Like hundreds of you, I attended the “Waves of Pride” program last week at the Greenville High School.
As part of the festivities Abby performed a few musical numbers with her seventh- and eighth-grade chorus cohorts, so Krista, Grandma, and I watched, beamed, and marveled—again—at (1) how much she has matured over the past few years and (2) the fact that she can carry a tune reasonably well when each of us would have been sent packing within five seconds of warbling on the Gong Show.
After Abby’s duties concluded, we took a couple of photos to save the moment(s) for posterity. Then she and I searched the grounds together for items that she and the youngest amigo, Luke, might have produced during the school year that was deemed worthy of displaying. With a little effort we found a piece of Luke’s artwork, some of his Math on (if I remember correctly) fractions and percentages, and a report on a nonfiction work about LeBron James. We also discovered one of Abby’s French projects, a set of cards on which she described each family member in utilizing that beautiful Romance language. I’m no Francophone, but I could decipher a little of the card devoted to “mon pere” (my father). “He is funny and smart,” it read, while adding “he doesn’t like skiing.” I enjoyed the first part, of course, but was confused about the latter.
“Abby, how would you know if I like skiing or not? I know I haven’t skied in ages, but, actually, I DO like skiing.”
“I didn’t know. I just had to use some verbs in French that I was familiar with. Sorry.” She followed this understandable explanation with a shoulder shrug and a teenaged giggle.
At one point during our outing we came across a project Abby had done for her social studies class. Apparently the assignment was devoted to the class’s study of Nazi Germany from roughly 1935-1945. Abby’s particular project explored certain facets of the concentration camps erected by the Nazis during this period, and I felt a pang—the discomfiting awareness of parental neglect. I had no idea she and her class had tackled, however deeply or superficially, this worthy subject.
I glanced at her report briefly and at the others scattered across the table in the GHS secondary gym. “You know, Abby, I’ve been to one of those concentration camps.”
“Seriously?” she asked, considering me suddenly with a noticeably greater level of respect.
“Yes. Dachau, just a little north of Munich. It was…” I hesitated, searching for an appropriate adjective. Finding none, I lamely added “…amazing. Horrifying. Life-changing.”
I felt a jolt at the realization that my visit to Dachau occurred when I was less than a year older than Abby is now. I looked quickly around the room and again at her innocent face. I concluded it wasn’t the time or the place to go into detail about my impressions of that visit or how what I’d seen had changed me. The topic demanded a different atmosphere, considerable space for questions and answers, an ambience of gravity, sorrow, confusion, even disbelief (but, it should be added, a disbelief that must be confronted and kneaded into an honest consideration of “what we’re capable of” as opposed to “I/we could never….”).
Dachau was the first of its kind, but—and it is painfully grotesque to note this—not the deadliest, not by a longshot The sketchy and incomplete records reflect that somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000 souls were murdered there. Himmler and his minions used the Dachau “work camp” initially as a vehicle to punish/slaughter Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, communists and communist sympathizers, and political prisoners of various stripes. Soon, though, it became a chamber of horrors to German, Polish, and Czechoslovakian Jews as well. I still remember the images of the ghastly, indescribable suffering captured in black and white photos and moving pictures, of the bodies broken by mass starvation and torture construed despicably as “medical experiments”—bizarre and repulsive practices that included injections of known poisons to “investigate” their effects, forced exposure to freezing and/or scalding temperatures, and experimentation on the results of rapid decompression from high altitudes. There was more, so much more.
Standing there with Abby, I recalled the jarring effect when my adolescent brain realized that people had to spend considerable time, effort, and, ahem, imagination merely conjuring up these forms of abuse, much less actually executing them. I felt sick to my stomach for a week. My parents and I processed the visit to Dachau over many hours and days, much of the conversation taking place as I sat in the backseat of our Volkswagen Dasher as it coursed north and then westward to our ultimate destination of Bergen, Norway. In the process they included in our discussion additional comparable examples of human atrocity on a colossal scale—Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge and the Congo under King Leopold II, to name just a couple.
“Abby,” I concluded for the moment, “this is a big and difficult and important issue. Let’s talk about it in the coming days. Or weeks. Or years. Okay?”
She looked at me and nodded gravely.
Timothy Swensen is the author of the weekly column series Virtue and Mischief that is published every Tuesday in The Daily Advocate. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author. The Daily Advocate does not endorse these viewpoints or the independent activities of the author.