Return Undesired

This column originally ran in The Chronicle, Duke's independent student newspaper, on 10/24.


"Return Undesired."

Piles upon piles of pebbles line the block that stretches in front of me. Each one fuses with the next, reaching onwards until stopped forcefully by towering trees that line the forest's edge. The little rocks are stripped of description, just like my grandfather and the thousands who slept upon straw mats atop those stones not so long ago. They, too, had to subsist by blending into the next, their humanity reduced to numbers as the arms that bore those digits were forced through camp after camp. Each time, they were one step closer to death. These people straddled the line between survival and an existence that barely resembled life.

23. The square slab of cement marks the row where Jakob slept for three months as the war neared its end, where he lay awake among piles of bodies crammed into bunkers and where he wolfed down whatever meager scrap he was given in order to awake again. I trace the outline of 23, my fingers brushing this tangible concrete connection to him. Tiny bumps protrude from the surface. The cement refuses to be completely smooth, each miniscule bump claiming its space in the universe, unwilling to conform.

I never knew that he lived in block 23. I didn't know that his daily task was to dig tunnels or that he was herded to the Alps as winter descended upon the world and hope crept eastwards in the form of Allied trucks. Then, wind probably raged and snowflakes obscured the sky, shielding prisoners and captives alike. Today, a vast blue sky blankets my three friends, Bernd and me.

Bernd: the guide who I met today but who voluntarily began mapping out my grandfather's murky past before I set foot in Dachau. Jakob scarcely spoke about his time in concentration camps during his life. Berndt has physically handed me maps and dates, routes and figures: the puzzle pieces that construct an identity my father could not fully unravel while his father lived, nor throughout the 25 years that have marked his absence.

Face-to-face with row 23, I choose to believe that one's identity can evolve but cannot vanish. Violence, terror and fear can crumple someone's sense of self. But even such demons cannot completely erode it. Souls cannot disappear, but perhaps may become lost for a time until allowed to exist freely. Experiences do not erase us, but they can break and form us again.

As stones crunch under my footsteps, I am overcome by the unlikelihood of Jakob's survival. Statistically, he should not have made it. So many chances of death shaped his daily life -- more chances than the few that engendered his endurance. As a result, here I am.

Inside the museum, Bernd explains that each prisoner's file was meticulously documented and sorted within the room in which we stood. Every single prisoner walked upon these bricks. Unlucky files were marked with "RU."

"Return Undesired." Jakob's documentation made it clear that his survival was unquestionably undesired.

Even when humanity closes its eyes, identity is the interminable matter that endures, hidden in cellars and masked by skinny bones, kept alive by some burst of tenacity that allows me to walk this earth. Every number reminds me that my existence is a function of grit and luck, that I am meant to demand positive change from the world and to implement it, and that I have an obligation to make my life one lived well.

"Never again" is carved everywhere on these grounds. It is scratched into rocks and etched upon plaques. Every person's return to his or her home upon this earth should be desired.

~ ~ ~

Bernd studied history long before he began offering tours at Dachau. He has visited concentration camps and Holocaust museums all over the world and served as a Lieutenant Colonel in the German military post World War II. Dachau's story remains close to him.

As we continue to walk, Bernd speaks. Before Europe descended into chaos, German Jews had been granted a fleeting chance to exit Germany. Thousands flocked to Switzerland, where their safety was initially less uncertain. Switzerland soon grew overwhelmed with refugees who quickly comprised over ten percent of the population. Shortly thereafter, the neutral country closed its borders. Though cruel on the surface, Bernd defended this act as self-preservation: by accepting more refugees, Switzerland might trigger Nazi aggression and become increasingly susceptible to invasion.

Images flit through my mind of Syrian refugees paddling across the seas of Europe. Of headlines splattered across newspapers announcing certain nations had secured their borders to limit the influx of people pouring in, clinging to a single tattered string of hope. Of children who fled their homes in Darfur and Rwanda. A single grating voice shouts over crowds, ringing in my head.

"We're going to build a wall."

"They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists."

"A total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States."

Bernd explained how Hitler slowly and deliberately tested the bounds of his power, stretching the will of man. One month, Jews could not use typewriters. The next month, they could not use public bathrooms. Bernd emphasized that Hitler never established death camps in Germany; these dark places were relegated to others' backyards instead. Hitler had insisted that Germany "was not ready."

Bernd presented a Nazi propaganda poster picturing a well-dressed man with bulging muscles. He is pictured hoisting a bar above his head with two physically disabled men sitting on top. Nazism emphasized the conception that people with developmental or cognitive disabilities represented dead weight on the economy, failing to contribute while continuing to take the fruits of others' dogged labor. In Hitler's world, the burdens of the weak depended on the strong man's might. And this needed fixing.

I wish I could say that today's world is more forgiving.

Bernd tells us that hundreds of German students regularly visit Dachau. Visits to concentration camps comprise a mandatory component of the German curriculum. Germany has been forced to hold a magnifying glass to its blemishes.

On the contrary, America holds a foggy mirror to our scars. When American students learn about slavery, we absorb one succinct textbook chapter summarizing hundreds of years of captivity. Our lessons are quick to contextualize and excuse our story. We grow up learning that ownership of human beings and waving a confederate flag were a part of the times -- now retrospectively condemnable.

Forcing my grandfather into tunnels to dig trenches while extinguishing his mother, father and four brothers was the contextual fabric of his time. This is now retrospectively condemnable.

Unlike South Africa, America has not conducted any type of Truth and Reconciliation Commission to process our atrocities. As a nation, we are not good at delivering apologies because apologies demand acknowledgement and accountability. Our society relentlessly tries not to look back -- as though Genesis 19:26 has warned that we, too, will become pillars of salt. But each racial protest and fatal shooting reminds us that we cannot flee our shadow.

Selective memories make for a selective history, penned and primed by those who have a seat at the table. History teachers seldom emphasize that the US government forced Japanese-Americans into internment camps as Axis powers herded Jews into cattle cars. We are quick to forget that Franklin Delano Roosevelt turned away the MS St. Louis, which held over 900 Jewish refugees, under the justification that refugees threatened national security. He sent them back to Europe as American troops fought through Europe's ravaged battlefields. I wonder if it is easier to be blind in one's own backyard.

Each day, I remember my ongoing disappointment in the world's failed commitment to "never again."

My friends and I approach the memorial's exit as Bernd turns towards us. "You are the future," he says suddenly, punctuating the afternoon's quiet stillness. His eyes roam ours, searching deeply. "You must make sure it never happens again." No matter how many times I hear these words, their visceral impact never lessens.

"In Germany, we do not understand Donald Trump's attitude," Bernd says. His words hang in the still September air. Throughout the afternoon Bernd had shared his insights and knowledge freely, but he had not yet offered unsolicited opinions. "We do not understand how Americans permit his racist comments and plans."

His brows are knit tightly, his voice flat and his conviction matter-of-fact. "This has happened before. We are deeply concerned. We have seen this before."

Each tour of Dachau reminds Bernd that racism can crumple fragile souls and wash over their resolve. To this graying veteran, the parallel between Trump's rhetoric and his nation's past is obvious. The foreshadowing is simple and the warning incontrovertible.

On the way out, we walk past a boy who is about seven or eight years old. He tugs on his father's coat. "I don't understand, Dad. Why did Hitler do all of this?" the boy asks. A long pause lingers, with no response. The boy repeats his question.

The father kneels, facing the boy. "Because he could, son," he answers in a crumpled voice. "No one stopped him. They let him do it."

Dachau tries desperately to never let humanity forget that bigotry triumphs when fear means turning the other cheek and looking away. When self-preservation tramples compassion and leaves appeasement in its wake. When people grow complacent and choose not to care.

We have seen this before.

~ ~ ~

15 days lie in front of us.

As votes roll in on November 8th, everyone's life will change. Americans. Foreigners. Students. Women. Jews, Christians, Muslims and Hindus. Immigrants. Union workers and millionaires. The outcome of November 8th could irrevocably unravel our world order, regardless of the political party to which anyone traditionally belonged. Chaos and fear mongering know no boundaries. In 15 days, we are all presented with the opportunity to play a role in our future, to not be complacent and to care: in the form of a ballot.

At least one urgent connection to November 8th exists within each of us. Think on a large scale in broad terms. Perhaps you want a steady economy with consistent job growth, or think that greenhouse gas reductions need to be curbed as climate change accelerates, or remain steadfast in your conviction that America's criminal justice system needs reform.

We also can think intimately, bringing issues close to home. Perhaps piles of college loans weigh upon your conscience because your parents have sacrificed their lifestyles to open doors for you. Maybe you have a friend who was sexually assaulted and want to know that our nation's leader does not regard her as an object to be fondled by men as they please. Or you want to rest assured that your brother -- the lovable boy whose brain works differently and who struggles to function independently -- will not be mocked by the leader of our country because of the way he looks or acts.

Everyone must turn inwards, search deeply and find that individual anchor.

If you fear you are not educated enough to cast a vote, then search the Internet. People are willing to travel for hours to hike a mountain although the breathtaking view at the top is temporary. They spend hours waiting in line at the Apple store to purchase the newest phone. College students trek to the regional Consulate for the visa required to study abroad. We choose to invest time when we deem that the result warrants our effort. There is no excuse for failing to dedicate the time in order to weigh in on a decision that will dictate the remainder of your life.

If you choose not to cast a ballot and simply let the cards unfold, you forfeit your right to criticize our political system for the next eight years. You can no longer comment on social issues about which you are passionate or complain about financial policies that burden your life. You should not critique laws, pass judgment on your political representatives over lunch or write impassioned editorials.

If you do not vote, you become complicit in a cycle of indifference. Elie Wiesel reminds us that the opposite of love is not hate; it's indifference. We have seen indifference before. We have watched people stand aside without enough courage to communicate and act upon their mercy. We know what happens.

My grandfather and the thousands beside him in block 23 would have traded their skin and bones to cry out before their world began tumbling and humanity eroded. They would have given anything to have just one voice to shout their collective suffering before lives disappeared. It feels so futile -- so wasteful -- when people willingly silence their voices with uncast ballots. Thousands, millions and billions of voices.

Bernd reminds us: we have seen this before.

In 15 days, you will be able to cast a ballot. I beg you to care about something that connects you to November 8th.

Because when people stop caring, the world falls. And millions vanish.

Never again should anyone's existence or return be undesired.