We Did Not Know

9 mins read
Photo by Julius Drost on Unsplash

The sky was gray and it was drizzling. My father stood outside the gates of Dachau in his U.S. Army uniform. He was thinking about the previous day, when he had listened to testimony recounting the horrors that had been inflicted on those prisoners who had been sent to that camp to be tortured and die. 

“We didn’t know.” 

He looked up to find an elderly woman standing nearby, gazing at him intently. 

“We didn’t know,” she repeated. 

“You didn’t know what?” my father asked. 

“That.” She pointed towards the crematoria. 

“Where do you live?” my father asked. 

“There.” She pointed towards the town. She looked back at him and he just stared. After a few moments, she turned and walked away. 

For an American Jew, being sent by the Army to Dachau after the liberation of the camp was surreal. My father had seen and learned things there that seared his soul and mostly only came to the surface decades later, when dementia broke down the barrier between sanity and the trauma he had buried so well. He had told me about the woman at the gate. He was furious with her but didn’t say another word. How could she have seen the smoke, smelled the stench, seen the thousands of rail-thin prisoners go in the gate but never come out? 

Yesterday, as I clicked through various channels on my TV, I understood. If you chose to look at one channel, you would see the carnage, the ambulances, the overwhelmed hospitals, the people being brought into one door on a stretcher and others being taken out another door in body bags, some buried in mass graves. Wives separated from husbands, children from their parents, sisters from brothers, separated never to be reunited. Of course, there is a huge difference between what the woman at the gate might have seen had she been paying attention and what we are witnessing now. Those inside the hospital are desperately trying to save the stricken, risking their own lives and their family’s lives, to keep these patients alive. Those inside these gates want the world to see and know what’s happening, crying out as loudly as they can for help, and warning the masses to do whatever they can to avoid being carried within their gates. They even pose in their uniforms, scrubs, PPE, with signs saying, “Please, just stay home!”

Most of the voices narrating the scenes on the channel I chose to watch yesterday were somber, serious, empathetic to those who were suffering. Some, in the midst of the smoke, wailed out in anger at the injustice and insanity of it all. But on another channel, louder voices prevailed, yelling about patriotism, freedom, waving flags, and railing against “liberals.” Our nation’s leader could be seen, on almost every channel, lashing out against anyone who dared to question him, those he declared had gone too far, who were trying to take away our freedom and trying to destroy our very way of life. Those who agreed with him were the real patriots. He’d never seen so many flags waving. He called on them to arm themselves and march on the streets to LIBERATE their states.

Who should his followers liberate themelves from? This son of a Jewish soldier wants to know.

The bodies are piling up. Over 40,000 Americans so far, one of them who died on Saturday was a dear friend, a woman who spent her life fighting for the underdog, the hungry, the homeless, the powerless. Her name was Sarah. 

I’m not sure how much the woman who lived near the Dachau camp could have done to save the lives of any who died inside those gates, but I do know this: If enough people had paid attention, if enough people had looked in one direction instead of looking away, if enough people had viewed with suspicion the demands for patriotism — waving the flag, saluting the leader, and crushing those whom the leader blamed for all of the nation’s woes — perhaps some lives, many lives, countless lives, could have been saved. 

I learned something from my father, too, not to look away. That’s why I click through a few different channels every day, spending a little time listening to voices I would not normally hear. I beg my fellow Americans to do the same, take a few minutes and listen to another side, look deep within the gates, critically think about what you are seeing and hearing. Think of one person you love and ask yourself if there were one thing you could do to save that person’s life, one simple thing, wouldn’t you do it? You have enormous power to make a difference. You can save countless lives. Look, listen, and if you see the smoke and smell the stench, all you’re being asked to do is stay home. Yes, that can mean enormous sacrifice for many, but isn’t your loved one’s life worth it? My friend Sarah’s life was.

Or would you rather be confronted by the piles of bodies later, standing outside the gates of tragedy you could have prevented, and try to tell someone who is grieving that you didn’t know. 

And in case you were wondering how I can compare present-day to WWII based on one story from my father, allow me to share a poem my mother wrote just after the war ended, when she was around 19 years old. It too made me think about yesterday’s cries for liberation and freedom, as though this pandemic, like the war, was over. History may not repeat itself, but it sure rhymes. 

GODS ANSWER by Muriel Wiesner

I hear them shouting from far and near
“The war is over, peace is here.”
The boys are back and happy again
And once our enemy is now our friend

No need for bonds and ration stamps
No need to fear concentration camps
Back to the days of spending sprees
Inflation heck, I’ll spend as I please

While the war was on I saved its true
But peace was declared, those days are through
I may even join the Ku Kux Klan
No one’s as good as the fine white man

And making trouble about Palestine
That’s Jew trouble, no concern of mine
When I go to the show, I want a murder at least
No sob story about a nun or priest

What is that you say to me?
The war was fought for equality.
Well we were victors, we won
But now that is through, its done.

All foreigners are spies, and sneaky too.
No flag is as good as the RED WHITE AND BLUE
The Greeks can starve, for all I care
I eat my bread, I will not share.

And this, America, is what I hear
From voices far and voices near
BUT DO YOU HEAR, THAT VOICE LIKE THUNDER
IT SAYS TWO WORDS…..

I WONDER  


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Craig Wiesner is the owner of Reach And Teach Books Toys and Gifts, a shop dedicated to making the world more peaceful, sustainable and inclusive.

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