Never Again

I don’t understand how land can be holy.  This baffles me.  I don’t understand how thousands of people have shed their life’s blood or that of another in an effort to defend or obtain a specific patch of land, merely because someone they see as holy in the distant past walked there.  What I want to know, is how they can believe the noble holy ones of the past would condone all of this bloodshed that leads to retaliatory bloodshed, rinse and repeat forever.  It doesn’t make sense.

People are posting a lot of tweets empathizing with the Palestinians, and calling the Jews evil.  I’ve been on an unfollow binge.  I have no tolerance for antisemitism.  I grew up in BFE and only knew two Jewish people, and they were related.  There probably were more, and I just didn’t know.  I don’t know how anyone can tell without asking.  One was a local news anchor and friend of my Mom’s.  The other was her son who was a year behind me in school.  I saw him a few times in the halls in Junior High.  He had a step-brother in the same grade whom I also saw in the halls.  My younger sister knew them as they were her age.  That sums up my experience with Jewish people prior to my service.

I watched Schindler’s List, as it was mandatory viewing.  They broadcast it on one of the network channels, and I remember thinking it was the first time I had heard an f-bomb on TV.  The film was gut wrenching, horrifying, and painful to watch.  Another cinematic masterpiece by Steven Spielberg.  But hard to watch, nonetheless.  When I was stationed in Germany, I went on a day trip with a couple who attended the same church.  We intended to go to Munich, but on the way, we stopped at Dachau.  I was not prepared for Dachau.  I don’t think I will ever be prepared for what I experienced there.  It broke a big part of who I was.

Before I set foot in the memorial and concentration camp, I didn’t have any idea what I was about to see.  I never know in advance unless it’s something I’ve experienced before.  I had no idea I was about to experience the worst day of my life.  The couple I traveled there with had a newborn baby.  We weren’t close friends as I hadn’t been in country very long.  Friendly acquaintances  is accurate.  We were first led into a room with kiosks that contained photos from when Dachau was an occupied concentration camp during WW2.  We walked slowly to each one, looking at the photos and reading the accompanying text. Then we stepped further into the building and were seated to watch an old film of the camp during the war.  It was in black and white.  It showed men so thin they looked like walking skeletons.  There movements were labored and slow.  Their eyes gaunt and hopeless.

They looked nothing like the walking dead we see in so many comic books, TV and movies.  Many were wearing just white boxer shorts that were far too large for the cachectic body they enclosed.  Then they showed a pile of gold that consisted of jewelry, watches, and teeth.  It was a big pile.  I remember thinking to myself, “omg they took their teeth!”.  Then they showed a pile of bodies.  They all looked the same.  You couldn’t tell gender.  They were all skeletons with white skin pulled tightly over them.  It was difficult to comprehend.  These were human beings who were tortured, mentally and physically raped, and then systematically executed.  Because a meth addicted mad man told them it would make Germany strong again.

When the film ended, we were ushered outside to walk the grounds of Dachau.  It still had a tall fence with concertina wire on top, and some dilapidated guard towers that were mostly wood that hadn’t withstood weather and time very well.  There was a crematorium and a gas chamber.  They outlined the places where the barracks stood with wood, and left one barracks intact as it was at that horrific time.  I walked outside and noted that it must have rained the night before.  We didn’t walk together.  It was too intense to tolerate another human close by.  I looked at the memorials erected in memory of those who died there.  One was made of black metal, and looked like a wall of twisted bodies.  Another had flowers resting on the ground in front of it.

When I saw the flowers, I looked around, beyond the fences.  I noticed I could see houses that were obviously old, and were probably there when all this horror took place.  There is no way they could have been ignorant of what went on there.  It made me angry and incredulous.  Helen Keller would have known what was going on had she been in one of those houses.  It was not a secret by any stretch.  I stepped inside the crematorium, and almost gagged.  I could still smell the stench of burnt flesh.  I’m not sure if it was an hysterical reaction, or if it was because of the recent rain.  I quickly looked around, then exited.

I next stepped into the gas chamber.  It looked like a communal shower for short people.  The ceiling was probably 6′ high and it was tiled inside.  It felt claustrophobic, and I don’t normally have issues with small spaces.  I stepped out and began walking along the perimeter fence.  In the film, none of them were anywhere near a fence, and the towers had bright lights atop them.  It felt surreal.  It was a feeling I’d never experienced before.  I felt heavy and lethargic as I walked around.  I was holding in a scream.  I felt a little bit dizzy, and decided to look inside the remaining barracks.

I walked in and saw 3 level bunk beds in rows taking up most of the room.  They were more narrow than a twin bed.  There was a ladder on each end, but those who slept in the middle had to climb over other bunks.  I lay down in one of the middle level bunks and cried.  In my mind, I was screaming at God.  “How could you allow this to happen?  How could you allow such evil to exist?  Why didn’t you save all these people?  Don’t you care how horribly they suffered?  Are you even real?  Why should I worship a God that is obviously indifferent to the worst suffering I’ve ever seen?”  I felt my innocence flee.  I understood what evil truly meant for the first time.  I had seen hints of it before, but I still believed that there was good in everyone.

I was 19 years old when I visited Dachau.  It changed me forever.  It murdered my innocence and forced me to look evil in the eye, and acknowledge it’s existence.  I still can’t talk about that day without crying. I thought over time I would be able to pull back a bit, and not be as emotional about it.  I no longer believe that will happen.  I think I will cry every time I tell about that day for the rest of my life.  I’ve had some bad days in the past, but none compare to this.  Before, bad things happened only to me.  This was worse things happening to over 60,000 people.  It was the first day I vowed to myself that no matter what horrible torture and death I may one day face, I will not commit atrocious crimes against humanity.

I repeat that vow every day and have since.  I’m mentally preparing myself for the day I might have to lay down my life for what I believe.  I don’t want to hesitate or waiver in my resolve when it’s my turn to refuse.  When it’s my turn to do whatever I can to make sure that never happens again.