by S. Kim Glassman, April 29th, 2015
A year ago, I was visiting my grandmother in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Finding a good price, I had booked my ticket on Expedia focusing on arrival/departure times I thought would best suit her schedule. I noticed only a few days before the end of my trip, that I’d accidentally booked myself on a return flight with a twelve-hour layover in Munich. I’d never been to Germany before. And, having been to Poland on a class trip when I was 16, was not keen on going. I know the world is a beautiful place, and there are worlds to see in every city on this planet we share. Still, my gut was reticent to the idea of seeing this layover like any other. Changing the ticket was prohibitively costly. So, reluctantly, I began to look on websites for ways to occupy my day there, to find a way to make the best of this unintentional booking. On a site describing beer halls and crown jewels, I put “Jewish” into the search menu. This narrowed my choices from 983 to 6. Among them, a five-hour tour of the camp at Dachau, a suburb of Munich.
My grandfather, who died in 1994, was there – a liberator, under General Patton. I thought this is a way to spend my day there – if only he could come with me, or if only he were here today, so I could be on the phone with him as I walk in his footsteps, so many years later. I’d soon stumble on the coincidence perhaps glaring at me weeks earlier in Jerusalem when I booked this return flight, but only in that moment discovered… I’d be arriving in Munich at 10am on April 29th, the day Dachau was liberated, 69 years to the day that my grandfather was there. The odds of this overwhelmed me. Overwhelmed my father I imagine as well, as moments after my sharing this information, he booked a ticket from Israel to meet me there.
His flight got in half an hour before mine, I got off the plane to find him standing at the gate smiling. What a different – and so much less lonely – time in Germany than I thought I might have. We ran to the train that would take us to the start of the tour and arrived just in time. Our tour guide was a German man named Achim, whose family, he told us with a startling mixture of pride and indifference, were members of the SS, and then he made a point of letting us know that Dachau is not the only place he guides, he was giving a tour of the palace the next day. I felt a paralyzing weight on my heart as he said this, moving from one topic to the next with such ease; they seemed to carry equal significance to him, and perhaps they did. Not to me.
We walked into the camp. We saw the grounds that once held 32 barracks and imprisoned over 10,000 Jewish men. We saw where medical
experiments were conducted, where they slept, showered and worked; we saw bordering-ditches, guard towers and once-electrified barbed-wire fences that caged them; we saw the crematoria. And we tried to look through my grandfather’s eyes, a 21 year-old volunteer, whom the U.S. army tried to turn away due to his flat feet, we tried to imagine what he might have seen and felt and thought as he stood there that day, liberation day, 69 years earlier, when the camp must have looked very different.
I don’t know that I ever heard a war story from my grandfather in the 16 years I knew him. I do know though about his dispute with my father regarding serving in Vietnam. My father was ready to run to Canada if called-up, and my grandfather was of the mindset that one serves one’s country, end of story. The guide, Achim, gave us time to walk through a prison block, cell after cell of unlivable conditions which mostly housed clergy, imprisoned for opposing the Nazi regime. After 20 minutes of quiet contemplation, we stood outside again on the camp grounds, I said to my father, “Ohhh. This is why Zayda was so insistent that you serve. This is what he knew of army service, right vs. wrong, humanity vs. barbarism. This is what he witnessed.” Of course, without my grandfather to speak for himself, we can’t know, but by the look on my father’s face, and his tears, it felt like we landed on a truth; I could almost see my grandfather standing there with us and nodding, and then opening up to tell us one story flooding into another. I wish I could hear them.
As a dual citizen, I usually fly through Europe using my U.S. passport, just easier that way. I was careful this time, to hand them my Israeli Passport, and in it, I now have a stamp: Entrance, April 29, 2014 – Exit, April 29, 2014… over the watermark of a menorah, the emblem of the Jewish state.
There is a belief in Judaism that there are no coincidences. While I agree, I also try not to get too wrapped up in this, but sometimes, life just pulls at you, tugs your elbow to make sure you’re paying attention. This was one of those days.
Our first stop off the plane in Israel was at my sister and brother-in-law’s home, where we were greeted by their exuberant young sons, the older of whom is named for this grandfather – I may have hugged him just a little tighter than usual, maybe one day this article will help him understand why. American Father’s Day is traditionally in June – but for me, I think April 29th, the day I walked with my father walking with his, has become my Father’s Day – holding a significance I’ll never forget and hope to pass on. Thank you Zayda for serving, and thank you dad, for meeting me to walk in your father’s footsteps together.