We began the programme with an eyewitness account from Audrey Magee of an encounter at Dachau Concentration Camp which illustrates how Germany's Nazi atrocities still haunt descendants and bystanders alike. Audrey's essay appears below.
A Dachau Encounter
by Audrey Magee
On a hot summer’s day in 1987, the American Jewish man and I stood outside the gates of Dachau, the Nazi concentration camp on the outskirts of Munich. The gates were shut. It was Monday and the camp was closed to visitors.
The American man was upset. His relatives had died there, behind those gates, behind those walls, and he had promised his family that he would visit the camp during his tour of Europe, to pay tribute to their lives, abruptly and brutally ended. But the camp was closed and he was due to return to the United States the following day, his promise unfulfilled.
To soothe him, I suggested that we walk around the perimeter of the camp. We set off, eyes on the thick, grey concrete and electrical fence that had encased his family members. I don’t remember much conversation until we came across an older woman tending to her garden that abutted the camp wall. She stopped her work to talk, glad of the company. She had no English, he had no German, so I interpreted between the two, the conversation flowing its usual course until she mentioned that she had lived in that place all her life. The garden and the house that stood in its midst had been her only home.
The American struggled to absorb this detail. And asked me to check again. Yes, she had slept in that house while the camp was in operation. She had eaten breakfast, then lunch, then dinner while his relatives starved. While thousands were gassed and murdered. There were 32,000 documented deaths at Dachau. Thousands more unrecorded deaths. All on the other side of the wall from her home. The American man was struggling.
She shrugged her shoulders. I knew nothing, she said. He shook his head. It was not possible that she knew nothing. She had to have known. There were trucks going in and out, trains, bodies burning, people screaming. She must have known something. I knew nothing, she said. And what could I have done?
He listed the things she could have done. She shrugged her shoulders again. He became more upset. And began to shout. You should have done something, he said. You should have stopped it. What could I have done? she said, over and over, I didn’t know anything.
And so it went on, a young American Jewish man shouting at an older German woman, both of them holding fast to their positions, aware that to let go, to cede even a centimetre, was a betrayal – for him a betrayal of his family, for her a betrayal of her claim to innocence. As long as she knew nothing, she was impervious, shuttered against and safe from the opinions of the outside world. The lines were drawn, with no chance of reconciliation. It was a difficult, fraught, exhausting encounter, and impossible to forget.
He returned to the United States the following day, and I went back to Dachau, to pay tribute to his relatives. The woman was not in her garden that day.
Audrey Magee's novel, The Undertaking published by Atlantic will be available nationwide on 6 February.
Desperate to escape the Eastern front, Peter Faber, an ordinary German soldier, marries Katharina Spinell, a woman he has never met; it is a marriage of convenience that promises 'honeymoon' leave for him and a pension for her should he die on the front. With ten days' leave secured, Peter visits his new wife in Berlin; both are surprised by the attraction that develops between them. When Peter returns to the horror of the front, it is only the dream of Katharina that sustains him as he approaches Stalingrad. Back in Berlin, Katharina, goaded on by her desperate and delusional parents, ruthlessly works her way into the Nazi party hierarchy, wedding herself, her young husband and their unborn child to the regime. But when the tide of war turns and Berlin falls, Peter and Katharina, ordinary people stained with their small share of an extraordinary guilt, find their simple dream of family increasingly hard to hold on to...