September 22, 2019

Two Days in September

Gravel crunched underfoot as we meandered toward the crematorium at Dachau. The air on this late-summer day was still, and the absence of birdsong was noticeable, given the abundance of trees surrounding the memorial.

I was with a half-dozen Jewish journalists, and we were on the last leg of a weeklong tour of Germany. Our visit to the former Nazi work camp was already shaping up to be a profound kicker to a junket focused on the nation’s ongoing teshuvah (repentance).

Days earlier we’d seen the newly opened Jewish Museum Berlin and admired the work of conceptual artists who had hung 80 street signs listing Nuremberg Race Laws in Berlin’s formerly Jewish Schaneberg District. The lessons of the past were everywhere. In front of KaDeWe, continental Europe’s largest department store, a sign listed the names of 12 concentration camps and reminded pedestrians: “These are the places of terror that we should never forget.”

We had visited Jewish graveyards, shuls, schools and museums across the country at a breakneck pace and heard community leaders describe the rejuvenation of Jewish life in modern Germany.

Dachau was the last major item on the itinerary, and my road-weary colleagues and I were looking forward to returning home the next day — Sept. 12, 2001.

Inside, the crematorium seemed almost like a museum, somewhat artificial because of the signage and other curatorial touches, but that first impression was quickly shattered when one of our group pointed out notches cut into rafters where prisoners had been hung. As I stood in front of the cold ovens, their double doors swung open, I found myself picturing bodies being shoveled into a roaring fire and reduced to ashes with calculated efficiency. Death seemed to cling to the walls.

We gathered outside the crematorium, quietly sharing our impressions in a circle as we waited for our guide to take us back to the bus. But as we were about to leave, one of the journalists excused himself to take a call from New York. He came back pale and told us that planes had crashed into the World Trade Center; suddenly, the scene I’d imagined in the crematorium was playing out anew. Again I pictured bodies burning, turning to ashes, as the World Trade Center began to implode.

On the tour bus as we made our way back to Munich, we watched the first tower crumble on a static-ridden portable television. A few hours later, we learned that American airspace had been shut down, leaving us stuck in a country that remains discomfiting for Jews more than 60 years after the end of Hitler’s reign.

The next day, our tour bus was gone. We had left behind the artifice of a press tour, and no one was organizing events for our benefit as the story continued to unfold.

In the city where Hitler organized the National Socialist Party, we watched and joined in as Germans gathered at the American consulate to lay flowers in front of a piece of the Berlin Wall in a show of solidarity with the United States.

As we walked back from dinner on Sept. 12, we stumbled across a vigil for the victims of the terrorist attacks. And as each of us took up candles and peered into the face of a nation that was once our enemy, we found instead that we were standing among a repentant people stretching out their arms to us in sympathy.

The eerie synchronicity of being at that Nazi crematorium during the Sept. 11 attacks continues to resonate with me in a way I cannot shake.

Throughout our trip, we’d interviewed leaders and toured sites, all of which felt like an intellectual study — dispassionate, analytical. Throughout our tour, I felt I’d never really connected with the German people in a meaningful way that would underscore how far we’d come since World War II.

But as I held up that candle, I saw the German people in a different light.

I’ll never forget their sympathy. We shared our pain with them as Jews and Americans, and they understood what we were experiencing. Sixty years of discomfort seemed to slip away at that moment, and we stood together in a Munich square as allies and as lights unto the nations.