What Lies Between History and Shame

Travel Blog 14: Make Love Not Blog

There are two kinds of people in Germany, as I’ve come to think of it. There are the folks who wait for the crossing sign to turn green, whether or not the road is devoid of any traffic for miles in either direction. Then there are those who plow ahead despite rushing bikes or cars, a kind of New York method where one plays chicken with the world and dares it to try and take you out in the second it takes to make it from one concrete island to the other. 

There are far more of the former than the latter, but such is the state of the collective consciousness, when the cultural appreciation for authority leads to both a dutiful sense of civility, or a complete rejection thereof. 

As somebody who is used to walking in New York City, the idea of standing at a crosswalk of an empty street is like trying to stretch a rubber band to its limit. There’s a lot of potential energy stored there, and I can practically take a single step and make it to the other side while I wait the minutes it takes for lights to change. For the two places in Germany I have been so far, in Freiburg, a university town near the Swiss border, and capital of the Bavarian region in Munich, gaining a sense of such people, I’m starting to feel an affinity for them. People, like one tour guide I met in Munich, said the Germans can be “crabby.” That seems to fit with my own personality, and that of many New Yorkers, it seems. 

But there is something else here, a balance that does not seem to exist in the states. People here do work hard, you can tell, but they also maintain bountiful time for leisure. In the middle of the day, at the English Garten in Munich, one can find surfers taking turns throwing themselves into the onrushing brown waters of the Eisbachwelle to surf. In Freiburg, where small canals run along the sides of the old brick streets among the colored sandstone and the half-timbered structures of the old town, there can be a sense of calm amidst the crushing weight of the hundreds who crowd these old streets. The streams of water, or the Bachle, tingle down old cobblestone channels that the the slight slopes in the streets, and are all fed from the same source, the Dreisam river. You can tell who is from here and who isn’t by how they interact with those Bachle. In the evening, those who reside her take off their shoes and relax their feet in the streaming water. Some small cafes stick their few tables and stools directly in the path of the stream, meaning patrons eat and drink with the river running directly underneath. 

Yes, there is an affinity for people in Germany. As I go to buy a local SIM card, the guy behind the counter talks to me about the cost of living in the area, and how much its increased as the popularity of such a place increases as well. A small apartment, he said, could be close to $3,000 Euros. So no, it’s not just New Yorkers who are all feeling the pinch of living somewhere the cost of affording such a place seems to go up and up and up… 

So there is need for a place to escape to. In Freiburg, there is also the Black Forest, the famous forested mountain range of southwestern Germany. The southernmost tail of the forest dips directly into the city and the surrounding towns, and up into those trees, passing by remnants of an old 17th century star fort and the rowdy teens and school groups, the sounds of urban life dies away within a few meager minutes. It’s where the tall pines have shed all their needles but the top-most branches, where the smell of deep sap can be smelled from the hewn timbers of recently cut timber. One can find old benches, dark and covered in moss like the seat of some fae creature, and stare at the wall of trees in the dim light. 

In Munich, drinking is as much a part of the culture as anything. This is where beer halls and beer gartens were made famous, and striking out in the night you will hear the sounds of men stumbling drunk, their calls in the night like ghouls searching for open graves. And then upon a small scene of young people salsa dancing. There are people there almost every night outside one of the smaller museums, taking it away, swaying and holding hands and hips under the street lamps. I was there with several other young men from the hostel, stomach burning with three beers and three shots, and one young man, a Swiss Italian from the northern part of Italy, tries to get me to tell him how he can muster up the courage to jump in there when he doesn’t know the steps. And what could I tell him? 

So step back, watch close, but even then the distance is great. Watch their moves, learn, and become better. 

Because this country bears scars, scars and repentance. In Freiburg, out of the way of the old town, there is a large memorial of the Alte Synagogue, one that SS stormtroopers set fire to in 1938. They sealed off the area and called in the firefighters but only to stop the spread of the blaze to surrounding buildings. The memorial is a large, shallow pool made to be shaped like the floor plan of the old synagogue. Just outside of it, on the same street, several placards talk about the rise of the Nazis, putting such destruction and hate in context for those standing among it. 

There are remnants of the Nazis all over Munich. After all, the city was the supposed birthplace of National Socialism, and one can try to escape such an identity, but it seems the Germans have done a better job of recontextualizing it. Some buildings still bear the great stone Nazi eagles on the corners of buildings, such as the Haus der Kunst, the stark giant House of German Art that is located just outside the English Garten and was originally supposed to show the supremacy of German arts and the “degeneracy” of those arts from other countries. 

And then there are sites like Dachau. The famous concentration camp was practically the blueprint and testbed for so many of the other concentration camps the Nazis created from 1933 onwards. What started as just a few barracks buildings made mostly for holding prisoners would grow larger, larger and more and more murderous and cruel as the years dragged on, and moreso especially from the start of the war. 

Through the gates, bearing those famous words seen at the gates of so many concentration and death camps, “Work Will Set You Free,” there is a sobering attitude to everything. There is no room for moralizing, because such a place was outside the bounds of all but the most barbaric societies. All they need to do is present things as they were, from the beatings and tortures to the awful living conditions that grew steadily worse as the camp was expanded and more and more people were forced behind its fences. Dachau would eventually contain 100s of satellite camps, some becoming forced labor camps for companies like BMW. Beyond the political prisoners, Romani, homosexuals, Jehova’s Witnesses, Catholic Priests and Jews would come to reside there. Jews were often given the most harsh tasks, and were treated the worst compared to other prisoners. 

This was not a death camp, not in the way those famed Polish camps like Auschwitz/Birkenau or Treblinka were, but death was a constant part of this existence. A total of six of the houses were dedicated for the sick and injured to waste away. Medical experiments were performed on prisoners. People’s humanity was constantly undermined by beatings and extreme labor. And then of course came the “final solution,” and the gas chamber, one made to look like a shower to lull those going to their deaths, thinking instead they were being “sent out east.” Video plays on a loop within the museum building of the so-called “death train.” This was when the camp was being so overcrowded to the point of absurdity as the Germans moved their prisoners back from the lines of the encroaching allies. When American soldiers found around 40 train cars carrying the emaciated corpses of 2,000 to 3,000 prisoners, some soldiers rounded up the SS guards and shot them with machine guns. It’s debated how many SS died this way, but modern counts close in on around 21. 

But you can keep going on and on about a place like that. You could dwell on it, but one must realize for all its horror just how many camps the Germans had all across their occupied territories. There is a map in Dachau that labels all these camps, from the concentration camps to the death camps. The euthanasia program centers. The ghettos. The re-education camps. There are so many. My tour guide, a open and genial man with a heavy Chicago accent, has been doing that tour for closing in on a decade. Despite that, he said if he was ever in Poland, and had the chance to visit Auschwitz, he said he did not think he could take it. 

“It would break me,” he said.

To maintain that line on history, to soberly remember that horror, perhaps that is what we need to admire this country for the most, when so many others fail.

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