vast space taken up by prisoners. Steve pointing to the entrance gate, saying that this is where they made prisoners stand while they tortured them. The wide green eyes of my Iowan friend as Steve spoke of torture. Her eyes, filled with unspent terror and an echo of the fear prisoners must have felt as they entered this place. The widened eyes of youth, and how I contrasted her shock with my own jaded response.
The first room we entered. Steve said, “This is where the choices began. This is where prisoners entered the camp. This is where they were stripped and stood naked, waiting for their disposition.”
Some of the prisoners, Steve said, began to organize. Got in good with the guards. Traded for needed items when they left the camp to go on work details. Created a backhanded network to make their lives bearable, the lives of their fellow inmates. How some inmates made the choice to continue to rage against the injustices visited upon them in this hell.
He went on to say that some prisoners became sadistic killers in order to distance themselves from the victimization. Of everything Steve said, this was the most atrocious, the most unexpected. Something I hadn’t considered, maybe I had never considered in my whole life. Why make the choice to become as brutal as one’s captors? The freedom of will each prisoner experienced when standing naked and imprisoned of body. In shackles, the soul still chooses.
I walked the grounds, I looked at the ovens, the gas chamber. In the back of the grounds, behind the ovens, the pistol range for executions. Markers, like stepping stones, litter the ground. “Graves of unknown dead,” they said. A lone marker, covered in pebbles. I felt the tears well up, thinking of school children picking up what they could find, placing the pebbles one by one on the grave that could be as deep as the earth’s core. A testament. I was here. I picked up a pebble and placed it on the gravestone. Then I turned to leave. I had to turn and leave.
I walked, alone, back to the entrance. The memorial sculpture stood high, black in relief of the blue day. The sculpture– bodies, naked and mangled. To one side of the sculpture, the art installation. Colored triangles layered upon one another, stripes, circles. Steve had told us about the shapes. Triangles to categorize; political prisoner, homosexual, gypsy, Jew. Stripes to warn; number of attempted escapes, repeat offenses. Round, red circles to target; sewn over hearts, groins, kidneys, small intestines. Circles to neaten the kill. Clean, efficient.
On the train home, I cornered Steve and peppered him with questions. The main one. Why is this so important to you? Why, Steve, do you tell this story every day? He answered that he’d grown up in Hell Fire Corner in England, near the city of Dover. The area was heavily shelled during World War II. Twenty years after the war, he rode his bicycle through the ruins that remained. He listened to the words his grandfathers didn’t say about the War. As much as the green-eyed girl from Iowa, as much as me, Steve just wanted to understand.
I’ve thought a lot about what there is to fathom in genocide, in cruelty, in all of the evil in the world. As I wandered through the camp, and sat on the plane home, and relaxed on my back porch, typing in the cool of the morning.
As the prisoners were naked in Dachau, so are we all. We will all find ourselves stripped bare of outer shell, looking into the faces of our oppressors, the faces of those we mean to oppress, or just looking into the mirror. Men with stomach aches, and green-eyed girls from Iowa, and men from Hong Kong who love their children, and waitresses named Mandy, and German school children, and I. All.
When faced with injustice, with cruelty, with chains, we must face our true selves and make a choice. We can, like the guards at Dachau, or the sadistic prisoners that Steve spoke of, give in to fear and hatred and become captors. Or we can, like Kayla Mueller, a captive of ISIS who died in February of 2015, choose to live by her statement, “For as long as I live, I will not let this suffering be normal.” Even if we are captives, we can rage against captivity.
Or we can be bystanders. Not choosing is perhaps the most dangerous choice of all. Not choosing indicates that we haven’t learned, that we must repeat suffering’s lesson in order to internalize it. Not choosing means more lessons learned. Lessons written in round, red, circles of blood.