This is Part 5 of the Wir Gehen Nach Deutschland series, which is, apparently, a series now, because I just called it a series, just now, and there are eleven of them, which is bonkers.
Obviously after Salzburg (soooo obv btw) we did more things, but I can't think of a way to turn them into something more interesting than a generic list of things.
But after Salzburg there was currywurst, and the next day Dachau. To this very second I have no idea why I willingly went back to that godforsaken place--in 2003 it sent me into such a fucking emotional funk--
Oh, I just got it.
In fourth grade I read Number the Stars for Battle of the Books and after that I guzzled every age-appropriate World War II reading I could find. I remember Snow Treasure and The Devil's Arithmetic and The Upstairs Room and Escape from Warsaw. I needed to know that there were heroes that stood against real-life monsters.
My dad purchased the hardcover second volume of Maus while all this was going on and one night I glanced at the cover of the book in his hand and begged him to let me read it. Dad was thrilled, and he immediately shot into a detailed description of the plot while my mom listened silently. When he left to go find the first volume for me, Mom protested with stoic vehemence. I was too young, it was too graphic. So I had to steal it. I just inhaled the whole damn thing.
In fifth grade we actually studied the war in class which was pretty much the most exciting thing that ever happened to me, and I knew all of the books and I was so fucking proud of myself. Fifth grade also marked the year I was allowed to ride my bike across the ultra-trafficky 75th Street, which meant, of course, the library. And the library sans parents meant the second floor, and the second floor meant the adult section, and the adult section meant everything in the world ever.
I would plop down on the floor in an aisle with a stack from the bookshelf in front of me in a robotic-apology-loop where a fellow patron would step over me in a huff and I would give a mechanical "sorry," affixed on whatever book. Sometimes I'd apologize to no one, which could only mean one of two things: ONE! I have supersonic hearing. TWO! Ghosts.
(As an aside, I just learned that one of my ears is higher than the other and it's like, destroying me)
(Not because I have an aversion to asymmetry but because when you learn about your own ill-proportioned ears at the ripe age of 31 [oh my fucking god I am 31] it is a wee bit dscomforting)
(also my glasses are crooked)
But I was sitting in the library when I saw this:
I created fantasy backstories where he survived, where he gained immortality, where he became a god, where he volunteered for the experiment to save the life of his little brother or his father or his girlfriend (who was, of course, me). He was a Dachau hero slaughtered for raising a rebellion against Sigmund Rascher's sadistic medical regime. He was the greatest pilot in the world, he had successfully escaped from 32 other POW camps and was executed as an example of the price of revolution. I imagined he's survived by a grandson who I will meet ten years after seeing this picture and we recognize each other from across a crowded room, and I am the only person who conceivably understands the image that haunts his family history and together we embark on adventures seeking retribution and then we move to Ireland and make so many babies.
Fifth-grade era me sat in the library and ran through all of these scenarios and cried.
Then going back to Dachau and seeing this picture all terrible and huge - I nearly lost it in 2003, and I nearly lost it again back in April. But we all know the Holocaust was horrific. I don't need to prove that to you.
Fifth-grade-era me knew so much. Fifth-grade-era me knew about Nazi
experimentation and the various historical Inquisitions of the church and sex and suicide and
rape and apartheid and AIDS, but fifth-grade-era me still, deep-down,
totally believed in Santa Claus. No one could take that away from me no
matter how hard they tried. Kids teased me about it, my parents would
say, "Now, don't tell your little sister that Santa doesn't exist" and I
would be like, "of course" and then I would fantasize being a reindeer trainer in the North Pole.
And I still do shit like that.