Displaced Yankee Productions | It’s Always Raining In Dachau

Ten years ago I visited Dachau concentration camp in Germany and became aware of the Classification Table the Nazi’s used to sort their victims into categories and realized I had no idea who these other people were. 5 million dead seemed like a lot of people not to know about and I mentally filed it away as a possible documentary subject.

After spending the last five years making Small Voices, I had intended to do a piece on poverty in America but found myself suffering from a severe case of poverty fatigue. I decided to do a project completely opposite of Small Voices and found myself remembering about that long ago idea and a new documentary project “Forget Us Not” was born.

Last Saturday, as I reclined a comfortable 3 inches in my whimsically named “Economy Plus” seat on United, I thought back to a few weeks earlier when I had my first interview with Vera Young, an 86-year-old Polish Catholic survivor. Vera, frail of body but still sharp and witty, had related to me her life in the Saarbrucken Concentration Camp where “The dead were replaced everyday”. She spent four years before being forced to walk from Saarbrucken to Leipzig on a 900-mile death march. Somehow she survived and was liberated by American troops. She vividly recalls seeing the troops and not realizing they were there to rescue everyone, she held up her wasted, boil covered arms and begged “Take me, take me! I can do the work of 5 people!”

Vera had told me she had never returned to Germany after coming to the United States as a war bride in 1947 because she feared dying there. As I flew towards Germany, I couldn’t help but feel I was returning for her – ready to dive deeply back into the past to uncover some of those forgotten voices of the Nazi Holocaust.

I arrived in Munich, jetlagged and starving after United’s failed attempt at culinary acceptability. While I admit I indulged in Champagne, smoked salmon and caviar during my layover at Heathrow, that isn’t exactly the kind of meal that sticks to your ribs. Luckily, coming to Munich for me is not just for research and work. My oldest brother Ludwig lives in Berg outside Munich with his wife Anna. Ludwig, in true big brother form, snaps up all my bags and fusses over my arrival. In short order we are back at his house where Anna has already set the table with an excellent meal and a bottle of wine. Now THAT is service. (Take note, United).

My first full day in Germany the archives are closed so I take advantage and spend the day in Munich, a city I love. I knew the remaining days submerged deeply in the historical records of the Nazi holocaust would be grim at best, so I thought to take advantage of my one day reprieve which I did in true European fashion: long breakfast, long lunch, afternoon nap and long dinner. And of course, good German beer. Which I need even more by the end of Tuesday after spending 9 hours viewing historical reels taken by Allied forces when they first liberated the Concentration Camps. I have seen footage of concentration camps before but this footage is raw, unedited in its complete horror. As bad as I already knew the Nazi holocaust was, I am getting a harsh reminder it was even worse than one can truly imagine. By the end of the day, my face is set in hard lines and my disposition grim.

I pour myself a very large Weiss bier.

My brother arrives home from work and we talk about lighter subjects over dinner. In the middle of our conversion, he stops in the middle of his sentence and gives me a look I know well. Roughly translated it means: stupid foreigner. In the most loving way, of course.

“What” he asks dramatically pointing at my Weiss bier, “is THAT?” I think he really ought to recognize it, being Bavarian and all.

“It’s a Weiss bier.” I innocently explain. He signs deeply and I know I am about to get a lecture in Bavarian etiquette.

“Not the beer, little sister. What are on earth are you drinking it out of?”

Apparently, the fact I have poured my good German Weiss bier into a water glass has given him acid indigestion. After declaring how relieved he is we are dining in where no one can see such a breech of good manners, he pours me another Weiss bier in a proper tall pilsner glass. It is a win-win for me. I learn a lesson and get another beer without having to move.

The archive adventure the next morning gets off to a not so auspicious start when I go to pick up my rental car and they blithely inform me that they do not have the automatic I made the reservation for. Yes, yes, I know. I can’t drive a standard. However, the place to learn is NOT the Audubon. Ludwig gets all grouchy Bavarian on them and he and the counter girl snarl back and forth at each other in German while I wisely move far far away. Ludwig wins the stern Bavarian contest and before I know it, I have been upgraded to a nice BMW SUV. I am totally going to try “grouchy Bavarian” the next time I want an upgrade.

I amble over to my spiffy ride and think how cool I am. Then I open the door and promptly conk myself hard enough on the forehead to see spaetzle. Nothing says professional like a lumpy, bruised forehead. But the Bavarian car showdown has already put me behind schedule for my appointment with Dr. Albert Knoll at the Dachau archives so I ignore the urge to check my pupils for a concussion and get behind the wheel. I fire up my brand new Garmin International and it helpful tells me NOT how to get to Dachau because “No Satellite Signal”. After 20 minutes of vain waiting, I fire up my Phone navigation at $20 per minute with data roaming and am soon on my way trying to watch the helpful Iphone moving blue dot and direction while simultaneously attempting to drive through a foreign country. Thanks to my new budding headache, focus isn’t exactly working for me and I promptly miss my first two off-ramps. 30 minutes into the ride, the GPS finally chirps at me in a British accent that it is “recalculating” because I’ve just missed another turn off. Good times.

I finally arrive at Dachau and walk through through the black, cold iron gate with the words “Arbeit Macht Frei” : Work Brings Freedom. It certainly does, usually through death. I make my way across the pebbled prison yard toward the far end of the complex near the old guard tower. I pass a group and their tour guide who for some reason is wearing a bright, multi colored, tall “Cat In The Hat” style hat. It looks out of place here and I am completely distracted by it. Did he think the tour needed a touch of Dr. Seuss?

I arrived at the Archives and am greeted by Dr. Albert Knoll. He escorts me to the research room where I set up shop for the week. Before long the long table is buried in mountains of historical documents, books and photographic archives. Though Albert is offering some assistance, he has a variety of other projects on his plate so armed with my fairly limited German and my Iphone, I begin translating various documents from WWII and the Nazi KZ camp system. Over the course of the week, I accrue a large file of historical material: arrest decrees that went out for Roma’s and Gays; Statements Jehovah’s Witnesses were given to sign renouncing their faith in exchange for freedom – a powerful thing when you consider most of them choose to stay in the camps rather than renounce their faith; Nazi propaganda photos of Roma prisoners smiling and holding up large baskets of fresh food. These photos are almost as bad as the non-staged photos, because I am aware looking at these men- they are smiling under duress and holding up food they will never eat. The pile of documents and photos I am requesting duplication from the archive grows every hour, as does my knowledge of a time in history that I thought I was familiar with – but now realize I had only scratched the surface of.

The week finally ends and I leave the archives to begin the walk back across the graveled prison yard. It is still raining and I remember that ten years ago, it was also raining when I first arrived and walked through that gate. I think it is God’s way of reminding me of all the sorrow and tears that were shed by the men and women who suffered and are asking us to never forget.


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