I visited a concentration camp first before I ever heard about one. I was six or seven when my parents first took me to Dachau, a sizeable village-city tucked away north of Munich, the capital of Baviaria about an hour away from the city of Garmisch which lies at the base of the Alps (Garmisch is breathtaking). The Zugspitze is the highest point of the Alps (or Germany for that matter) and where I had the worst skiing experience of my life. After skiing down the intermediate slope (a fiasco in itself), I found myself unable to properly utilize the infamous T-bar to ascend the mountain. No one told me that you don’t put the T-bar between your legs, you don’t sit on it, and you don’t let it yank you up the mountain. I tried all of these (several times) much to the amusement of the long line of Europeans behind me who howled with laughter each time the T-bar flipped me over until I was cussing up a storm (An elderly Swiss man, tired of having to wait in line behind me, finally helped me).
In Dachau’s elevated city center stands a magnificent castle. The city itself is flanked by two major rivers, the Wurm and the Amper, the Grobenbach River running right through the city. The antiquated city square and neatly-swept streets lends to Dachau's fairy-tale aura. And then there was the concentration camp. I have read about various concentration camps: Bergen Belsen, Buchenwald, Chelmno, Ravensbruck, Treblinka, Auschwitz. But I don’t know much about those places. What I do know about Dachau is that it was quiet. My entire time there was shrouded in whispers. And those whispers, as far as I could tell, were mostly about people having died. Well, people being made to die, so far as I could tell.
The sign above the Dachau gate read Arbeit Macht Frei (“Work will make you free”), and I recall being immediately ushered into a small viewing room once we entered the museum with gigantic depictions of the horrors lining a hallway that further led us to a small foyer where we entered a theater. What followed was a disturbing black-and-white movie, explaining the history of Dachau with snippets of real-time history of prisoner treatment that made me feel as if I kept getting plunged into frigid water over and over again. No one looked happy in the pictures except the ones in the dark suits with knee-high, spit-shined boots. Some of them were smiling. A few prisoners were smiling here and there (even smoking), but they all wore the same ill-fitted clothing and there was insincerity behind the poses. Especially the ones where the prisoners were posing on their bunk beds, several to a bed, their knobby knees taking up the foreground of the photos.
Next, we looked at the “ovens” which I didn’t quite understand until my parents frankly told me “They burned people in the there” and proceeded to snap pictures (There is actually a photo of my brother and me standing by an oven, looking forelornly into the camera). I put my hand in one of the ovens, pulling it out all ashen. Of course, all I could think about was the witch in Hansel and Gretel who was unsuccessful at baking Hans. And they were telling me that the witches here actually had been successful at burning people. Needless to say, I couldn’t comprehend it. At all.
Next, we visited the cells. We actually stood in a cell while the tour guide explained that about a hundred people or so fit into a cell. One hundred to me was a lot, but with just a few people in the cell on that trip, I knew that the only way to fit the cell with a hundred people was by stuffing them in or stacking them. After having my senses assaulted for I am not sure how long, they let us outside into the courtyard where the prisoners had to stand each day or several times a day.
It was like recess. I cannot explain to you how it felt to my little brain to emerge into the courtyard. It was the acutest sense I had ever felt until then of what resurrection might feel like. My brother and I wanted to run up and down the rows where the prisoners stood in formation about forty-five years before, but we were told there was no shouting or running. But it didn’t matter. We were outside. The sun was shining down on us. And we were happy. Because we were alive.
When my family and I watched Toy Story 3, Dachau involutarily kept popping up into my mind. The Shoah images were obvious from the “sunnyside” logo of the "day care" center to the segregated cages where the toys were kept at night to the mistreatment by the "little ones" to the finale which was the impersonal, mechanistic operation of the dump where Sunnyside’s dictator, Lotso (the purple bear), attempts to destroy Woody and his friends in the incinerator. I almost could not bear the duration of the conveyor belt scene or the incinerator. After unsuccessful attempts to extricate themselves from being destroyed, there is a hopeless minute in which Buzz Lightyear, Woody, and his friends realize they have no way out and that they are inescapably being ushered into the fire. This is the end.
In the most somber moment I can ever recall in an animated movie, each character stops struggling, holds each others' hands, and resigns themselves to burn together. I was literally hyperventilating, and my heart almost burst.
Robbie, they are not going to let those toys burn, are they? I could sense my wife tele-communicating to me.
I looked at her. I don't know, but this is too uncomfortable to watch. I'm not sure if the kids should be seeing this.
She stared at the screen as the children tensed up.
Don't do that. Don't do that. Who made this movie? Whoever made this movie knows something.
I cried. Like a baby. For the grandparents of my STONE TABLE students who had to endure the mistreatment of that wicked regime. For one grandfather with whom I spoke no more than nine months ago who escaped the clutches of the Nazis three times, but whose family members went up in flames. For the grandparents of another family at my school who chose to live in the ghettos of Shanghai rather than to set foot in this country because of its refusal to become involved. Until it was too late. For their little story.
Thank you, Toy Story 3. In a juvenile, theatrical form (even greater than the effect Schindler's List had on me), you helped Dachau to finally make emotional sense to me. Watch the movie. The time of the actual scene is 1:21:00-1:22:30.