I went to a concentration camp yesterday.
And now I stare at that bald sentence and wonder how to continue. I’ve read so much about World War II. I’ve seen a few movies. Visiting a camp was one of the grimmer things on my bucket list, but I wanted to see one in person. To witness.
Yesterday at lunch it was mentioned that it was the anniversary of the attempted assassination of Hitler. I’ve heard the story, but sitting at a table with people whose parents fled their home with the German invasion, looking out the window, across the plain, toward the reflection of the Black Forest in the Reine … it was different.
And then talk turned to the concentration camp nearby. The beautiful, peaceful, stunning forest I’ve been blithely running through every day has a very close, very violent scar. My host who grew up here didn’t even know about it. It wasn’t talked about in her childhood. She went to Poland to witness a camp, not knowing one was 20 minutes away. She’d never been, so agreed to take me.
I saw barbed wire. I saw an oven with a man-shaped tray. I saw an operating table used for experiments, created in such a way that the pesky fluids would all run to the floor, and what I found yet more barbaric — the room just beside where the next “patients” had to endure the sounds and wait their turn. I bent my way into a solitary confinement closet where you could not stand upright, nor could you sit, as you waited out a three-day punishment or execution.
I saw a gallows and found it oddly civilized by comparison. The size impressed me as I stood at the bottom looking up — so small, compact, so well-laid out. How could so many people have existed here? So much misery encircled by 8-foot barbed wire? And I was grateful that it was small, knowing the scale of the other camps might overwhelm me.
I saw the memorial denoting this as a place of resistance. When military service became compulsory, it housed the boys who were caught trying to flee. Or if not the boys, their entire families who were deemed guilty by association if their son did not comply. Those who were denounced by neighbors for speaking French too loudly, for saying they’d like the Germans to leave, for helping someone cross a border.
This was not a camp of the Jews, guilty by blood, but of the French who defied the German occupation. Those who said this is not okay, those who drew their line. This was a camp of choices. And of the consequences of those choices.
And I saw at last, at no great distance, the charming home of the commandant. Far enough that the line of trees obscured the view, close enough that the screams must have penetrated. Equidistant on the path between the gas chamber and the oven.
And for some reason I can’t understand, the worst of all — he had a pool.
He had a pool.
Why is this the most horrifying to me? I’ve been trying to define the reason for many hours, and it finally came to me. Out of all the ghosts I walked past, his is the one with whom I identify.
It is in essence the same feeling I have when I read James 5 in the Bible, a warning to rich oppressors. Similar to the terror that washed over me one crystal clear morning when I realized the passage was not talking about Bill Gates, but about me.
When I glide through one horror-stricken country after another and heave a huge sigh of relief as I flash my blue passport and have the chance to get on a plane and get the hell out of there. Leaving them all in the dust and filth and illness and hunger and depravity, because really, what can I do?
Mother Teresa said if you can’t feed the whole world, start by feeding one. I have wrestled with this feeling in the past, and her words are those on which I’ve settled. I cannot change this whole broken world, but I can do one thing, I can try to help one person.
The feeling is one I struggle with often, at times rearing it’s ugly head more fiercely than others. Yesterday it roared.
The feeling is this — at my core, a chilling fear as I comfortably sip my coffee mere miles from unspeakable things — when the time comes, will I be inside the camp by choice? Or will I be swimming?