When I was seventeen, I traveled to Germany and Austria on a high school trip. For the most part, it was an adventure of merriment and self discovery. This was before the days of close supervision on these types of trips, and a tight group of us stayed up all night drinking Munich beer and cheap champagne and speaking botched French with strangers in bars, smoking exotic European cigarettes. Oh, and the clothing. I was decked from head to toe with the most gorgeous clothing. I had a long red wool coat, a black velvet dress, shoes, jewelry, makeup, and to be frank, I was a knock out at seventeen. One of my classmates bought hashish from an American serviceman, which we pierced through the cover of a pulp fiction novel, wioth the back of one of my earrings. Onto this pointed stem we poked the black hunk, cracked the window, lit it to a blazing flame, and clamped the hotel room water glass on top of it. We smoked it, classically, under glass, watching glass fill with billowing, dark, malevolent smoke and laughing, bending our heads to sip with our lungs at this out this delicious heady fume, taking turns, drinking bottle after bottle of cheap champagne.
It was on this trip, in the Austria spring, that I first fell in love in the dark wet night streets of abandoned Salzburg at 3am, and had my first experience of being a grown up in a bed while a spring breeze blew in the white lace curtains of the open windows facing into the Vienna streets.
Our chaperones, both faculty members from our high school, were lax about what we did with our free time but insisted that we were up bright and early, usually 7am, for breakfast and to take the tour of the day to whichever historical site we were visiting. We were not allowed to sleep on the bus if the tour guide was talking because that was disrespectful, so our group of bus hash smoking delinquents comrades would poke and giggle at each other to stay awake. One class mate, George, had had the presence of mind to bring alka selzer with him from the states and he’d hand these tablets out to us like communion wafers in the motel dining rooms at 7am, where the fizzy water would be the only thing we could keep down after so much beer, champagne, wine, hash, endless cigarettes, and two hours of sleep.
We visited cathedrals, castles, the birthplace of Mozart and all the typical tourists attractions, which we suffered through with boredom until we were free again in the gorgeous dark night.. But one day our destination was Dachau, the former concentration camp located not far from Munich. All of our giggles and silliness vanished immediately upon stepping off the bus. We took a complete tour of the museum, bunkers and yard,
What struck me then and what has stayed with me now is the absolute silence, devastation and loneliness of Dachau. It reminded me of viewing photos of Hiroshima after it was bombed. On that day, there were few other tourists. The insides of the bunkers, where people used to sleep like animals without blankets, without pillows, were dark. Dark, long hallways ran through all the buildings and the rooms were cell like, tiny, windowless. Long and low, long and flat these buildings ran on and on. All around the camp was silence and devastation and we were aware of the undeserved joys of our youth, of our clothes, of our health, and of the fact that this place had nothing to do with us. We were no longer adolescents with attitudes. In the museum, in front of glass cube displaying prisoners’ shoes, hundreds of them, we were afraid. This could have happened to us. We had never before in our white American lives seen anything like this before. It shocked us into silence.
When I go upstairs into my bedroom which I moved out of two week ago, I am reminded of the devastated emptiness of Dachau. Inside my heart is a long dark hallway with low ceiling which runs on and on, because everything that happened there was terrible and nobody is left, besides a single witness.
- Foreign News: Dachau (time.com)
- “To Honor The Dead And Warn The Living” – Dachau, Germany (travelpod.com)
- Himmler’s efforts to turn sand into gold (telegraph.co.uk)
- Holocaust survivor Pais offers lessons for a new generation (knoxnews.com)
- Travel Around Germany (nyustudentguideberlin.wordpress.com)
- Munich (chelseyfretz.wordpress.com)
- Auschwitz, Belzec, Chelmno, Dachau… Do you weep? (ptl2010.wordpress.com)