(The piece below was written circa 1997 after a trip to Dachau and nearby Munich.)
As if he’s seen this before, the man holds out a handkerchief and says that no one was actually killed in Dachau.
From where I’m kneeling, the wet sting of snow bites holes in my knees despite the extra layers; the skin will be red there for days. I’m folded the way they teach you to be in grade school when they prepare you for natural disasters. I realize he must have carried me at least part of the way – it’s a snowy few miles from Dachau to the southbound platform back to Munich where I started the day. I should probably thank him.
A few hours before, the platform was full of bodies, similar backpacks, Anglo-mouths and Scandinavian voices – maps of Dachau displayed in almost every language. I had picked one up thinking how clean, how neat – a testament to years of blood and genocide summed up so thin, the size of a postcard. You could slip it in your pocket if you wanted, which is what most of us did.
On the platform again, my hands are over my eyes, like it will do me any good. The iron-lipped gates, the butt of the gun punching my lungs as I entered the camp that morning – I had taken note of cracks in the fencing, the forest I would run to if it came to that. A few of us fumbled awkwardly, looking for tickets, welcome signs, someone to take our money, to prove we were just visiting. Amazing how you become a prisoner just by walking inside.
We shuffled toward the camp’s cement center, and I began to see them – the chicken skin of starved human bodies, the bare root feet, red from the snow, men and women planted like beets with no clothes. Convinced they’d appear on the film, I took no pictures.
Most of the other tourists stared casually, unconcerned. They struck poses in front of steely chambers, pretended to hold guns, gas masks, to wear chains on their wrists and be pinned to walls that were now crumbling. They would send the pictures as postcards when they made it home safely, I could be sure.
At a lookout post on either side of the camp, I could almost see the men with guns counting heads, two by two. Jewish targets, numbers on arms, cattle. They would eventually be all of these.
Across the courtyard, a group of German school children skimmed rocks across the pavement, the bloodstains barely visible 50 years later. The teachers told the children proudly that “this is exactly how it would have been to be Jewish then,” pointing to the 10-foot fences, the wooden beds, the snow under their own too-thick-boots. Returning home, the children’s parents will say, “Wie Schade!” and tomorrow everything will be busses and schools as usual – Nazis reserved for field trips, special occasions.
Our tour guide had led us to a room full of pictures, of sleeping. I could almost hear the bones clunk against the wooden boards of beds, how even your neighbor’s clumsy elbows would have reminded you where you were, how much time you had left. I saw pictures of pocket abdomens. A women who was only eyes and teeth – the parts of you that don’t shrink, no matter how hungry. My hands moved slowly across my own protruding hip bones, which, kneeling on the platform, is the last thing I remember.
When I wake, I am already outside the gate, surprised there were no gunshots, no escape with spoons, no running. I’m kneeling outside on a southbound platform, wanting to explain my weak stomach, the reason I couldn’t handle it like a real woman.
I see that the man had set the handkerchief on a bench behind me. He had meant the words as consolation, I am sure. A death camp with manners. A soft massacre. No one was actually killed, it’s like giving me flowers.
I raise my eyes to the handkerchief where he left it, a small act of kindness, how it holds one together like glue.
Eventually it will be my excuse to reach out, once my eyes are dry and my knees are strong again. He says it will be there when I’m ready.