Touched by South Africa

The Unknown Prisoner by Fritz Koelle (1950) in crematorium area. “To honor the dead and warn the living.”

One day I had a group of girls from Johannesburg. They were a youth choir giving concerts across Europe that summer. It was their first time traveling abroad and their teachers wanted them to see Dachau. As we were getting ready to start, one of the teachers approached me. “The girls want to sing a song we have prepared for our visit today. I am not sure when the appropriate time would be, but if you could let us know.”

“We’ll find the right time,” I told her. These requests were frequent. Visitors wrote poems or sketched pictures. Young people made posters or collages. Some brought flowers and candles. I saw these acts as gestures of healing. People looking for a way to reach out and do something – a physical step that counters the feelings of helplessness one can feel when faced with the Holocaust. It is so much bigger than us.

Several hours later, our tour was coming to a close, and we walked into the crematorium area. Martin approached me, as was his custom. I said hello and introduced him to the girls. This was his turf, not mine, and introducing my groups to him (or him to my groups) was part of our ritual. I was a social smoker then and as a friendly gesture, always offered him a cigarette, when I had a pack on me. He had a reputation of shouting belligerently at guides and disturbing tours; hence, my gift of tobacco, an effort to stay on his good side. He never did shout at me.

Martin was not a healthy man. It was certain that he was a survivor, but no one was sure which camp he was liberated from. His name had not been found in the Dachau documents. At that time, he lived in town, near his son and came to the memorial site everyday, except Mondays when it was closed and even then, we heard that sometimes he still went. He mulled around the crematorium area, all day, everyday. He made small talk in a variety of languages. Visitors sometimes gave him a few coins in exchange for his photograph and business card, leading many of them to assume he had survived Dachau. A real survivor!

When I saw him standing there, I knew this was the right moment for the girls to sing. I told Martin they wanted to sing for him and they quietly formed a circle, including us, did a brief warm-up and then, all twenty of them on one beat, started.

I felt tears and reached for my sunglasses. The entire area was suddenly so still. There were dozens of visitors still wanting to see the gas chamber and ovens in the few minutes left before the security guards would lock up for the night, but they all stopped to listen. The sun was going down, orange and pink, behind the brown bricks and dark roof of the crematorium. I listened to the lyrics, but more to the young voices. The girls sang in Hebrew and the only word I recognize was: Adonai (God). I glanced at Martin, standing to my right, his full weight against his cane. He removed his dark glasses I had never seen him without. Heavy tears rolled down his long cheeks. Some of the girls noticed Martin and started crying themselves.

I looked away. It was too intimate for me. Instead, I focused on the girls. Their white, short sleeve cotton blouses, knee length black skirts, white ankle socks and black loafers. I looked at their faces, black and white. I kept my eyes moving from girl to girl, not wanting to make contact. I had gotten to know them that day. The future from a newly integrated South African school, four years after apartheid ended. And they had spent the day with me, learning about Dachau and the Holocaust. Of course, we had talked about Anne Frank. They knew her diary. To think that half an hour ago they were exhausted from the day. The singing renewed their energy.

Their voices were more than beautiful. No instrumental accompaniment. They sang a cappella. Their voices, strong and clear, full of life – cut through the thick, August air that prevails that time of year in the memorial site. Dachau was built on moors, and in late summer the air feels moist and heavy.

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