Tuesday, June 12, 2012


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:

It took me about two seconds to fall in love with a murdered Russian POW.  He was the saddest, most beautiful thing I'd ever seen.  All of my previous loves - Fritz from Swiss Family Robinson, Wesley from Princess Bride, Matt who lived down the street but went to a private school so I only saw him in the summer - they all meant nothing.  None of them endured the savagery that he faced bravely.  Because in my head he was defiant and brave, and he refused to let the bastards get him down, even when they dangled him in a low-pressure chamber to see how much the healthy human body could stand.

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.



Rygantron said...

Doing shit like that is the magic behind the unflappable, down-to-earth super-cool me that files his income tax on time and holds doors open for grandmothers. Last night I could slow reality down and move through it at incredible speeds; I used this amazing power to hit six straight homeruns (imagine the bat speed!) and feel guilty about not doing anything to save humanity. But earth-saving is more of a Tuesday night thing anyway.

daisyfae said...

always something magical about 10 year olds... old enough to be fairly knowledgeable about "stuff" (if they read and pay attention) but young enough to be sweet and naieve and still hope for unicorns and all that... you captured that so perfectly, dear rassles...

have you read "The Book Thief"? fiction, but beautiful...

Gwen said...

I have devoured every World War II book that I can get my hands on since like the beginning of time. Particularly the ones on the Holocaust. Why I have this fascination with that horrific event in human history, I don't know. But I've seen that picture before and I agree, he is so beautiful and serence. And when you say those imaginings about his outcome it makes me feel less sad about his demise. I do that too...when I see pictures of dead holocaust victims or about to be dead holocaust victims I try to imagine who they were and what they dreamed and what their world was like. I am going to check out some of those books you recommended. Most of the books I've read on the Holocaust have been non-fictional accounts of survival and atrocity. Once I brought a book called Nazi Doctors to a beach vacation and my brother in law said, "Some light summer reading?" quite sarcastically. I don't care. Those voices need to be heard. Anyway, have you ever read about the group known as The White Rose? Sophie Scholl is like my personal hero...a german girl that was part of a group that opposed the Nazis and she was executed in her early 20s for her actions. Anyway, amazing post.

nursemyra said...

Oh that poor boy

Kono said...

Is that the Book Thief by Markus Zuzak? i fucking loved that book.

daisyfae said...

@kono - YES. that is the book. and it was one of those books that i didn't want to ever end...

Rassles said...

Ryan: The hardest day to save the earth is on Sundays, because of hangovers and good tv.

Daisy: NO I HAVE NOT! Then again, it was written about fourteen years after my obsession. I want to go and re-read all of those books I loved back then, too, but I will library the fuck out of that.

Gwen: GWEN! How are you? How are the twins? How is everything? I miss your blog. I'm going to check out everything I can about The White Rose now, because I feel like...I feel like as living, breathing humans, if we cannot be revolutionaries ourselves we should learn about them. They deserve it. Seriously, it's so good to hear from you.

Nurse: I know.

Kono: Now that you've seconded Daisy's recommendation, I will definitely get on that.

Sid said...

I don't remember learning about Nazi Germany in school. I remember learning bits and pieces from TV and reading Anne Frank, so I had a general idea of what happened - Hitler is an asshole. So when I set foot in the Holocaust Memorial in Washington DC, I was completely sick. The images, the stories ... nothing can prepare you.

Jessica said...

How the hell did I not read your blog for a month? Your writing has gotten SO GOOD.

Rassles said...

Sid, going to the camps is like the DC museum times infinity.

Jess: Well shucks.