A Trip in the German Countryside

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A Trip in the German Countryside

by Kathleen Seward Stokes

I am not Jewish. Nor am I a survivor of Auschwitz. Yet, ina way, I am just that. What follows is the story of a Sundayafternoon outing when I was a child of eight. The events of thatouting will remain with me until I am gone from this earth. I willtry to tell the story from my recollections at the time — from achild’s point of view. Some of my recollections may be inaccurate,but the following is what I remember.

My father was a radar technician in the U.S. Air Force,stationed in Germany after World War II. It was our family’s habitonce or twice a month to pack up a picnic, jump in the car and gofor a drive to tour the many sights of Germany. We had seenwondrous castles galore, the fantastic Octoberfest and othermarvelous things on our excursions during our two years in Germany. Daddy’s tour of duty was almost over now, but I didn’t know that atthe time.

On this particular Sunday afternoon I don’t recall whether wepacked a picnic, but I certainly remember the sense of excitementas we (my Father, Mother, older brother, younger brother and me)scrambled into the car and away we went. Daddy’s usual jauntystarting comment of “Off, like a herd of turtles” was absent onthis trip, as was the chatter between my mother and father in thefront seat. But that made little impression on me at the time. Even then I knew everyone has days when they don’t feel liketalking.

I remember the drive through the park-like, perfectlymanicured countryside. Even the woodlands had an “arranged” lookin postwar Germany. The hills rolled gently, covered in green,with neat patches of forest. There were farms with precisely laid,tilled fields. It was spring and the whole place was alive withthe joy of renewal. One of us kids asked where we were going andwe got a rather hushed answer from Mamma — something to theeffect that they would let us know when we got there.

And finally, there we were! There was a roadway through alarge gate with lots of lawns around a number of rather ugly, gray-green buildings. The gate was a large and wooden, with an archwayacross the top. My older brother said the German words across thegate meant something like, “Works makes Freedom.” Okay. We drovethrough the gate and debarked the car.

I was young at the time, and I don’t recall the precise layoutof the place. I remember asking what seemed like a millionquestions, which my mother answered calmly, quietly and without theimpatience in her tone which often followed my asking too manyquestions in too short a time. She told me this place we werevisiting was called a concentration camp, and it was whereprisoners were kept by Germany in World War II. We walked on intoone of the buildings.

I remember seeing a room with thousands of shoes, stored onalmost bunk-like wooden shelving. The shoes were old leather,cracked and dry. In some of them you could see sweat marks on theinside. I asked Mamma why they were there. I don’t rememberprecisely her answer, but it seems that there were other camps likethis one and all the shoes the people wore were gathered in fromall the camps and brought here to be sorted and organized and thenhanded back out. I thought at the time she meant they were to behanded back out to the people of the camps. The whole process justdidn’t make any sense to me. Did the people just need jobs? Wasthat why they all had to take off their shoes, pass them around andthen put on somebody else’s shoes — just to keep the people allemployed? Only later I learned that the shoes were given to peopleoutside the camp and those inside had none at all.

The next thing I remember is going through some large steeldoors, one with a sort of porthole in it, into a shower room. Thewhole building seemed dark, and kind of dank smelling. By thistime I had begun to feel that this trip was something out of theordinary definitely, and I was just too slow to figure it out. Myolder brother would often just “humph” when I asked too manyquestions, but my parents were both unfailingly quiet and patient. Now, that told me loud and clear something was not normal here. When I asked Mamma about the showers — why did they all have totake showers together, and wouldn’t that be terribly embarrassing– she told me that they were not water showers, but gas. The wayshe said that, like she was choking or something, made me stopasking questions right then. I thought perhaps the people wereextremely dirty and that the gasoline was necessary to get themclean; just like when Mamma cleaned Daddy’s very dirty woolenslacks with Kerosine.

By this time I knew there was something terribly out of placegoing on, but I thought I was just slow in catching on — orperhaps it was one of those nasty jokes that two brothers willsometimes play on a sister. I remember hearing my mother say thatthe people all died after being gassed. I also remember quiteclearly that I simply didn’t comprehend what she had said. Thiswhole place didn’t make any sense and it wasn’t fun, or pretty oranything. We walked on through the dark halls while my brainwhirled with trying to figure out just what this was all about andWHAT IS GOING ON HERE!?

The next thing I remember was walking into a room that hadwindows with sunlight flooding in on the right hand side of a sortof hallway. Bricks were laid neatly into the wall on the left handside, with two big iron doors and one smaller one set into thebrick. I recall Mamma talking about them being ovens, so I askedif they baked the bread for all the prisoners there. I knew whatovens were, and the doors looked just like the door on the oven inthe Hansel & Gretel story. Again, my older brother had that lookon his face that said, “You are just a girl and really too dumb toknow what is going on even if we answer you.” I am afraid he wasquite right in this case. My mother said to me that this was wherethey put the bodies of the dead people. To burn them. Cremate wasthe word she used.

Understand — I was young enough that I simply couldn’t acceptwhat my folks were saying as having anything to do with real life. So even though they said the words explaining everything, it was asthough my ability to understand the words was held in suspension. I remember looking at the oven doors carefully. They had bigcrosspieces with heavy bolts on them, and handles. Then I askedMamma what the little oven was for, expecting her to tell me thatit was for pastries or something like that. She told me it was tocremate the bodies of the babies and young children.

Like the clang of those same oven doors thudding shut,suddenly everything that I simply had not understood orcomprehended became horribly, nastily real. I knew for certainthat the sense of wrongness was not because my brothers were aboutto play some trick on me — it was because somebody KILLED peoplehere, and ON PURPOSE, and BABIES, TOO! The sense of horror was sodeep I asked no more questions until we left Dachau.

But still my parents went on with their commentary of whatthey knew about the place. They took us outside where there was akind of a long runnel in the earth. It had flowers similar todaffodils growing around it, but there were no blooms. Mamma andDaddy explained that the place was a mass grave, where the crematedbodies were dumped. Naked. And then buried with a bulldozer. Unmarked. By this time I was pretty well numb with shock andhorror. In all my life I could never, never imagine that suchthings would happen. It was worse than the awfullest Grim’s FairyTales, which were sometimes pretty gruesome, but always make-believe. Mamma and Daddy were telling us this was REAL!

It was about that time that the impression I remember mostvividly clarified about me. I have always been aware of weatherand birds and wind and bugs and other minutiae of the earth. Irecall looking up from the grave and knowing suddenly that thewhole place was a bad place. There was not a bird singing ortwittering anywhere around, nor the buzz of a bee nor the sigh ofa single breeze to be felt or heard. It seemed to my childishperceptions as if the whole Universe, God himself, was holding hisbreath and looking away from this place. And that’s what I wantedmore than anything at that moment — to be away from this place. I recall that sense of stillness, unreal lack of life, more vividlythan any other thing about the trip. It’s not like it wasthreatening. More like waiting — perhaps hundreds of years –before anything ALIVE could again find comfort in a place so foul.

Looking back, I know my parents were unusual and wise to makesure that a child growing up in an almost-fairyland Germany shouldsee the other side of the picture. We talked a little about theplace on the way back. The way it must have smelled for milesaround when the ovens were going. My parents said that the peoplewho lived around here were probably just ordinary folk. I rememberasking then one more question: Why didn’t the good German peoplestop the bad ones who were killing the babies? My folks waffledabout answering that, as parents always do when they have no goodanswer. Has anyone ever answered my question? I still want ananswer.

In the many years since that trip I have thought on it often. I always am amazed at how long it took me to catch on to what theplace was. And yet, should a little child be even able to imaginesuch horrors? Did Hitler have such “fantasies” at the age ofseven? And now I hear many reports of people who declare that theentire Holocaust was just some kind of political hype. It makes meboth furious and so very, very sad. Furious, because that kind ofa nasty lie is exactly the kind of lying that led to such a placeas Dachau ever existing. And it makes me very sad because somepeople would rather believe it was all a sham than to face reality. I grieve for those people. I remember quite well what it was liketo not believe my own eyes and ears. I also remember clearly thehorror of sudden truth. God forbid the world shall ever have toface such sudden truths again.

I am aware that over six million Jews died in such places. But 14 million people altogether died, which makes eight millionpeople who were not Jewish. Such numbers are truly incomprehensible, even as an adult. What I do comprehend is that I wasthere, not as a sufferer, but as an observer, for a purpose. Iremember, and I have told my children what I remember. And I willtell my children’s children. I want us to NEVER FORGET.

So even though I am not a Jew, nor was I imprisoned to sufferin one of those camps, I know the aftertaste of what it might havemeant. I was there. Even years afterward, it was a place of darkhorror. And I will never forget.

By: Kathleen Seward Stokes
13291 Eastborne Drive
Oregon City, OR 97045

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