Thursday, January 12, 2017

Connecting With My Father's Past

Not a day goes by that I don’t think of my dad. He was not an easy man to get to know, but he could spin a tale or tell a joke with the best of them. I attributed his moods and hesitancy at revealing too much about himself to his history and being a survivor. His crying out in the middle of the night as my other tried to shush him back to sleep was evidence enough of the demons that lived in the closet of his psyche. 
I often look at my sons and see him in them: They are both strong-willed almost to a maddening degree, just like him, and also like their grandfather they are both fervent defenders of what they believe is right and just. Yesterday, January 11, I gave my dad more than just a cursory thought; it was his birthday. He’s been gone for over fifteen years, but a short while ago, while on a Viking River Cruise that sailed on the Danube from Germany to Hungary, I made a discovery that changed my life and brought me closer to him than I had been even when he was alive. The overwhelming connection I felt during that cruise somehow made this birthday seem more meaningful to me.

An optional World War II tour in Nuremberg during the cruise was high on my list because, as the child of Holocaust survivors, I take every opportunity I can to explore that horrific period of time. I’d hoped that it would give me some insight into what actually transpired there during the pre- and post-war eras. Our guide, Ingo, was a German history scholar, born long after the horrors that occurred in his country during WWII. His knowledge and level of sensitivity and morality were impressive, and I only wish I had more time to pepper him with questions. 

The Nazis chose Nuremberg as the locale for their many rallies partly because of its central location, and partly because of its connection to the Roman Empire. As we walked around what was now an empty expanse but had at one time been Zeppelin Field, the site of the former Nazi Party Rally Grounds, it was not difficult to visualize row upon row upon row of supporters shouting in unison as they saluted Adolf Hitler. An icy rain fell that morning, and it pelted our faces as a sharp wind blew through our jackets and created an atmosphere that was befitting of a group immersing themselves in that painful and evil bubble of history. We, who were alive, we who were safe, we who were merely observers, stood on what had once been the hallowed grounds of a power-hungry man and his followers who were starving for for the nourishment of his hate-filled words.

My eyes wanted to see more, but eighty years have past and there was not more to see. 

 Off in the distance stood the fuhrer’s massive Congress Hall. It built, according to blueprints that only an extreme narcissist could commission, to resemble the Roman Colosseum. Later, at the Documentation Center, we viewed photos and articles of Nazi propaganda. A visit to Courtroom 600 in the Palace of Justice, the venue of the Nazi war trials,  gave us a glimpse into post-war Nuremberg—a period that was fraught with guilt and retribution and meant to counteract some of the evil that occurred there.

My eyes wanted to see more, but eighty years have past and there was not more to see. There were no monuments—the German people intentionally did not want to create any shrines which would have given some the opportunity and the place to extol the workings of the Third Reich. The only pilgrimages made here are from the curious, the seekers of truth, the survivors.

Could he see the trees that I was seeing?

We were a somber bunch as we boarded the buses and began our trip back to our ship. And as I looked out the window I saw train tracks, and couldn’t help but wonder whether my father passed over those tracks; whether those were the very same tracks on which the trains took him and his family to the camps. Did the car where he and over 1,000 other prisoners were herded like cattle lumber by here? Could he see out from behind any slats in the wood? Could he see the trees that I was seeing? Was I looking at the same sky my dad looked at when he got off in Passau, another stop on our cruise? Gravel and dirt are mingled with the blades of grass that now grow between the railroad ties and as a modern-day train hunkers down the track, the dissonant sound of its wheels screeching—the metal upon metal—was what I could imagine him listening to. I cannot imagine the fear, I don’t dare begin to.

But on that day, on my dad’s day, I thought of him and felt him with me. I now understand…I have seen, not the worst of what he had seen, but my feet have perhaps touched the same ground he touched, I have breathed in the same air and looked at the same sky. I understand, because I was there.

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