I did not go to Dachau that first time in Germany. When I entered the air-conditioned office in the Munich train station, the clerk informed me with great solemnity: “Madame, Dachau is closed on Monday.” I felt as if I had betrayed a sacred duty. Gelsey was elated. “Then we go to Garmisch,” she intoned. We raced to the train. Once in the foothills of the Alps, we walked higher and higher, took a funnicular to the top of the gorge and on a swaying footbridge over the gorge, looked down into the spray. “Ta dah!” Gelsey cried. “It’s where the hero’s chicklet falls in action movies.” Then she blanched and hurried across. “Of all the stupid tourist moves,” she muttered, “looking down twice!”
Two years later I returned to Munich alone. It was an easy city to enjoy. I stayed again in the high-ceilinged pension run by Frau Anika, from Austria, Gelsey and I had learned. Her slightly slurred German added to the sense of being embowered under the ceiling’s airy foliage.
This time the train station clerk directed me to take stairs down to a commuter train. I hesitated at the top of the stairway, my heart thumping. Did I really want to do this? Yes, I had come all the way. True, I was going on to Italy, across the Alps, the country I loved above all others except for home in the U.S. of A. But this was an obligation, this visit to Dachau. I owed it to myself as part-German to acknowledge my part in this world-wide pain. I owed it to myself as a simple, adult human being.
I started down. Terror and confusion mounted with each step. By the end, thoroughly rattled, I stood almost blind at the bottom, knowing I had to buy a ticket, but unable to perceive how I should do it. Then an immaculate elderly gentleman in a smooth beige raincoat spoke to me: “Madame, may I help you? Are you enroute to Dachau?” It was as if he had landed with a swoosh of wings.
“Yes, I don’t know how to purchase the ticket.”
“Come with me,” he beckoned. “You insert the money here, and punch this button. The ticket will print below.”
As I did so, with trembling fingers, I told him how kind he was and how much I appreciated his help. Turning with the ticket in my hand, I found him waiting. “It is I who must thank you,” he said, bowing slightly. I must have looked surprised because he continued, “I fought on the German side in the war. What we did under Hitler was a horror of the greatest magnitude.” His eyelids fluttered. It was as if he attempted to push back tears. “Every day I come here and wait. There is always someone I can help find their way to Dachau.”
I stepped toward him with outstretched hand. He took my slightly wet palm in his cool, dry one. “Do not be afraid. They have made Dachau a beautiful place. As it was before.” Then he was gone. I was crammed onto a commuter train, sensing that this encounter with what I later called my “angel of direction” was perhaps the most powerful part of this homage.