Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Arbeit nicht macht frei

It's past 8:30 pm and I still have a few hours of waiting around before I leave on my train to Wien (Vienna). I'm sitting in my hotel, the same spot I was in yesterday, using the internet instead of buying a coffee at a Starbucks nearby and using theirs. I can tell that the man at reception is unnerved that I've been here for over three hours. He has good reason to be. For all he knows, I'm staying here all night without paying for a room. But alas, that is not true.

In an effort to economize, and to experience something new and strange, I've booked myself into an overnight train from München to Wien. It leaves at 11:40 pm and arrives at a brisk and way-too-early 5:45 am in Austria. I don't know that I'm mentally or physically prepared. But there's a bed on a moving platform that has my name on it, and I'll hopefully be sleeping on it very shortly.

With the prospect of a new city tomorrow, I am having a bit of trouble reflecting on what's already felt like quite a bit of time in Germany. I may only have arrived here just over 24 hours ago, but I feel as if I know the city (as a confused and wandering tourist, anyway).

In less than two days I've bought a dirndl, climbed to the top of the tower of Peterskirche (St. Peter's Church) near Marienplatz. I've gotten lost multiple times in various parts of the city, I've figured out the public transportation in the city, I've had an apfelschorle in a stein at Hofbrauhaus. It's been a touristy, yet personally fulfilling adventure.

Then today I went to Dachau.

And I think that's what I'm going to focus on for the rest of this blog, because not focusing on it wouldn't capture the significance of going to a place like the KZ-Gedenkstätte Dachau.

I'm half Jewish. And (too) many times, I've been told that I'm not Jewish at all. I'm not born of a Jewish mother, but rather a Jewish father. And therefore, according to whatever traditional or historical or religious precedent, I'm not Jewish.

That's fine, I wasn't raised Jewish. But regardless of distinction even by the greater community, I identify as a Jew. At six years old when my friends would ask me what my ethnicity was - because, let's face it, you can't tell by looking at me - I would answer "I'm half Jewish and half Japanese."

Back then, I wouldn't get weird looks. No one knew what any ethnicities existed so they didn't protest when I called "Jewish" an ethnicity. But 14 years later, when asked the same question I answer more along these lines:

"I'm half Japanese and half Eastern European Jew."

And now I get the weird looks.

Because, first of all, I don't look like I'm white. Maybe I do look like a halfie (what I call people who are of mixed race - it's a term of endearment coming from me, not like "mudblood" or anything), but that doesn't mean I avoid incredulity from others when I admit to being part European.

Secondly, I don't have any particularly Jewish traits or indications of being of the culture. I don't practice the faith, so I don't appear to be Jewish.

And thirdly, is "Jewish" really an ethnicity anyway? Isn't it a religion? People who are "Jewish" by ethnicity are Israelis? Or something.

Yeah, this was never clarified for me as a child or as a grown-up.

Therefore, I am Jewish. And I will forever call myself Jewish. When my future children ask me what their ethnicities are, I will say "you are a quarter Japanese and a quarter Jewish and [insert whatever my male counterpart is here]."

Now that I've explained the issue of my classification of ethnic backgrounds, I will go on to explain Dachau. The experience, the ramifications, et al.

I had resolved to go to the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau practically the moment after I decided I was going to visiting München. You may find this strange. Dachau isn't a tourist attraction by any ordinary standards. You might find it in the tour books, but you won't see it among the top attractions. Maybe they wouldn't even call it an attraction.

And it's not. It's a memorial site to a horrific place. The kind of thing you want to forget, not be reminded of when you purchase The Idiot's Guide to Munich.

I got there around 12 pm. By then, there were already several groups of German secondary school students walking around with their teachers and making the silent grounds into a school playground. I avoided them as best I could.

The memorial site itself is tasteful. Things are kept in their original condition or restored to recreate the environment that might have been present at the Dachau of the 1930s and '40s.

And while it doesn't exactly make you feel like you're there, experiencing the terror of the Nazis upon the Jewish people, it does make you recognize the magnitude of what happened at this sort of place.

The site consists of various chapels and memorial sites, a recreation of prisoner barracks, a museum within the mechanical building, a hallway filled with prison and torture cells and two crematoriums.


I don't think the gravity of this experience really occurred to me until I read the word "Crematorium" on the map guide.

It was cold today. I walked around on the unpaved roads, my heels digging into the gravel. My boots made loud sounds. I felt as though I sounded like a prison guard. More than once, I scared myself with the sound. It made the place seem more real.

I read an information plaque that explained the roll call that took place at Dachau. Prisoners would be taken out of their barracks regularly and counted one-by-one to make sure that none had escaped. If one did, they would be left out in extreme weather wearing only their work uniforms until someone might confess to the disappearance of whomever they had lost track of.

The biting cold dug through my coat and I tried to place myself even more in the shoes of these prisoners. How could I, in two layers, not handle the November chill, but they, wearing only thin cotton, face the same temperatures with strength despite lost pride and lost comfort?

Walking through the rest of the camp, I learned bits of information that I'd never considered about the Holocaust. One item which stunned me the most was the concept of standing cells. As a form of torture, prisoners might be kept in prison cells split into four 2 1/2 ft x 2 1/2 ft squares. It wasn't enough space to sit or lie down, just stand.

It seems a small bit of the worst the Nazis did during the war, but in the same way I read Eating Animals a couple of years ago and saw the page in the book that depicted the amount of space a chicken in a factory farm had to move around (it was literally less than an A4 or 8 1/2 x 11 piece of paper), the idea of confined space gave me just enough of a realization to be disgusted and absolutely defeated.

You'd think the whole experience would have defeated me. Certainly the crematorium. And the gas chamber. And the area where the medical buildings were - which were also murder grounds for those who were slowly dying.

But it wasn't.

Many times while walking through Dachau, I thought about myself. And before you deem me selfish, let me clarify.

My great-grandmother on my paternal grandfather's side came to Ellis Island from Austria-Hungary in the early 1900s. None of her immediate family members came with her. She made a life in New York City, but left many behind. A similar situation happened with my great-grandfather on my paternal grandfather's side, though he came from Poland.

These two people, my great-grandparents, came from large families. But after the war, nothing was heard of them ever again.

And to think, just a spur of the moment decision to not get on those boats heading westward, and my grandfather, my father and I would no longer be here.

But that wasn't that struck me the most. The real punch in the gut when visiting Holocaust memorials or seeing movies about what happened to the Jewish people in the 1940s is the thought of what my life would have been like had the year 1941 actually been the year 2002 or 2005 or any year I've been alive.

My mom once told me a story about going to see Schindler's List in theaters with my grandmother. Since the movie came out in 1993, I must've been just under or over a year old at the time of its release.

According to my mother, my grandma was overcome with tears at several points during the film. She reportedly called out my name ("Rachel") during scenes where families were being separated, children from their parents, etc.

I certainly don't see myself in those films. Being a few generations detached from the horrific experiences of the Jews in World War II, I somehow feel I'm exempt.

But then I look at the men in these movies and I immediately think of my dad. And thinking of my dad in that context does make me think of myself. And my sister. And my paternal grandparents. And my cousins and aunt and uncles. And my niece.

Because we all have Jewish blood. And by the determination of the Nazis, we'd all have gone to concentration camps just like our distant relatives before us.

It's these thoughts, and these alone, that made Dachau too much to bear.

As the tears welled up, I made it a point to keep them away. I didn't want to feel vulnerable or destroyed by this place. While my relatives, the ones I never met, deserve the respect of my admiration and love for them, the memory of this place warrants a more powerful reaction. Not breaking down and weeping, but going on and proving the Nazis wrong. The Jewish people are not what they might call vermin or worthless scum. We are people. And we are strong.

I say "we" because I feel so strongly that it is a "we." In the same way that the Nazis considered all people of Jewish descent to be Jewish (and therefore unworthy of life), I believe anyone of Jewish descent is Jewish and therefore worthy of some degree of respect. Respect, at the very least, to the extent of calling us Jewish if we so choose.

And I so choose. I may look more Asian than white. But I am most definitely Jewish.

I bought a mezuzah today. It was simple and of course its religious significance is partially lost on the agnostic in me. But as I walked away with my German mezuzah, I felt solidarity with my people. My people.

Tonight, I leave München. I walk away from the place where I've seen and experienced Bavarian culture. I enter a new place with a slightly different frame of mind.

But I will never leave behind my thoughts of Dachau. What sustains me is my belief that I was brought into this world not by sheer dumb luck, but because I was blessed to be here in some way.

I was blessed to be born Jewish and Japanese. I was blessed to find my own religious path. I am blessed to be in München. And I am blessed to be moving on, but always looking back.

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