My husband and I arrived at a quaint German town. We strolled in the sun along a picturesque main street steeped in hundreds of years of European culture . We passed flower beds brimming with brilliant red and yellow flowers nodding their heads in the summer sun. When we entered the tourist bureau, the staff greeted us warmly, but with reserve. They knew why we were there. They handed us a brochure that read, “Welcome to Dachau.”
When we had set our car in the direction of Dachau earlier that morning, the rising sun and warm temperatures had suited the moment. We had spent the previous evening enjoying steins of beer and German oompah music at the Hofbräuhaus in Munich.
But as we got closer and closer to Dachau, we became quiet and sombre. I expected the skies to cloud over and a cold drizzle to soak our skins. I had always pictured Dachau as cold and grey and dreary; the sun and the lush green grass that greeted us seemed an insult to the memory of what happened there.
What was such beauty doing in a place of such horror?
In the book, Left to Tell, Immaculée Ilibagiza relates her personal story of the Rwandan Holocaust. She took refuge in a hidden bathroom in pastor’s home to avoid being murdered. From inside her bathroom cell, she could hear the killing squads outside the house shouting, “I have killed 399 cockroaches. Immaculée will make 400. It’s a good number to kill.” Hundreds of thousands of people were slaughtered while gentle breezes drifted “down from the hills and through the pine and cedar forests scented with the sweet aroma of lilies and chrysanthemums.”
Why do chrysanthemum breezes blow around wielded machetes?
My friend, Jennifer, recently travelled to southeast Asia. While there she spent a sobering day at the Killing Fields in Cambodia. She arrived that day at a schoolyard. The sun shone brightly in the sky and birds chirped. If it had been any other place on any other day, this would have been a carefree place of children’s games and laughter. But instead she walked through classrooms that had been used as torture chambers by Pol Pot’s regime. She saw pictures of the victims as they were found in each room when the horror ended. The Killing Fields themselves were pitted with indentations left by bones dug out of the ground. She stood by a tree—an ordinary tree. The killers swung small children against the trunk of the tree to crack their skulls. Standing there, Jennifer thought, “The birds should not tweet here. The sun should not shine here.”
Why is nature stubbornly beautiful there?
As I trembled in the furnace room at Dachau, as Immaculée prayed in a pastor’s bathroom for 91 days, as Jennifer stood in the shadow of a monument seven or eight stories high made of human bones, we were all awed into silence by the potential of humans for horrific violence. We were overwhelmed by our disbelief that ordinary people could forget their compassion and become part of such brutal group insanity.
The horror hasn’t been cleansed from these places yet. The atmospheres still weigh heavily, dense with pain. But the sun does shine, and the flowers do nod their heads in the sun. Chrysanthemum breezes do waft through trees that bud in the spring while birds twitter in their branches.
Nature beats on ceaselessly through the insanity: beautiful, restorative, and relentless in its pursuit of healing.
Holocaust Remembrance Day is Sunday, May 1. A time to remember our compassionate individuality so that brutal group insanity cannot take root and grow.