It was a warm day in July. I was a nanny in Wiesbaden for an American military family (friends of my parents) for the summer. I was sixteen. The family had a close friend (who became a good friend of mine, too), whom I’ll here dub “B”, who greatly enjoyed spelunking, short wave radio, and going on what nowadays would be called “extreme” history excursions.
B and I spent many hours, standing outside by his car evenings, discussing novels, poetry, philosophy, and Monty Python. And he took me spelunking through Maginot Line fortresses (highly illegal, but fascinating, and the best possible way to personalize history). We climbed WWII ruins—giant bridges that were bombed to still-impressively towering rubble—and ate tinned rations atop them, while listening to cassettes on my boom box and laughing over “Bloom County”. We radioed my family via three or four other short wave radio operators, relaying a ‘howdy’ from faraway Germany (this was long before cell phones and the internet, during the reign of the Commodore 64 and small BBS networks). We watched Bastille fireworks reflecting on a lake beside which we camped.
On this day in July, we (the C family, B, and I) were all in the middle of a weekend trip that included visiting the only two Maginot Fortresses that were legally open for exploration. On this day, we were on the return trip, and stopped in Bavaria, hoping to catch the Oberammergau Passionspiel. That was a no-go, so we wandered around Oberammemrgau and Garmisch, then headed to Dachau to absorb the Konzentrations Lager. I was undone. We spent the greater part of a day wandering the grounds of the camp. Two days earlier, I could “hear” the cannons, the machine guns, the explosions of the war, as I picked my way across a farmer’s field beneath which tours were exploring the Hackenberg fortress. I about jumped out of my skin as the gun turret I was sitting on began to rise, like it would whenever a French soldier was ordered to fire on advancing troops. Today, as I stood long before the ovens, I could smell death. I walked through the “showers,” meditated over the firing range, and absorbed every photograph and monument as if through my pores. I counted the steps from the huge platz where roll call was taken, along the long tree-lined avenue, to the back of the camp where monuments to Jews, Protestants, and Catholics were now standing. This was a smaller camp, but was itself immense, a ghost town for a city of death.
How many of my family died here? I wondered. How many killed here? I’m primarily German with a small branch of Jewish heritage. How many walked through here in open-mouthed horror, as they liberated the camp? Every part of my being resonated with the might of the atrocity.
Yesterday, when talking to R and J about my tattoo, I was stunned to realize they haven’t a clue what any of it symbolizes. They are the ones who threw the “coming out” party for me last January, and they are my closest friends here in the Midwest. Another friend thought it would have been better had I instructed Bill to have the triangle aligned point up. I am amazed at how many very educated (graduate degrees, all) people have no understanding of social iconography.
In the Nazi concentration camps, inmates were categorized by color: red for political prisoners, green for professional criminal, blue for emigrant, violet for Jehovah’s Witness, pink for homosexual (male), and black for asozial, or, what is roughly equivalent but not nearly strong enough to express the sense of this term, antisocial. Lesbians were categorized under black. Each color was worn on the left trouser leg and on the left side of one’s jacket in the shape of a triangle, point down. If one were unfortunate enough to be Jewish also, then this triangle was placed over a right-side-up yellow triangle, mocking the Star of David. If one were a “repeat offender”, one had the distinct honor of wearing a colored stripe above the triangle; if one were a suspected flight risk, an encircled dot below it.
The yellow star Jews were required to wear (in and out of the camps) has become a symbol of solidarity and oppression, a mark of remembrance and a reminder to never again let such horrors occur. In the same way, so has the pink triangle, and, to a lesser extent, the black triangle. Before the use of the rainbow was commonplace, the pink triangle was used by the gay community as an appropriated symbol representing political and social oppression alongside personal identification as gay. When one endured the camp, one could never escape the triangular identification, nor the tattooed ID on (initially, one’s chest, but later on) one’s arm. A woman unwilling to bear children for the Reich was forever stained black, by both patch and tattoo. During the 1950s, this triangle was, like the pink one, taken by lesbians as an affirming symbol, in a way that the Vagina Monologues today take the term “cunt” and try to make it an affirmation (far less successfully, I might add) of one’s womanhood.
I muse often on my trip to Dachau. I once wondered whether I would have been an inmate or a guard, given the condition that I were raised in Germany of the 1930s instead of America of the 1970s. What kind of character do I have? Now the question has changed. Regardless my character, I would have worn a black triangle, perhaps, depending on how the Nazis would have categorized the percentage of my “Jewish” blood (one great great grandfather and his parents), backed by an upright yellow triangle. (Questions of character that now prod me: would I have been a puppet to the guards, a toady seeking preferential treatment? or would I have suffered with integrity and compassion?)
I wear a triangle, point down, on my back. It is a Celtic knot, two chains, one of pink, one of blue, highlighted in white, outlined in black. Black because I am a woman, pink because this symbol is now indicative of the queer community, female and male alike. Blue has long been a spiritual symbol, pointing to the sky. When I was a girl, I was a part of a church club within which our colors were blue and white, which stood for loyalty and purity. Thus the aquamarine and white. By “purity” nowadays, however, I mean integrity, spiritual purity, honesty with myself and God. Of course, if I wanted to (and symbolism allows me to with some liberty), I could appropriate the “emigrant” meaning of blue, for my family are German emigrants, and I have emigrated out of the closet. The Celtic knot is unending, unbroken. It is the promise to me, not to break, that I am and will acknowledge what God made me to be, that I will not return to denial and self-smothering.
Some fifteen years after I went to Dachau, my sister and parents did. Mom and my sister both found the experience interesting, but nothing more. They felt the place was just like any other tourist destination, but that the Holocaust and its residual taint upon society was long over, that nothing really was left, that we’d come long past it. The smell of death that I encountered like a fog over the camp was nonexistent, they claimed, and all those people like me who said they experienced it were just missing out on how amazingly God had liberated the world of such demonic evil.
I am still bewildered by their total inability to grasp exactly what the place symbolizes, what it marks, and how much prejudice and hate still mar and destroy lives even today. Neo-Nazis find havens worldwide; anti-Semitism has never really declined; and the very religious tradition my mother and sister fervently adhere to is claimed by those most violently homophobic among us. It is this deliberate blindness, this Pollyanna optimism, that I believe kept good German citizens in the very near town of Dachau from ever acknowledging to themselves that such unspeakables could go on in their own back yard. When the Americans liberated Dachau, they were so horrified and disgusted, they force-marched the residents of Dachau through the camp to take in all the stench, filth, degradation, and cruelty with their own eyes.
There are still, of course, deniers.
Mom and my sister don’t deny the Holocaust, just that such is within each of us as potential, that we are all capable of being cruel, inhumane, and violent, without any demonic influence. They believe that there are spirits that rule over each nation, and that for a time, Germany was run by a demon who possessed Hitler and other leaders. This makes us rather passive, you see, thus in a way innocent of any such atrocities. But I believe none of us are innocent, that we all are complicated beings with both the potential for good and the potential for evil, and that we are responsible for what sort of people we become.
They don’t stand up against injustice because they believe injustice should happen, that it is a “sign of the times” of Christ’s return. In their premillenial dispensationalism, they hold that the world gets worse and worse and worse until it is “as in the days of Noah” and then the trump shall sound. Making things better (they seem to believe, though would not acknowledge, even to themselves) would delay the longed-after rapture.
Martin Niemöller once said (okay, many times said, in one way or another),
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not 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.
I think it is this odd combination of doctrine and otherworldly optimism that motivates such silence nowadays. People don’t speak out because they convince themselves that whatever is happening “can’t” be as bad as all that, and that anyway, God will take care of it if only they get those prayer chains moving and go regularly to Friday night prayer meetings. But we the church are God’s body here and now. We are the ones to speak with God’s voice, to be God’s hands and to live the compassion and justice of God’s heart. We are human beings, image-bearers of God. Thus, instead of looking to what category of people are being taken, persecuted, abused, vilified, we should rather look at the goings on in the world this way: they have come for image-bearers, they are image-bearers, as am I. What can I do, and how quickly?
Hence my constant musing on Dachau and what it represents. What sort of person am I?
I ask often on many levels—on how I am created to fit into the narrower categories and whether I will remain true to what God has seen fit to generate in me; on how I am created ad imaginem Dei and whether I am consistent and will remain consistent to the responsibility and honor such an image-bearing purpose entails; and on how important it is to remain what the Hebrew Bible calls us as humans, the “remembering ones,” remembering not only the facts of historical triumph and tragedy, but also the taste of blood and the slice of the whip, the agony and grueling endurance of image-bearers force-marched across American prairies in the 1800s, crammed into German boxcars and American internment camps of the 1940s, and sent fleeing from Sudanese and South African murder squads in 2008.
Once we forget the subjective experience of history, the objective facts lose their meaning, and history can then easily repeat itself, forcing us in its own inexorable manner never to forget, because we cannot forget what we currently endure.