"Seen backwards, the story went like this: American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses, took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for the wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backward to join the formation. The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new. When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again." — Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five
This was the Europe I knew: charming streets that bubbled with life, railroads that carried happy travelers like myself to happy new adventures, porous borders, peaceful countryside and friendly countrymen, buildings duly preserved since the early ages.
This was the Europe I knew to exist not very long ago: controlled streets that ran red with blood and broken glass, railroads that carried living and breathing men and women and children to forced labor and death, deep trenches and tall walls, gunfire in the mountains and gunfire in the cities and great big incendiary bombs dropping everywhere, buildings blown to bits by those beastly things.
These two Europes were incompatible. The Europe I learned about surely existed, but surely not here. Surely the dates were wrong, or maybe the places. Surely it wasn't that Paris that was occupied in the forty-third year of that century. Surely it wasn't this old rusty rail that was used for those terrible things. Surely it weren't these friendly Swiss elders who turned Jewish refugees away at the border in the name of "neutrality." And surely this Germany, so lovely and green and friendly, is the wrong one; surely there's another somewhere full of terrible people who do terrible things and should be terribly punished.
It hurt to learn of the Holocaust and the great war that followed when I was little; it confused me endlessly. Why would people do that? When I was older, it hurt in a different way: how could people do that? And I grieved it and I hated it in the way we all grieve and hate those terrible things that happen far, far away. But being in Europe and seeing the people and the places wretched by that terror—it was no longer a dull phantom ache; it was a sharp searing burn. Suddenly the textbooks and the essays were complemented with big bright images: people and places in the third and realest dimension. Suddenly, my fingertips were tracing gentle lines over the jagged scars of Europe.
It gladdens me that things have gotten better. It saddens me that we still have so far to go. Never again, we said in 1945, and yet it happened again in 1993, when we sat idly by as Bosnians and Croats and Serbs did awful things to each other, and it seemed what we really meant was "never again will we let Germans massacre Jews and gays and communists and gypsies." And so we added more protected classes to our list—the Bosnians, I suppose—but not the poor Muslims of Serbia, for we'd let them be chopped to bits just a year later. Never again, we repeated, and we hoped to wash the blood off our hands by widening that statement to "never again will we let white people be massacred," but brown people were still fair game, and though maybe we've now moved beyond that, though maybe we've made great strides in putting down our machetes, that never again is only really limited to slaughter, right? Indeed, it's still perfectly acceptable for some people in some parts of America, and Iran and Uganda and Russia, to stand up on soapboxes and scream out that homosexuals are destroying the country, and that their rights should be curtailed—that they shan't marry and shan't adopt, shan't be protected from wrongful termination—and we elect these people to our government with their hateful speech and backwards ways, and so really, how far have we come?
And even still we slaughter. The Germans could only kill six million in their terrible crusade; we kill a billion each year. We perform experiments on them, we sterilize them and we load them into boxes and ship them on rails of our own across the country. We send them to camps and make them labor, our beasts of burden, we squeeze them into close quarters and watch them die, and maybe scoop the corpses out every once in a while to make soap or some other household item with, and when we trust they've served their purpose, the purpose we've deemed for them, we arrive at the final solution: we slit their throats or we put a gun to their head and pull the trigger, and a nine-inch nail shoots into the soft grey tissue of their craniums as their skulls crack and they try, futilely, to back away, and then that bloody nail retracts right back into the gun for use on its next undeserving victim: why waste a bullet on just one life?
We don't call these slaves "Jews," we call them "animals," we call them "cow" and "pig," and "deer," and really we don't even call them that; we prefer to turn a blind eye like the Germans we so often judge—keep the smell of those burning bodies away from the towns, please—and we instead call them "beef" and "pork" and "venison." We forget: a life is a life, and when we begin elevating the importance of one being's life over another, whether on lines of religion or race or gender or species, our inner evil prevails. Equality, tolerance: these are the only hopes of salvation. Love.
I left Berlin and headed north to the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp with a heavy heart. I arrived midday, found the visitors' center, wandered inside and requested an audioguide. "Just one?" the man behind the desk asked.
"Yes, just one."
"Uh, yeah, just me."
"Ah, so sad," he replied.
I cocked my head, narrowed my eyes. Was it? I didn't say anything, didn't feel it appropriate to argue in such hallowed ground, but was annoyed and offended by his statement (I also simply disagreed). I grabbed the audioguide, thrust three euros in his direction, and walked away without a word.
The Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp was the prototype and administrative center for all others. The Nazi leadership deemed it a perfect camp: easy to build, easy to patrol, a radial with rays of barracks spoking out in all directions. I followed the suggested audiotour from the visitors' center to the guards' barracks to the warden's home, and found it all peaceful, pleasant, idyllic even. And then I approached the gates between the imprisoners and the prisoners and it all changed. Work shall set you free, a sign read in iron German above the gate. Inside: barbed wire, thick walls, watch towers and the dreary remains of about a dozen ranch houses for "workers."
The audioguide had begun to annoy me, all concerned with facts and figures and names and dates and not the very essence of the camp before me, so I stowed it away in my bag and continued unguided, wandering in and up and behind the plain buildings. I turned down a set of unmarked stairs and emerged in a tiled basement, air musty and damp. My spine tingled, my torso trembled. I felt blanketed by a sudden malaise, felt like all the air had been sucked out of the subterranean room. I don't believe in lingering spirits or haunting ghosts, but I felt a darkness and a sadness there that I can't say I'd ever felt before; I felt disoriented, suffocated, a crushing pressure all around me. The room was barren, but I knew what it was: a morgue for all those poor souls who had died there not so long ago.
I needed to leave. I rushed up the stairs and sat in the grass, the grey skies over Sachsenhausen mirroring my melancholy mood. I wandered a little more, reached the outer rim of the camp and explored a little enclave built by the Soviets after they'd captured Berlin, after they'd liberated the Jews from the camp and filled the barracks instead with German prisoners of war, where tortured became liberated and liberators replaced torturers as torturers just the same; two wrongs, no rights.
I walked a long arc around the curving outer wall, reflected. I reached the incinerators, where scores of tourists surrounded a tour guide and oohed and ahhed and oh-myed at what they saw, and then discussed dinner plans with each other as they shuffled from incinerator to mess hall. This is just the place to be all alone, I thought; what kind of experience is to be had here in a group—what kind of honest introspection?
I kept my thoughts to myself as I returned my audioguide and left the visitors' center, kept all those thoughts and more tumbling painfully around my head as I walked back to the train station, circled back to Berlin, and caught a connection northwest to Hamburg. I mourned the Jews, and the gypsies and the gays and the handicapped and the blacks and the non-Aryans the world over, but the Germans too, who fell for the hate of that angry little man on his petty little soapbox, for I knew that their hate was nothing more than an equal and opposite response to the hate of the Brits and the French in the wake of the Great War. I mourned for the Brits and the French, who hated only because they'd had hate cast on them, hate and violence and ugly, ugly death from a hate too, rippling from afar; I mourned for all those who have ever caught the ricochet or the shrapnel of an ever-rebounding hate, a hate as old as us, maybe.
"Darkness cannot drive out darkness," Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, "only light can do that." And so too, "hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that." If we ever want to become better, we need to stop hating—retaliating, revenging, reciprocating—against one another; we need to start loving and lighting even in unimaginable darkness. We need to stand for something: love in all its endless iterations, every last one for every last one ... because if we don't stand for something, we'll fall for anything.