“This way,” Adam, the officious self-appointed leader of our gaggle of chattering Americans, bright plumed birds, called to me. I sighed at my lack of courage to go alone to the concentration camp. This pilgrimage perhaps needed to be solitary, a journey to somehow connect with a long dead, long lost, great grandfather. I joined the group clustered around the bus stop in the picture pretty village of Dachau. Marked Americans by our backpacks like deformed humps, we stared at the line of buses. The door opened on the third down the line. The driver gestured and called out, “To the camp.”
Adam, getting on first, asked the driver, “How did you know what bus we wanted?”
“Americans, always Americans, go to the camp.”
The bus driver’s words made me step back, away from the odd idea. “Why?” I asked.
The bus driver only flipped his hand palm up in an “I can’t answer” gesture. Adam started to open his mouth. I’d only known him a couple of hours, but I knew him well enough to push past him to stop him speaking.
After a few miles the towers came into view; looming over the road, their tops covered with rusted barbed wire where swallows swooped in and out. Silent now, we stepped off the bus into the museum fronting the entrance to the camp. Here, the dead greeted us. Photographs, blown up to life size, hung from the walls. Now a frightened flock, we scattered, no longer wishing to look into other living faces. I stopped in front of one photograph.
Two young girls sat on the upper bunk of a train compartment. The photo must have been taken early, because they were in a compartment, on a bunk, wearing dresses, not rags. One of the girls smiled at the camera. She must have believed her trip would be like a vacation.
The other girl stared, face flat with no expression. When I looked at her I realized, she knows. She knew she rode a train taking her to an early death.
I stepped outside to be confronted with a huge empty field, with small markers for each bunk house, two rows of tiny tombstones for millions. I walked to the first marker and could force myself no farther. It reminded me too much of the memorials I’d seen in German cemeteries, stones carved with the Star of David at the top and long rows of names below the symbol. At the bottom, one word written smaller than the star but larger than the names, verschwunden: vanished, disappeared and gone. Lost.
I watched the other Americans wander down the long avenue of the camp, each alone and separate. All of us hunched, except for Adam, who stood arms crossed, chin tucked tight against his chest.
Afterward, we reassembled at the bus station, our bright American chirping gone. Only the birds provided those oblivious notes, as they flew in and out of the shadows of the empty towers.
On the bus, the silence remained until an elderly German hausfrau, plump and red-cheeked from the summer heat, lumbered on. Her wrinkled face beamed, a billboard advertising the friendly people of Germany.
Adam asked her, “Are you old enough to have known…?” He pointed at the nearest tower.
“Adam — ” I started to say, to stop his ugly American accusations of “why didn’t somebody do something,” which I figured would follow.
“Ja, the sky all ash some days,” the woman said, surprising me, surprising everyone. She hadn’t flinched, hadn’t pretended she didn’t know English.
Adam loomed over her, an enraged American eagle. “Then why didn’t you — ”
The woman gazed up at him, her face bleak. “What could I do? I was a child.”
Adam opened his mouth and then closed it. He raised a hand in apology. “Nothing.”
The woman nodded.
I sat down next to the woman and asked the question that haunted me still. “Why do mostly Americans go to the camp? Why not others?”
The woman frowned, looked at the camp towers and then at my face. She compressed her lips and then pulled a tattered envelope from her voluminous purse. From it she withdrew an old black and white photo.
“My family, before the war,” she said.
I peered at the worn and faded photo. It showed a family of five, with the youngest, a girl of around four, standing in front, with her mother standing behind her, mom’s hands on the little girl’s shoulders. The husband stood in a crisp new uniform next to mom, their older sons, one a teenager, the other almost that old. All blond and beaming, a promotional poster for the Nazi regime.
The woman tapped her father’s face. “Father. He died, soon, no… quick, no… early. Early. Big battle, never bring back bodies.”
The woman touched the oldest son’s face. “My older brother Frederick. He become soldier and die. Bomb maybe. No one to bury.”
Then the woman covered the photo with her hand. “Albert, young Albert, he taken for Nazi Youth at end of war and never return.”
“Verstanden?” she asked. Understood?
“Nein.” I didn’t understand.
“I understand,” Adam said.
I looked up at him.
He sat down next to us. “My grandmother was cremated a year ago. Her ashes remain at the funeral home. If we scatter her ashes, then somehow it’s all finished and she’s truly gone forever. None of my family can even bear to go to the funeral home.”
As Adam and I couldn’t bear to go any farther in the camp. Now I understood.
“Ja.” The old woman gently placed the photo back in its envelope. “Too many gone forever. Is too hard.” She gazed at the retreating towers.
I followed her sight and watched the tower swallows flying alive and free, tumbling like ashes on the wind. The bus turned a corner and the towers disappeared from view.
We resumed our small beloved lives.
Conda V. Douglas grew up at the ski resort of Sun Valley, Idaho, in her folk’s funky art gallery. She’s traveled the world and her own tiny office, writing all the while. She delights in writing her cozy Starke Dead creative woman mystery series with amateur detective jeweler Dora Starke. The more Dora discovers cursed jewelry, her aunt digging graves, and a rampant poisoner, the more fun Conda has — although sometimes Dora complains about her plight! Next up, Starke Raving Dead, in which Dora’s mad Aunt Maddie proves the aptness of her name.