“Hide, HIDE!” I whispered loudly while crouched in the dark underneath the basement stairs, to my friend whose limbs were still visible in the dim light. We clutched our American Girl dolls tightly to our chests in desperation and fear, as the friend whom we’d designated the “Nazi” during this round of “Holocaust” was making the rounds, fumbling around the storage boxes and cleaning supplies, trying to find us, the “Jews” and our doll children, to ship us away to an unknown life with a ghastly end.
Learning about the Holocaust as a 7- or 8-year old child had a tremendous and lasting impact on my young, impressionable psyche. I didn’t have survivors in my family, or known relatives who had died, but the unearthing of this unfathomable history catapulted me into existential crisis. I still remember how the light shone through the windows of our second floor Sunday School classroom the day I first heard the word, casting blue, gray, and green shadows onto the wooden furniture. I can’t remember what detail it was—the number of people, the systemization of it all—that pushed me over the edge into crippling despair, but I had been lucky enough, insulated enough by childhood up until that point to not have realized the depths of actionable evil in the world.
Playing “Holocaust” was one of the many ways I grappled with the cognitive dissonance I developed about humanity. How can people hate other people so much? Do they hate me? I wondered. As a young girl being raised as mostly Jewish, I began to feel isolated, alone, “other,” among my Christian classmates, and wondered just how likable I’d have to be to avoid persecution of any kind. Playing these games, with Jewish and Christian friends alike, allowed me at some level to come to terms with the first unforgivable thing I ever learned about human beings. Plus, I’d learned how to hide, both physically and emotionally.
I devoured the stories, yearning for answers. I read Anne Frank’s diary in fifth grade, filming a video book report with myself as the girl in hiding, writing to herself. The year before I became a bat mitzvah, we were asked to choose a language to learn in school. Embracing a newfound power in oppositional defiance, and citing family history, I chose German, enrolling in the one section my middle school offered. I took to it immediately, rolling the guttural vowel combinations off my tongue with added dramatic flair. I visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum as a teenager, ultimately stunned by the piles of belongings and portraits hung as high as the eye could see. As my studies of both sides continued into high school and then college, so accompanied the question of how people could hate other people so much, burned in my heart.
At the time, I felt like learning German was an edgy thing to do, but more than anything, it was an adolescent attempt to reconcile how people—and particularly German people—could have carried out such unspeakable acts of violence on the Jewish people.
The conflict, deeply embedded in my identity, shaped my travels. It’s no surprise that I found myself in Germany—first, to complete the last several credits of my undergraduate degree as a summer study abroad student; and later, to accompany my fiancée on his brewmaster education certification/adventure. The latter trip was an extended, life-altering one, leaving the states behind for a full six months of international assimilation.
We found an apartment in Berlin, settling into a prewar building in an area formerly shadowed by the wall, one rife with pained Jewish history, but also with ongoing, lively culture. The dissonant haunting of the city was palpable; even the sidewalks that lined the cafes, coffee shops, and antique bookstores were dotted with stolpersteine, a constant reminder of the shared ground we walked upon. I found a Jewish bookstore in the heart of the old Jewish quarter at Hackescher Markt, which contained a registry of all Jews deceased in the Holocaust. I pored over the thousands of pages, searching for names of ancestors, known and unknown.
It was time. I took the S-Bahn, or elevated train, to Oranienburg, a town north of Berlin that housed one of the first concentration camps in Germany of the same name. Our guide met us at the train station, and we walked from the station to the site of the camp—in the middle of the town. The entire town could see this happening, I thought, as I walked the exact path as prisoners had. The camp itself was small, but I learned that many of the practices later used by SS officers on prisoners had been conceived there. Everyone was complicit, somehow.
Later I traveled to Munich, alone. I arrived at Dachau, struck by its size and imposition on the landscape. The wrought-iron gates still cautioned its visitors with “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“work sets you free”), and as I passed through them, I was transported to an alternate dimension. The original bunker, which held prisoners accused of more egregious crimes, stood firmly cemented in place.
Row after row of perfectly placed barracks were empty, filled in with gravel, except for the reconstructed version to further illustrate the horrid dwelling conditions. The Bavarian forest, just beyond the walls of the camp, remained quiet; its trees the eternal overseers of its mass graves. And finally, tucked away in the far corner of the camp was the crematorium. After walking through, seeing with my own eyes the death chamber of thousands of souls, I stood outside the building and noticed a streak of cloud in the sky, tumbling out and upward from one of the chimneys. We are all smoke, and all ash, and all dust.
No longer the girl hiding in a basement, I’ve now witnessed the remnants of tragedy, and paid my respects to the dead. There are still no reconciliatory answers for me, only more questions. At the very least, my original inquiry, how can people hate other people so much, has transformed into a statement, one which I intend to permeate daily: We don’t have to hate. Let us love with abandon, finding the common ground between us.