(Hamilton Spectator – Saturday, May 2, 2015)
We’ve come to know Man as he really is. After all, Man is that being that invented the gas chamber of Auschwitz; however he’s also that being who entered those gas chambers upright with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.
— Rabbi Harold S. Kushner
DACHAU, GERMANY ✦ I may be a ghost you don’t even believe exists, but before I get there let me tell you about this scene in the Arthur Miller play “Incident at Vichy,” where there’s a well-to-do professional, (like I was when I lived), standing before the Nazi authority now in town.
The man, dignified with degrees and references and these sorts of things, presents what he has to the Nazi who then asks, “Is this all you have?” The man nods. “Good,” says the Nazi, throwing it all into the garbage. “Now you have nothing.”
Robbed of the respect that he’d always enjoyed, the man is left adrift and lost, not much different, really, than what I was when I arrived at Dachau, that haunting and strangely holy place, that school of terror that did what life often does: gives the test first and the lesson afterward.
You may know that this concentration camp is a memorial museum now, visited in recent decades by many thousands, German schoolchildren especially, and, from everywhere else, the tourists, yes, tourists: Who of Dachau’s prisoners, more than 200,000 during Hitler’s reign, ever imagined the tourists?
You may also know that this weekend, 70 years after this camp was freed, survivors and liberators and others are gathering in this old Bavarian town under blue skies and singing birds to remember victims of this gateway to hell.
Hell, and yet from this vantage point I can now also say that we prisoners had nothing to lose except our ridiculously naked selves: splayed and cut open and laid bare from the first day our very names were stripped away, just numbers now sewn onto those crazy striped pyjama rags.
I can tell you that we dreamed of just a little more bread, just one night without screams of delirium, just a small measure of warmth in the snow or the sweet comfort from even a few puffs of a cigarette.
I can say that our Nazi taskmasters gave unbearable loads and beatings (and occasionally kindness), while, my friends, hollow-eyed, showed me great sacrifices and unexpected humour (and occasionally betrayal). Even in a concentration camp, the angels and devils are never who you expect.
I can report that many comrades acquiesced to suicide, something I considered often-enough. But with my body wasting, proteins feeding on themselves, I eventually realized I need not bother.
But I think that you somehow know these things, too.
What you may not know is that even the grim shock of death everywhere — be it by gas or hanging or gunshot or just garden-variety starvation — wears off. Death is all it is and nothing more. Eventually it can be looked in the eye with no more fear than you’d have for a train ride across a peaceful border.
So there’s no reason to feel sorry for me or others who perished like me, even if it was lack of hope as much as lack of luck that often did us in. This is what one prisoner (his name was Victor but we later called him Victory) reminded my block on one particularly hard night.
You should never imagine that your suffering detracts from its meaning. Suffering is meaningless only if you allow it, Victor said, quoting Nietzsche, that if you know the “why” of it all then you can somehow tolerate the “how.”
Victor then told us of a friend, a prisoner who’d made a pact with Heaven, that if only his suffering could save another’s life — he thought often of his wife — from a painful end, then he could accept whatever may come.
That gave this man’s death, and his life, tremendous dignity, great meaning, the sort that nobody could ever take away, that human something that’s more, that’s divine, that’s the strange mystery and light that I felt holding up my own spirit through even the most insufferable darkness.