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THE CAMPS

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By Alicia DeFonzo

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The Montréal Review, January 2014

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The things I saw beggar description…The visual evidence and the verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty and bestiality were…overpowering… I made the visit deliberately in order to be in a position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to ‘propaganda’. 

– Letter from General Eisenhower to General Marshall on the liberation of Ohrdruf, a sub-camp of Buchenwald, April 15, 1945.

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They traveled north through the city of Weimar and approached the compound at daybreak. It was overcast, and ash sat atop the lofty barbed wire barrier. Electrified fences and trip wires surrounded the complex while heavily armed watchtowers stood every hundred yards. A white platform manned with large artillery loomed above the black steel gate, maintaining a view of the entire camp. Molded into the metal doorway read a message; Del wasn’t sure of the translation, but he knew it wasn’t good, it being the only entrance and exit.

The private first-class reached the Buchenwald sub-camp the first week of April, 1945; the name he cannot recall, as there were over 80 known sub-camps throughout central Germany. SS troopers and Wehrmacht soldiers had learned Patton’s Third Army was closing in and swiftly ordered thousands of prisoners to be herded south to Dachau and other camps. Within days, the Americans approached. Few SS remained on the grounds; those who did were taken into custody or were not.

The Army pushed open the gate while munitions trucks tore down the wire fencing.  Del walked through the open square and the crunching under his boots altered between gray pebbles and bone fragments. Prisoners had been counted on this stone field every morning and night, standing for hours, dying from exhaustion or execution. Those too weak to work were gassed while select inmates faced instant death, a phenol injection to the heart. Piles of lifeless bodies lay throughout the camp. Those who had been burned, mutilated, suffered medical experimentation, or otherwise were stacked on top of one another, naked and exposed to the brutal weather. The sight was unconscionable and the odor lingered on their fatigues.

Del’s orders were to search and release all inmates: Russian, Belgian, Jewish, Polish. Cheers and cries followed, as hundreds emerged from dozens of wooden barracks. He claims, the living “were ghosts, really. They were in bad shape, like a bunch of skeletons walking around. We fed them K-rations, gave them what water we had.” Though, he knew it wouldn’t do much good; some were merely hours from their last breath.

Other GI’s investigated the oven rooms where countless dangled from the ceiling like cattle. Arms twisted behind their backs, tied to what looked like boat hooks, and transported to the mortuary to load into massive brick furnaces. Before execution, victims were surgically stripped of anything valuable, sliced like the hide of an animal for teeth, skin, organs, and bones, for human trophies or everyday use. It was a slaughterhouse of humans, and children were no exception. 

The Army freed the dead and piled them together. Del and his outfit gripped whatever tools they had and dug. For hours into the night, weary men were swallowed by rock and earth, determined to provide the deceased a proper burial; it was all they could do.

Del left the sub-camp less than 36 hours after his arrival and moved south onto the next mission. He was glad to be rid of the sight.

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Over 21,000 souls were liberated from Buchenwald camps by Patton’s Third Army in April 1945. Almost 70 years later, Buchenwald is a blurred memory for my grandfather. He does not recollect much more about the site, only flashes of figures and phantoms. And though he also freed prisoners from an unknown camp in Belgium that same summer, he has trouble placing any information. When I considered visiting the camp on an upcoming trip to Germany, he quickly forbad the idea, urging me never to step foot on the grounds. There was “nothing to see there…no reason to go.” It remained his final word on the matter. This struck me as curious since he knew I was retracing his steps through the War. He had also spoken of combat and death before, and in grave detail, why now should he protect me, I did not know but promised him nonetheless to ease his mind.

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I spent my third evening in Munich at a posh vegetarian restaurant called Prinz Myshkin.  It was raining by the time I arrived with no coat or umbrella. The hostess assumed I was American, as most Germans did, and greeted: “Ha-llo, tzable for one?” I replied, “Danke” the best I could. This was my third week in the country, and I still had no gift for their pronunciations.

She sat me at a dark wooden table for two in the middle of the room underneath a vaulted white ceiling and lighted indoor trees. I looked over the menu, fortunately with English subtitles, and ordered the special: gnocchi with white asparagus. The waiter insisted the vegetable was delicious this time of year in this particular region of the country, a grand, ivory beanstalk. But when I paired the order with a glass of red instead of white, his raised brow gave away his snobbery.

The drink came quickly, which helps when dining alone; it gives one something to do. Not having spoken English in almost a week, I felt like conversation. I often chatted with bartenders, but this was not the place. I surveyed the room of romantic couples and businessmen and noticed one woman sitting unaccompanied next to a stormy window. She was tall, blonde, in her 50’s, reading the paper and looking more alone than I. I strolled over to her table and politely asked if she spoke English. When she said “yez,” and smiled, I asked her to join me; being a vegetarian I figured at least we would have that in common.

While she brought her wine and belongings over, I casually signaled to the waiter what was happening. He seemed confused by my pointing American fingers and took off for the hostess counter in a panic. She then came over to me, leaning and whispering severely: “Dis okay wit’ you?” I nodded: “Of course, I asked her to join me.” She called the server over, still confused by the statement. I repeated the same to both. They reluctantly accepted, returning to the counter where the wait staff glared at our unusual arrangement. I asked my new friend why the reaction and she claimed: “Dis itz hardly done in my country.” I smirked, the Germans seemed so uptight, and here I was playing the role of boisterous American.

The lady introduced herself, and we chatted for two hours without awkward pause. We didn’t discuss work all that much, though she was an executive of some kind in town on business. We also skipped the part about her never marrying and how German women were growing more independent. And, there was no mention of vegetarianism. I cannot even recall her name, regrettably. Instead, about ten minutes into our greeting, the conversation was steered once I learned she was born in Dachau, the home of the largest concentration camp in all of Germany.

It was a strange place to grow up, she admitted. Most locals were against the Nazi regime but felt there was little to be done against such a threat. There was one exception, though: her grandmother; she had found a way. The woman explained that from time to time, when her mother was a toddler, her grandmother gave her and her sisters stale bread. She coached them to play outside the camp and pretend to tease the inmates, all the while dropping the crumbs in grassy patches inches from the barbed wire.  This act was punishable by death, imminent death, as watchtowers stationed around the compound were ready to fire at will. Meticulous security measures were put in place for the concentration camps, and almost all held the same design for maximum efficiency. Even so, the girls and their mother were never caught.

I almost couldn’t believe such a tale but the lady seemed so certain of her account. And, with no breaks or hesitations, it felt like truth. Her misty eyes glowed with admiration for her grandmother as did mine. I knew I could never match the courage of this woman nor dare commit the same. More so, I was now determined to visit the very place she inhabited. Tomorrow being my last full day in the city, I had to go, and Dachau was only 45 minutes north of Munich by train. 

Having stretched the second glass of wine as long as I could, it was getting late and my fancy asparagus was cold. I thanked the woman for the conversation, assuring I would never forget the encounter. As we hugged and parted ways outside, I teased: “The next time you eat alone, you should ask someone to sit with you.” She replied, “Okay,” half-lying, and waved. I strolled back to the hotel, dodging the puddles, eager for morning, but in my excitement, broke the promise to my grandfather.

 

“April 29, 1945: an estimated 68,000 prisoners were released from Dachau by the American forces,” the program read. I followed the diagram down the stoned path towards a small brook lined with plush greenery and woods. Little brown birds chirped and hopped closely to tourists, hopeful for some scraps. Beyond the overpass stood a white concrete wall about three-stories high with a black steel gate below. The spiked metal door read: “Arbeit Macht Frei”, meaning “Work makes you free.” It oddly reminded me of my father who used to bark, “Work will set you free” and laugh like an evil villain, hands on hips, as he gave us our chores for the day.

Through the gate lay acres of silvery round pebbles, forming a square where inmates were counted daily. Just beyond the square, two of thirty wooden barracks remained, or “blocks” as they were termed; the rest were taken down after the liberation. Numbered wooden planks mark the place these prisoners once lived, like a field of garden beds except nothing grows. On the perimeter of the grounds were the main offices of the German Army or Wehrmacht. These buildings were converted into a few hundred yards of air-conditioned museum with artifacts, sign-in logs, labor tools, and literature.

They start tourists at prisoner check-in, where iron bars on the windows needlessly assured no escape. Documents enclosed in glass cases contained lists of inmate information: name, date and place of birth, marital status, children, religion, profession, place of residence; they knew everything. Further through the gallery hung: black and white pictures of prisoners standing at attention, getting striped of their belongings and their dignity; historical summaries in chronological order, taking visitors through post WWI Germany, the Nazi regime, and their rise to power; dozens of original posters depict penniless, tired Germans, captioning, “Hitler: Our Last Hope.” But through the photographs and propaganda, one image struck me above all others. A childlike drawing with no name. Three prisoners in baby blue pinstripes, arms tied behind their backs, hoisted on brown hooks. A crimson red drips from their heads, as a German soldier stands to the side in hunter green, sword in hand. I doubted the artist was still alive and exited the cold museum.

Stepping into the high temperature tricked my body with a shiver of sweat.  With no shade, the July heat became unbearable; I hoped for clouds or a breeze but none came. I headed through the square about fifty yards towards one of the original barracks. Once inside, it smelled and looked of fresh timber, as if it had just been built. There were no dents or markings anywhere. The floors had never been wood-stained but were somehow spotless. Apparently, the inmates were severely punished if anything, even water, spilled on the boards. The same pale lumber was used for their bunks, eight rows wide and three tiers high. Every prisoner had a wooden locker about six inches in width, which was inspected at random for cleanliness and contraband. In a separate tiled area sat ten rust-colored toilets with two white wash basins. A small living and eating quarters were adjacent. Each block was designed to accommodate 180 people, though the number grew to nearly 400 at Dachau.

In the barrack were only eight tourists and for good reason. The windows were cracked but the sun baked the room and the humidity was suffocating. A couple of minutes into our walk-through, we all began using our programs as fans. Most didn’t stay inside long, and though I was one of few remaining, the persistent sweat eventually drove me to the door. Out of the block, I took a few sips from my water bottle, and a feeling of guilt filtered through me. Four hundred people confined to this wooden box, the heat cooking them to collapse. To end up here, to die here, was a slow death, where a day seems like a year. I looked at the barrack doorway and couldn’t go back.

A few German kids were sitting on the stones outside, checking their cell phones. I remembered the woman at dinner mentioning how students were required to visit one of the remaining camps in order to graduate high school, to better understand their chapter in history. Clearly this group had tired of the field trip. Other students hiked eagerly to the next point, roughly two hundred yards towards the back of the camp. They were headed to the gas showers and crematorium, and I followed like everyone else.

Many of the visitors seemed impatient for the next point, smiled and gossiped, as if the upcoming scene was more of an attraction than a graveyard – the grand finale, so to speak. Others were solemn, heads down, quiet, perhaps descendants, along with a few old veterans in uniform who now needed canes or an arm to guide them. It was then I began to hesitate and recall my grandfather’s warning. Why was I going exactly?

I had wondered the same on a visit to Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam the previous year. I had climbed a ladder upstairs to where her family lived before they were discovered. The rooms were blackened out by thick curtains and the tight space amplified any small sound. As I read her writings on display, the panel in the floor creaked loudly with my footstep, and I broke. That was all it took, and the tears came. Suddenly, two teenage girls behind me started giggling, and my sad eyes quickly widened with rage. I turned around ready to pounce, and both fell to silence.

I stopped half way through the rocky square and understood why my grandfather advised against the visit: I could go forward but could never go back. Perhaps it was not a blur to him after all, Buchenwald or Belgium. The broken inmates, the mass graves, the children, all haunted him through time. Once seen cannot be unseen. Shadows and shapes, however dormant, would eventually resurface. He didn’t talk about the camps because he forgot -- he didn’t talk about the camps because he remembered.

I had walked far enough and let the people pass. He was right, “nothing to see there.” I didn’t need to see it to feel it, Death I mean. It was here now; it never left. The past was present. And there, in the middle of the gray square, under the burning sky, a crunching sound below my heels lead me back to the only exit.

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Alicia DeFonzo is an English Instructor and Creative Non-Fiction candidate at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. Her thesis retraces her grandfather’s journey throughout WWII, though she soon finds how deeply connected the past is to the present, uncovering untold truths about her beloved grandfather and the War itself. Additionally, DeFonzo’s scholarship concentrates on "banned books" and censorship in American public schools and libraries and has recently been a guest on NPR celebrating Banned Books Week.

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