A Reading for Two Voices

Ronald John Vierling

Voice One: Ronald John Vierling

I want to tell you a story. The story is about Martin Zaidenstadt. He's not someone you've ever heard of before; he's not famous, but that's all right. His story is still important.

I met him by chance when I went to the site of what was once the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau, Germany. I want to share what he told me, what he showed me. However, like every story that's good, this one not only has a someplace, it has a because. So there are things you need to know, things you need to keep in mind, even as you listen, because I want you to hear--to realize--what I'm going to say.

Voice Two: Joyce Carol Davidsen

In his volume War and Peace, Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy argues that historical movements and historical events are not created by popular leaders. Rather, history is created by changes in populist attitudes.

Tolstoy's reasoning was that history is, first, a continuum, that each event is connected to the event which came before, that each event leads into the event that will follow. As such, while it is sometimes necessary to confine historical study to a particular era, simply because one cannot study everything at once, no valid final conclusion can be reached about the meaning or significance of any event or era under study until it is placed in a larger historical context.

Tolstoy's second and even more important idea was that history is not created by chieftains; they are simply convenient social metaphors. That is, Tolstoy contended that historical movements and historical changes are created by incremental shifts in the perceptions of people, of dozens and then hundreds and then thousands and then millions of people. Therefore, leaders are simply those individuals who by virtue of position or skill articulate what followers think, what followers believe.

If Tolstoy's ideas are correct, and they were indeed revolutionary in the middle of the nineteenth century when he first wrote them, then the study of any event or era must always be placed into the largest possible context. Properly conducted, then, historical study should always focus on the mass's will rather than the king's whim.

Voice One: Ronald John Vierling

It was a gray, windy Friday. It had been threatening rain since noon. By the time my wife and I took the train from Munich to the city of Dachau, the wind had turned cold. Huddled together among strangers, we waited for the bus that would take us to the site of what had once been the Nazi concentration camp on the outskirts of town.

As I wrapped my scarf around my neck and stood silently, I tried to envision what was going to happen, what it was going to feel like. After all, I had studied the Holocaust since 1975. I travelled to Israel to the Yad Vashem Institute, in Jerusalem, in 1988, to study the history of the Shoah. I have represented the Holocaust Center of Central Florida as its Writer-In-Residence since 1991, and in that role I have written and delivered twelve separate lectures and written and staged four Judaica plays. So one might reasonably assume that I have learned enough to have known what to expect. But the reverse is true. The more you learn about the Holocaust the more you realize you do not understand it. Thus, I admitted to myself that I was, in fact, still an innocent. Stories told to me by survivors had prepared me as well as stories can, but because I had not walked the roads that the Jews of Europe had been forced to walk, because I have not suffered the horrors that the Jews of Europe were forced to suffer, I knew I was visiting another peoples' anguish. So as the bus came to a halt and those of us waiting got on, I knew that despite all I had done in anticipation, I was afraid.

Voice Two: Joyce Carol Davidsen

If we examine Europe in the broadest possible terms, we can say its convolutions and evolution are a history of cultural conflicts.

First, Europe was a collection of tribal kingdoms, inhabited by several cultural stocks. Many of those tribes fell to the Roman control by force of arms. For instance, the Celtic peoples once lived from Gaul in the north all the way to Romania in the south. However, after a number of bloody encounters, the Roman legions defeated the Celts. Eventually, the Celts would control only a very small area: Brittany in what is now France, Wales and Scotland in what is now Britain, and the island of Ireland.

What is more important to us today is that when Rome became Christian, the culture of Europe slowly became Christian. Therefore, when the Muslims immigrated into Southern Europe, bringing with them Islamic culture, the two worlds collided. Because Christian armies won the struggle, Islam was pushed back south. At the same time, the Jews, who had come to Europe at the same time the first Christians had come, were left stranded in what became too often hostile territory. That is to say, inevitably, as Christian kinds and Christian culture took control of the continent, the Jews came to be viewed by the native populations as aliens, as outsiders. The road that would lead to the Holocaust began there. In fact, viewed as broadly as possible, it could even be argued that when the Jews were driven out of Jerusalem in 78 A.D. by the occupying Roman forces, fleeing north into Europe to save themselves from destruction, they were taking the first steps not out of bondage, as they had when they fled Egypt; rather, they were taking the first steps on a journey that would lead to Dachau.

Voice One: Ronald John Vierling

When my wife and I reached Dachau, she elected to stay with a tour guide who was preparing to lead a group of people through a photographic exhibit that explained the history of the rise of the Nazi Reich and the history of the concentration camp at Dachau. However, because I had studied much of the material I knew the exhibit would contain, I decided to walk the grounds of the camp on my own. Drawing my coat around me more tightly, I stepped back out into what was by then a bitter, rainy day and began.

The first thing that strikes you as you start is the sudden size of the grounds. Once you have left the buildings that house the museum administration and the exhibit, Dachau becomes a broad gravel covered plain. As I walked across the grounds, I tried to imagine what it must have been like for the Jews as well as the non-Jews who had been sent to the prison. I tried to hear the roll call that took place every morning and every noon and every evening. I tried to hear the guards calling out names and the dogs barking at the slightest movements of the prisoners and the sounds of tens of thousands of men trying to find their places in the endless ranks of gaunt, weary bodies. But I could not. I stopped at one point as I walked the long roadway that runs between what had once been two rows of barracks. I looked at the places where the barracks had stood, now only cement curbings filled with gravel. But I could not hear anything except the cruel wind. I could not feel anything except the bone chilling cold. So I began walking again. For there was something I wanted to see. That is to say, having come so far, I knew that I had no choice but to visit the crematoria.

Voice Two: Joyce Carol Davidsen

Anti-Jewish political and social policies were not invented by the Nazi Reich so Adolph Hitler could rise to power. Anti-Jewish policies had been expressed in a variety of places in Europe since Christianity first came to power. The irony is that, historically, even while anti-Jewish feelings might have been running at a fever pitch in one kingdom, in the dukedom next door Jews might as well be experiencing relative social equality. Thus, Jews had in some places and during some periods of time been accepted into society, only to see the policies change suddenly as social and economic conditions changed. In fact, if you take time to study the political and religious history of the German states during the nineteenth century, you will find that virtually every lie that the Nazi Reich told about the Jews of Germany during the 1930s had already been said decades earlier; the lies had simply not been told so pervasively or so effectively. For instance, one of the first important anti-Semites in German history was Martin Luther, the leader of the German Protestant Reformation, who had argued from the pulpit that Jews who refused to convert to Christianity should be burned at the stake, and while that did not become wide-spread state-sponsored policy at the time, it was a theme that would appear later in the German psyche. The point is that for centuries the German memory had been prepared for Hitler's vitriolic diatribes.

Voice One: Ronald John Vierling

Once I passed between the two great rows of curbings marking where the barracks had stood, I turned left and crossed a narrow bridge over a fast running creek and followed the gravel pathway to the two crematoria buildings. Once there, I stopped and stood for a moment and looked at the building directly in front of me. It looked like nothing more than a long, low-slung farm building. It was only the heavy red brick chimney that testified to its real meaning. Drawing a deep breath as if I would never breathe the same way again, I entered.

The room was dank and dark and cold. There were four other people in the room. I let my eyes become used to the dim light. Then I could see the two large brick structures, with oven-like double doors slung open so visitors could see the rows of gas burners inside.

I have seen industrial ovens in bakeries before. The mouths of the two crematoria did not look much different, save that the ovens seemed to extend too deeply back into the shadows. Then you saw them; not the baking trays you would have seen had the oven been constructed for preparing foods, but the steel cots, built to carry bodies, riding on narrow slides. I took a second deep breath and felt my heart racing. I was looking into the mouth of hell. I was looking at devices engineered to reduce people--men who had once been alive, who had been sons and brothers and fathers, who had cared for aged parents, who had raised children, who had sung songs to their nephews and nieces,--men who had gone to synagogues to worship, who had prayed and worked with their hands and heads and remembered and imagined--men who had done all of the things men do--loved wives and quarrelled with wives--worked for wages and gone on picnics and taken walks in the woods and sat at concerts and...men who had simply been men...no more and no less...--I was looking at the opening into which those men had disappeared into the ashes of corrupted moral history, the ashes of time and eternity gone wrong.

I did not know what to do. I tried to take a picture. I did not know if I should or not. But I did not want to lose the moment. I thought that perhaps, one day, I would want to share it with some of you. So I tried. As I did, the four other people left. I was alone in the room. I tried to make my hands stop trembling long enough so I could steady the camera. Then a voice suddenly spoke to me out of the shadows. Startled, I looked for a face.

"From?" he said to me in English, but in an accent so heavily Jewish-German that I did not understand.

"I'm sorry," I tried to say. "Ich sprech kein Deutsch." I did not speak German.

"No. From?" he said again. "You are Canadian?"

"No," I said. "American."

"Jah. Amerikaner. Then I speak to you."

"What?" I said.

"Amerikaner, Englander, Canadian. I will speak to you. Come," he said motioning that I should follow him as he steeped over the chain that was placed in front of the crematoria to keep visitors from touching the structures. "Come! Here!" he said, reaching and taking my arm and pulling me toward him so I had to step over the chain. "You must see." So I stepped closer and put my hands on the bricks and shuddered.

Voice Two: Joyce Carol Davidsen

If you go to the Nazi slave camp at Dachau, you will find several stacks of publications in several languages telling the story of the city itself. The publications have been placed there by the mayor and his administration in the hopes you will both read about the region and visit the city center. Obviously, the people who live in Dachau want you to know that the region is notable for more than just the most infamous concentration camp in Germany.

The brochure is a particularly well laid out presentation. It tells the story of the region from 500 B.C.E. through the present time. If you take time to read the booklet, you will learn much about the first Celtic settlers, about the subsequent Roman occupation, about the rise of Christianity in Central Europe. You will learn the history of the important families who emerged between 1182 and 1815 as economic and political leaders. What may be of particular interest is the era between 1840 and 1914 when Dachau was an artists' colony, for the landscape around the old city is particularly beautiful, resembling Southern France, especially in late Fall. If you read on, you will learn how, after Germany's defeat in the Great War, the economy, which had become too dependent upon a local munitions factory, turned stagnant, and hard times reduced Dachau's population.

To the city's credit, the publication does not try to lessen the significance of what happened at Dachau between 1933-1945. There is no attempt to avoid the horrific story that unfolded just outside of the city limits. Of course, the pamphlet does go on and talk about Dachau today; it suggests you visit the restored buildings in the market center, the parts of the old Dachau Palace, built in 1715, that are still standing. There are even testimonials from famous visitors who over the decades have found Dachau a rewarding experience.

Voice One: Ronald John Vierling

Martin Zaidenstadt is a dark eyed, eighty-two year old man, although his stout, muscular frame belies his age. He told me he spent three years at Dachau. Pointing at the crematoria, he said, "We knew when the Nazis were burning Jews, because we had so little flesh on us that the smoke was blue. When the smoke was yellow, we knew they were burning the Russian prisoners of war, because they had more fat on them when they died." He smiled a bitter smile, then he said, "Come. I show you." With that we went outside and turned to our left and started up a pathway that led into the woods behind the crematoria building. As we started into the forest, he stopped. A young woman pushing a baby carriage and an older woman who appeared to be the younger woman's mother came into the yard in front of the crematoria. "From?" he said, turning to the women.

They were as startled as I had been.

"From?" he said again.

"He wants to know where you're from," I said to them.

They seemed relieved to hear me speak English. "England," they said.

"Then I will speak to you," Martin said.

I tried to smile at them. "He's going to show me the grounds behind the crematoria," I said. "He talks to Americans and English and Canadians."

"But not to Germans," Martin said.

"You can come with us if you wish," I said to the women.

They joined Martin and me, and we began. He was going to show us a walkway that made a half circle through the woods. There were markers on the pathway, official statements about what had happened in the woods behind the crematoria. However, the women saw from my expression that we might well learn things other visitors would never hear. "He was here for three years," I said quietly to the women. "He comes here every day and tells Americans and British and Canadians what he went through."

The older woman turned to her daughter. "We need to hear him," she said. So they joined us.

Voice Two: Joyce Carol Davidsen

The second free publication you will receive on entering the exhibit hall at Dachau is a short history of the concentration camp itself. What is important about Dachau is that it was the first of the Nazi concentration camps. That is, it was the prototype. The Nazi Reich learned how to run concentration camps by experimenting with various methods of organization at Dachau.

Dachau was not a death camp. It was a slave labor camp. That does not mean that people did not die at Dachau. More than 31,000 did. Some died of starvation; others died of overwork. Some were killed by firing squads or hanged or died as a result of medical experiments. It was a brutal, inhumane place. Prisoners were stripped of all dignity.

Later, of course, at other places, the Nazis would create death camps. Death camps were just that, places where people were sent to be murdered. Auschwitz is the most famous of the death camps, along with Treblinka. The average length of time in a death camp was four hours, regardless of age or gender.

At Dachau, some prisoners survived for up to five years. Some even survived the war and were liberated by the American army. Some, but not many. For survival had nothing to do with worth. Survival was a matter of luck--unpredictable, arbitrary, meaningless luck.

Voice One: Ronald John Vierling

The walk through the woods with Martin Zuidenstadt was a surreal experience. On one hand, the woods themselves are green and heavy with growth, even in the winter. Flowers are well tended, even in the cold. However, the story the pathway and the woods and Martin tell are another kind of truth.

There were Roman Catholic priests at Dachau, men who had refused to concede to the Nazi Reich. Martin showed me where dozens of priests had been taken one cold day and murdered by a firing squad. He showed me where their ashes were buried. He showed me the tree in the clearing from which men had been hanged with their arms behind their backs until they died, their bodies left for days afterward as warnings to the other prisoners.

There had been Russian prisoners of war at Dachau. They had been brought there so Nazi medical teams could experiment on them: how much cold could a downed air plane pilot withstand before he died if he were forced to bail out over the North Atlantic? Russian prisoners were subjected to icy immersion so the Germans could find out. Most of the Russians died in the process. In addition, the Germans needed to know how well their desert troops in North Africa might withstand malaria. Russians were used for experiments in medical treatment after they had been exposed to malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Most of those Russians also died.

"They could not use us Jews for those things," Martin said, "because we were almost starved to death at the time. They had to have men who were more like their own well-fed German airmen and soldiers." He showed us where the Russians were buried.

Then he took us to the hardest place: where the ashes of thousands of Jews are buried. The grass is particularly green over the area. It is, after all, well fertilized soil.

Martin stood for a moment and looked at the opening in the woods. "My friends," he said quietly, gesturing. "My friends are here," he said in a whisper. Then he turned to the three of us. He put his hand on my arm. "You must tell," he said, looking me in the eyes. "You, American. You must tell."

Voice Two: Joyce Carol Davidsen

The American novel, Moby Dick, by Herman Melville, forms around two figures: Captain Ahab, the commander of the whaling ship, the Pequod, and Seaman Ishmael, who is a part of the Captain's crew.

Analyzed in theological terms, the novel tells the story of Captain Ahab, a man driven mad by his overwhelming need to achieve an absolute definition of mortality, an absolute definition of the divine. In so doing, he cruelly uses the officers and crew under his command, eventually taking them to their deaths.

By contrast, Seaman Ishmael, who joins the crew of the Pequod because he has been stirred to adventure by his desire to experience, rather than define, the divine, learns that the spirit which permeates human life cannot be given a final form, a final and absolute terminology. Some may try to do so, but in so doing they must defy the finite limitations of the human imagination. Thus, while Captain Ahab perishes, Seaman Ishmael survives, for he has learned that life is, most of all, a spiritual journey. What Seaman Ishmael concludes is that we cannot ever finally conclude; that each of us must make his or her own personal journey; that the meaning of our individual lives depends on the meaning of our individual journeys; that we should share the journeys with each other as much as possible, but that to argue as to whose journey is more valid is a form of madness that reduces both the divine and us to the level of the absurd. That is to say, any debate that has as its objective a defining of the absolute, any journey that has as its objective defining what Joseph Campbell termed, in his volume, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, That Which Is Beyond All Saying, turns the misguided seeker into the Self and everyone else into the Other. Once that happens, of course, the self-righteous Self is free to do anything he or she wishes to the less-righteous Other. That was Nazi theology. They were the righteous Selves. The Jews and all who opposed them were the unrighteous Others. It was important to the Nazis, therefore, that the Others be denied. It was important to the Nazis that the Others die. It is an ageless crisis. It is a distinctly human dilemma. For the truth is, there are no Selves and Others. From the Tolstoyian point of view, from the Melvillian point of view, from the Campbellian point of view, there is only Us.

Voice One: Ronald John Vierling

When I developed the photographs that I took on my wife's and my trip to Germany, the picture I took at the crematoria did not come out. The room had been too dark. The image of the oven was only barely discernible. In addition, I did not take a photograph of Martin. I did not wish to do so. Perhaps he would have posed for me or even posed with me, but it did not seem appropriate to me that I ask him to stand while I tried to reduce the memory of what he said to me to the size of a photograph. For what I most recall is the liquid anguish in his dark eyes as he said to me, "You Amerikaner. You tell." Then he had gripped my hand hard and held on firmly, so that as I faced him before I departed, I could see my face reflected in his tears.

You, American. You tell.

Copyright 1996 Ronald John Vierling
For production information, please contact Joyce Davidsen at Celnor House, 407-677-6288.

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