Last night on my run I ran into a concentration camp.
I was sweating in my pink sports bra and listening to the Clash on my iPhone 6 when suddenly I encountered a sign that indicated I was about to cross inside of KZ Kemna. Just like that. Just like the signs back home might say, “Burger King, 2 miles.”
Bumping casually into a concentration camp was not exactly on the list of things I needed to experience in life.
After 13 years of living in Germany, I might have understood that such a thing was possible, but there’s no way to prepare for that. It’s not like, “Oh hey, tonight I happened to jog past a library or a swimming pool or even a women’s prison.” And having grown up in sunny Venice Beach, picking lemons from my mother’s tree and rollerblading down the boardwalk and buying taffy at Davy Jones Liquor Locker, it is even stranger. I am a long way from home and, as a little girl, wouldn’t have thought in a million years that I would someday move to the country where my great-grandparents were murdered.
And yet, there I was on that random country road. The jogging route was not my usual; I had chosen it because it looked so pretty with its thick, damp birch trees. The Wuppertal neighborhood of my Airbnb rental was somber and gray, and I had been grateful to find the soothing, green road into the hills. But after passing the last gas station and the last metal factory and the last B&B offering authentic Croatian cuisine, weird, cold prickles washed over my arms like an acid bath. The animal part of me smelled that something horrible was about to happen.
Just like in the old cartoons when there’s an angel on someone’s shoulder, a small voice inside me said, Time to go home now. I felt colder and colder. The acid wash hurt my arms. Then bam, there it was: the road sign informing me that this was the site where more than 4,000 people had been brutally tortured by the Nazis from 1934 to 1934.
Just a modest monument. Nothing huge. Later I read the Wikipedia entry, which says that the men’s screams could be heard by people living and working nearby, and that the owner of the property refused to allow any big memorial there until 1983.
The animal part of me smelled that something horrible was about to happen.
There were a few bouquets flowers lying on the pavement by the entrance, browned and dying and tied with red ribbons.
I know I’m not the first person who understands that trauma is passed on to future generations through the body and in the DNA.
Something in my bones resonated with that trauma a full five minutes before I reached the sign.
I don’t claim to know how to heal it. All I know is that healing it is most definitely the task.
I do know a tiny bit of it heals every time I sing for a German audience. And it heals when I chat with my Syrian neighbors and wish them “Happy Ramadan.” And it heals when my sweet landlords here in Wuppertal drive me to the theater when it’s raining so I won’t catch a cold waiting for the bus. And when they invite me to use their garden on my days off, with its cherry trees full of fruit and raspberries on the vine and its pink roses just barely opening.
Sometimes I wonder what my great-grandparents would think of my living and singing opera here. I’ve always imagined they’d say:
Atta girl. You’re here, so that’s proof the f—— lost. But pay close attention, bubbeleh. Don’t think it couldn’t happen again. Do everything in your power not to let it — not to any of your brothers and sisters anywhere. Let go of tribalism and let go of that you-only-count-if-your-in-my-little-club sh– (in my fantasies, my great-grandparents cuss.) Take very good care of one another and don’t let dangerous assholes get ahead.
If only I could hear them tell me exactly how.
Sara Hershkowitz is an opera singer, writer, activist and teacher. Born in Los Angeles, she currently divides her time between Berlin and L.A.