A Meditation upon the 70th Anniversary of the Liberation of Dachau

Its been 70 years since my dad was liberated from Dachau. Well, more accurately, since he was saved by American GI’s while on a forced march a few miles away from the concentration camp Dachau. He was with his brother Ben. After a few days of being driven through the snow, wearing rags, no shoes, Ben fell down in the snow. Dad decided to lay down and die with his brother. He awoke to a GI giving him first aid. That was on April 29, 1945.

My Dad, Charles, was a man, not an overgrown boy. He was born in 1917, and from 1935 to 1945, he faced death as a matter of day to day life. Later in life, he chose to be mostly a loving, rather than a bitter man. A lot of survivors either killed themselves or retreated into a dark cloud for the remainder of their lives. Dad didn’t. Rather, he reinvented himself as a member of a community. A father, a husband, a provider and contributor. A Man. A man with faults, of course. But a man nonetheless.

I think a man is a guy who tries to be nice to people, because they see that everyone is in pain and that we all have a choice to either be mean or nice to each other. Being nice alleviates the pain just a little bit for both the nice person and the person who’s the recipient. I think mean guys are emotional children who think that their own pain is unique. They’re boys. Emotional children. I’m a guy, so I think about manhood.

Not sure if Dad would have ever become a man if it weren't for the Holocaust. Who knows, who cares. It was, and he did. He knew about pain.

Physical pain. He had scars all over his body where he had been beaten and wounded countless times. He had a notch in the brow above his left eye. He had a small piece of blue metal shrapnel embedded in his forehead, right under the skin. The skin on his left shoulder was all scar tissue, halfway down his left chest on the front, and halfway down his left shoulder on his back. It looked like he’d been through some medieval shit — like a hot tar bath or whatever. Dad told me all sorts of horrific shit. Unbelievably bad shit. A few things I’m still not sure if I will ever tell anyone. When I was in my teens, he told me one time he’d been beaten with a board. Another time when I was older, he told me he and a few others had been lined up at a wall, facing it, to be executed by some Nazi assholes with machine guns. They shot over their heads for a joke, spraying them all with debris from the wall.

The set-up had been about the time he literally shit his pants. It started as a joke about how guys shit their pants sometimes when they fart, but then the joke, and all levity, vaporized in the telling of the memory. When I was younger, he told me that the notch in his eyebrow was from a sword dual he had been in on a pirate scupper. The blue shrapnel was lead from a pencil a kid had thrown at him. The scars on his left shoulder were from a teapot of boiling water he had pulled off the stove when he was kid, and that's why I shouldn't touch hot stuff on stoves. The man’s body was either a history lesson or a story for a child, depending on my age.

As for emotional pain — well, Dad’s eyes were deep and sad. They’d obviously seen stuff. In the ghetto Kovno, during a particular raid in what I think was around late 1941, the Nazis went into all the residences and took all of the photographs out of the homes. Retaining any was illegal, with immediate death promised to anyone who violated the edict.

The Nazis threw all the photographs into the street — ripping them, burning them, urinating on them. Dad snuck out into the street and found some photos of his family and miraculously hid them through hook and crook for the whole war. How he did this was complex, but most of the time he concealed them on his body. The Nazis would have executed him immediately had they found them. In Dachau, Dad told me that other prisoners threatened to kill him out of jealousy because he had a picture of his perished loved ones. He told me no matter how much you try, an image of a loved one slips away from your mind, even if you desperately fight to hold on to it.

Baruch. Boby. A handsome, strong, young man. 19 years old. In the pile on the street that night, Dad only found one-half of a picture of Boby, the lower half of a picture that had been taken of him on a beach before the war. In the early 1980’s, Dad and I went to Jerusalem for a world gathering of all the living survivors. There was a witness to Dad’s father’s murder, and he would have been too old to be alive at that time, so we weren’t looking for him. We were looking for Boby, in the chance that maybe he survived and somehow made it to Israel. At the gathering, Dad found an acquaintance from Kaunas who had escaped the camps, who had known Boby well. Miraculously, he had a picture of Boby, and he gave it to Dad.

The depth of the pain in my father’s eyes when we looked at that photo together was too personal for me to hold his gaze. Or too deep. Whatever it was, I couldn’t look into his eyes at that moment. I didn’t want to. It was too sad. I knew nothing of that pain. I was an 18 year old kid from Iowa, who loved hockey and movies. I have hundreds of photos, and even some videos, of all the dead loved ones in my life. When I miss them, I look at them and smile with fond recollections. Growing up, I often found my dad in a corner of the house staring at the picture of Boby’s legs.

I think of those 40 years after the war and what he did with it. I think of Boby’s legs, frozen in time, on the beach. Springy, strong, young, fast. A natural athlete. I’ve got a nephew — a wiry, quick young man. We go do fun sporty things together and have a blast. Lots of laughs. At times I fantasize about another reality without Nazis — one where I got to know my uncle Boby.

For almost 40 years, the only physical proof my dad had of his younger brother was that torn picture of his legs to remember him by. I’ve been trying to see a deeper meaning in all these numbers around the Holocaust. Seventy years. Six million. Fifteen thousand. Three. One.

Maybe the impulse to search for meaning in the numbers is a distant echo from within all that silence that surrounds them.