Lit-Mag #37 Myself & Others
Days of Awe
The train was empty except for a couple in the autumn of their days: not many about on a Sunday. We left the familiar Zentrum and trundled through the outskirts of Munich. On the bus I was the only passenger. The driver did not initiate a conversation, a gaunt Charon ferrying me across the thin waves of fog. A pair of dark glasses shielded him from the sunless day. His bald pate, taut as if it could barely contain the contents of his head, looked familiar. A doppelgänger, it dawned on me, of the American Beat-writer William Burroughs. Pumped up on whatever substance took his fancy that day, Burroughs would climb to the rooftop and roar: “I have thunder in my breast.”
My grandfather Joseph Kaprun died at Dachau 4 October 1943. The records do not disclose cause of death or his status. At home, out of grief or shame, his name was never mentioned. Today’s sordid pilgrimage was the closest we would come to meeting.
We were there already. Die Toten reiten schnell.
The dull air seeped into me, making me restless, I saw a sign with the name of the place and followed it.
My journey ended in front a commonplace entrance, a gate that could well lead to a public park or a nursery. How all of this resembled a school ground. Half expecting a bell chiming the end of recess I understood this was my last chance to turn back. I went inside.
Thick German fog covered the deserted camp and the grass cast a pallid green hue under the wolfgrey sky. Invisible from outside, slender barbed wire drooped over the fence. This place had been reconstructed to look exactly like it did when in operation, in its heyday. About the barracks and the grounds there was an unanticipated neatness. The living quarters consisted of some forty houses. Inside, enemies of state had slept in wooden compartments that filled the barracks from floor to ceiling. A scent of freshly hewn oak wafted across the quarters; the original barracks having been torn down, I stood inside a piece of scenery. In spite of the barbed wire, the ovens, an aura of a public school or a summer camp clouded Dachau. About them the guard towers had an almost paternalistic quality. There had even been a camp song.
Outside, the camp was as desolate as an English seaside resort in winter. I found myself in one of the few periods of respite history grants us, an interval between the acts where disputes are settled without mercy. This century I had experienced not at first hand but by hearsay.
Dachau lacked a sense of mass tragedy, located as it was in the middle of a city. From where I stood I could see the houses. Old houses. I’d imagined Dachau in the middle of a dark forest, hidden in shame; from their windows the locals must have seen what happened. I wondered whether they drew their curtains at night.
Here was no Beatrice for whom I yearned, no Virgil to guide me, no paradise I sought, terrestrial or otherwise, nothing of poetry or glory of song, no hope to be abandoned. Dachau, I thought, would speak to me, overwhelm me, ancestral voices lamenting their wasted, stolen lives. But the tedium of the guards was easier to grasp than the suffering of the prisoners.
Dachau was a Konzentrationslager, a concentration camp, not a death camp, Vernichtungslager. From this purgatory countless prisoners were relegated to the death camps. At Dachau, most of the 34,000 recorded killings were of prisoners worked to death. On the so-called Parade Grounds two figures loomed in the distance, a man and a woman. More sightseers. Tourismus. I scampered in the opposite direction, ashamed to be there.
I might as well have been a tourist in the Red Light District of Amsterdam, gawking at prostitutes in picture windows, with signs that admonished: “Do not take photographs. This is not a zoo.” Sightseers pointed at a whore past her prime and I was filled with revulsion. My contempt was for the voyeurs eager for a safe look at life taken to extremes. In front of me, between her corpulent parents, strolled a beautiful German girl. The couple seemed cheerful enough, attired as they were for an amusement park. Bathed in that wicked red light, the girl regarded the hoeren with a committed sadness, her almond-eyes offsetting her fair skin and golden hair. Inspiring in me a noble kind of lust, a will to remain and conquer, she made me forget all thoughts of home as utterly as the sight of the hoeren made me pine for it.
Tricked out as if for a confirmation, the barker stood sentry under a liquid-red neon sign promising a live sex show. An unctuous smooth-limbed Mediterranean type, he studied the passing crowd with some ulterior purpose as he extended perfunctory invitations to step right in. Ineluctably he fixed his roving eyes where mine had been and smiled a sated, content smile. The girl stared straight ahead. I overtook her, marching at the barker, bent on ramming him right back into his fuck-farm. He darted in as he saw me coming. His eyes were well trained.
It was that night in Berlin when the wall fell. She patted me on the shoulder and all thoughts of the conscription notice faded from mind. She rode with me from Berlin and we made love on the train. The next day was her birthday and we had Sachertorte and cheap Spanish champagne for breakfast in the Englischer Garten as she lay with her blonde head on my belly. She boarded the afternoon train back to Berlin. I was sad to see her leave.
My ancestor, a converso, had already left the fold when he arrived to our village with a rosewood chest at the end of the eighteenth century. His name was Jakob Kaprun. The rosewood chest he’d stuffed with Reichsthaler. From the peasants Jakob purchased tract upon tract of land and became a man of property by beating the postman to the village with a coffer full of cancelled bank notes. The toys I kept in that chest as a child were of more value than the bills the peasants received for their land.
On a visit to Calcutta my grandfather witnessed how the British treated their hosts and could not conceive of Hitler being any worse. For some reason, perhaps my grandmother’s ancestry, he hung a portrait of der Führer in his office rather than the living room. When the Tommies marched into town and commanded him to take it down, he refused.
A murmur of voices behind me, a man and a woman waiting for the bus to take us from Dachau. I recognized them from the lonely train. With the deliberation of foreign speakers they spoke a language that sounded like Spanish. The man wore a heavy dark-blue coat and English glasses.
“Does this bus go to the Hauptbahnhof?” he asked me in German.
“You’ll have to take the train eventually.”
“Are you English?”
“No.” I affected a tone of indifference. He’d detected my accent too easily being a foreigner himself. The bearish features and scruffy beard clashed with his benign smile and murky grey hair too long for a man in his sixties. Every word he repeated to his wife in flawless German. Time had redressed her somewhat plain looks. In their matching royal blue overcoats they offered the impression of wearing uniforms. Once inside, I sat far from the them.
On the train I found them seated opposite me.
“I’m a professor of theology, from Brazil.” “I studied in Rio de Janeiro,” he added. In laconic statements his wife confirmed every word. Her German was impeccable, but did not flow. About them they had the unsettling serenity of people who work in flower shops. His strange, rather embarrassed smile never left his lips as we discussed Brazil and the Conquistadores; this smile, resigned and harsh still soulful and whimsical, I’ve yet to encounter outside of Germany.
“You speak good German for an Ausländer,” he concluded, his inquisitive eyes indeed those of a scholar.
“My father was German.”
“The literacy rate in Rio de Janeiro’s very low. They conduct surveys and consider you literate if you can spell your name.” Dachau was never mentioned. Before I got off I extended my hand to them, an overly formal gesture, even in Germany. But then and there it seemed appropriate.
As I watched the train roar out of sight, it dawned on me this man had been in Dachau before, his wife too. For this reason he studied theology after the war. I don’t know whether he was a victim or an oppressor. But he’d returned to the scent of fresh oak in the barracks, to confront fear with a greater judgment, and for this I admire him more than words can describe.
Dusk descended on the city. Outside the Hauptbahnhof, a solitary skinhead smiled at me, his baldness extending down to his shaven eyebrows. The thick red suspenders shone bright, lending him a statesmanlike appearance. I mimicked his smirk. A tiny red badge with a swastika was pinned to the right lapel of his jacket. The woody fragrance of his patchouli lingered after I passed. A sense of utter calm, like at evensong, came over me. I turned and came at him. I pushed him and his bulk gave way. I kept on shoving until he let out a shrill cry and charged at me with his outstretched hand. I slid my fist across his raised palm and struck him, held back, then continued with full force as I considered how cocky he’d be in the company of his confederates, how he’d lord over me if his brothers in arms where here, how he’d find safety in numbers and administer the same beating to me, only more viciously for he was weak and the weak are cruel. As I felt his ribs crack under my heel, I recalled how he’d lured me into paying homage to his cause by returning his smile and contemplated the unspeakable.
Covering his head with spindly arms, he drew his knees to his stomach, the swastika kissing his cheek. I scurried away, ashamed of myself for the second time that day.
The morning train will bring me back to Berlin. Or I’ll ride the noon express through the foggy hills to Belgrade and be at the conscription office two weeks late. The repercussions won’t be severe as I’ve been abroad. Either way, it doesn’t matter. I have no country, no religion, no race. I am the twentieth century.
German fog, flimsier than the real thing, colder than any mirage, wraps the Hauptbahnhof in isolation. Whatever ghosts now haunt Dachau did not manifest themselves to me; nor did Joseph Kaprun. But I’m no longer a bystander, a day-tripper. History has caught up with me. I have thunder in my breast.