The rain and chill that dogged us through Hamburg, Berlin, Prague and Nuremberg finally turned to warm sunshine when we arrived in Munich. This was two years ago, during a trip we’ve since dubbed the Holocaust tour because everywhere we went we immersed ourselves in learning about the horrors inflicted on millions by the Third Reich. I came away from that trip realizing we learn next to nothing about Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany in school, but that’s a topic for another column.
We visited the excellent and heart-rending Jewish Museum in Berlin, where every square inch of the place – including the architecture of the building itself – is a testament to the unspeakable. And outside Berlin we walked the grounds of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, the administrative center of Hitler’s killing machine and the prototype for the rest of the KZs.
In Prague, we saw a synagogue with the names of every Czech Jewish victim killed by the Third Reich written on its walls, 78,000 of them. By the time we arrived in Munich and took our place on a regional train bound for Dachau, I was positive I’d steeled myself for what awaited us there.
I could not have been more wrong.
From the moment I walked through the front gates, adorned with the words of false hope welded to most concentration camp gates – arbeit macht frei, “work makes you free” – I was overcome. Evil lingers there even now, 70 years after the camp’s liberation, mingling with the souls of the thousands who were slaughtered there.
As I walked around Dachau KZ, fighting bravely to hold it together and rarely succeeding, contradictory thoughts flooded my brain: This is holy ground. It should have been paved over long ago and erased as the Third Reich was erased. It should stand for all time as a tangible reminder of how unbelievably cruel we can be to each other, how hatred and bigotry and intolerance will be our undoing if we let it.
Then clarity, emblazoned on a low wall in front of me: Never again. This cannot happen ever again.
And on that warm, humid June day in the Bavarian countryside in 2015, I felt certain that it wouldn’t. Humanity has progressed, evolved. We’re becoming better. And even those of us who haven’t, they’re the fringe. They’re weirdos and whackjobs and we will never let them take control as happened in 1930s Germany because we’re better than that now.
The 2015 me did not envision the United States of America, circa 2017.
The election of Donald J. Trump as president of the United States embarrassed me. The disgusting actions of Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia, this past weekend filled me with shame.
I am ashamed to be a white man, guilty by association with the filth that invaded Charlottesville and held it hostage for an entire weekend with their vile rhetoric espousing an America made up only of men of European descent and the baby machines (white women) they keep around solely to serve them. I am ashamed that we have in our midst people who believe white lives are the only lives that matter and that people of color should “go back where they came from,” or should be rounded up in some dystopian American Kristallnacht, or should be slaughtered outright.
I am ashamed that Donald Trump, either willingly or unwittingly, kowtowed to this filth during his campaign and afterward filled his administration with their ilk, thereby giving power and a voice to hate. I am ashamed that he blathers on about Muslim extremism and Mexican “criminals and thugs” while turning a blind eye and a mute tongue to the shitshow of extremism and white criminals and thugs that descended on Charlottesville.
I am ashamed to be an American. To look at our flag and think about what it’s meant to stand for, but doesn’t. That the cadence of our national anthem – the land of the free and the home of the brave – means little when there are so many cowards in our midst who don’t believe in freedom for all.
Cowards who now feel comfortable enough to pull their white hoods off, buy their torches at a big-box store, lace up their jackboots, unfurl their swastikas and occupy a university town.
Comfortable because the man living in the White House – the People’s House – won’t say a word until he absolutely has to, three days later, before attempting to shift the blame yet again to “many sides” to the wicked glee of neo-Nazis across the nation.
Worst of all, I am ashamed that so many white men and women who find Nazi ideals and so-called “nationalism” beyond repugnant remained silent all weekend long because they feared saying or doing the wrong thing and offending people of color. And I am ashamed to have been one of them, and ashamed that the only thing I know to do about it is write this column.
Two years ago, first at Sachsenhausen and then at Dachau, I stood outside cells that held a German named Martin Niemöller. A Lutheran minister, Niemöller initially supported Hitler but was eventually arrested for opposing the Nazification of Protestant churches and the Aryan Paragraph.
The nearly eight years Niemöller spent in concentration camps changed him, and he came to regret both supporting Hitler and the years he spent preaching anti-Judaism sentiments from his pulpit. After the war, he wrote a poem about his and his fellow intellectuals’ collective failure to stand up to Hitler in the early days when something might have been done to stop him:
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Socialist.
“Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a trade unionist.
“Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Jew.
“Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Niemöller thought he’d be safe if he just kept quiet. He narrowly escaped execution, only because the war ended in the nick of time.
Keeping quiet in the face of evil that should have died with the Third Reich is not an option. To do so means history will repeat itself, in ways I can’t even fathom.
And I’ve been to Dachau.