The Umbrella

My umbrella broke in Dachau.

It wasn’t a particularly fancy umbrella, just a cheapo plaid one I bought at a gift shop in Salzburg a few days before in the pouring rain. That day it was essential to keep me dry; this day it was doing its darndest to keep the freezing rain and wind out of my face. It was cold, a dreary late March afternoon in 2008, when I separated from Eleanor in Munich and began the part of my trip that counts as my first and only solo European travel to date. I wandered from Munich to Paris and back, but first, I headed to Dachau.

And then, in a tale I’ve told to many friends since, I found my little umbrella being whipped around in the Bavarian spring wind, no match for its weak metal supports. It crumpled, it blew comically inside out, it became wholly unusable. I was exposed to the unforgiving weather and I became instantly grumpy about it. And then I realized: I am visiting a concentration camp. I can’t really think of a better way to get knocked back into perspective.

(Photos mine.)

 

I wanted to weep. I wanted to rest
my weary head as the ash mixed with snow.
Dachau was so cold I could see my breath.

Sherman Alexie

That whole trip feels like a dream to me, even though it wasn’t too terribly long ago. I’ve changed a lot, inside my head, since then, and I haven’t had a similar travel experience since (which I find sort of reinforces the memories of travel – re-embosses them, in the way that repeating actions does), so everything feels very removed. My visit to the Dachau camp feels especially so. Looking back at my pictures, I think, I was there? I passed through the “Arbeit macht frei” gate, I walked along the foundations of the barracks, I stood in front of the mass grave. But I don’t have the words for it. Even writing that sentence with three “I”s cheapens what Dachau is (not to mention taking the time to edit the photo of me and the umbrella, above).

While there, I thought I’d feel an overwhelming, panicky sadness. But the effect was much quieter than expected. Possibly because I was alone – I walked, observed, read, photographed, pondered, in s0litude. It was a solemn afternoon for me, and I could sense the despair that had passed through there. I was okay, overall, until I was sitting in the exhibition building waiting for the documentary-style movie to begin. There weren’t that many places to sit, and I was tired and cold and wet. After finding a little corner of the floor to crouch down on, I began to notice how many school groups were streaming past me – kids on field trips, I suppose? Along with some families with little children. And it’s not that the kids were particularly poorly behaved or anything, but they were rowdy. It was a dreary day and they were being directed around and many of them were too small to read or comprehend the materials presented in the exhibit. But something struck me about their rowdiness, their impatience and noise and borderline disrespect, because it was obnoxious but normal kid behavior. I remember pressing the heels of my hands into my eyes so I wouldn’t cry. The kids were bugging me, but they were just kids. Children like the ones who were sent to Dachau. To die.

Travel is important not just for the self-fulfilling enjoyment of it – which is still significant, to be sure – but because it provides opportunities to bear witness to human history like this. It changes your heart.

***

Earlier this week, I had a 2012 umbrella-breaking experience on my way to work under overly chilly and rainy April skies. It was another cheap old thing, given to me by my mother probably soon after I returned from Europe a few years ago. I liked it, though, because the fabric reminded me of my senior prom dress, iridescent and unique. I think I simply opened and closed it enough times that it wore out and buckled down. There’s probably a lesson to be learned there, too.

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