By Cynthia Briggs
About a dozen years ago I dreamed I was dying. I had some sort of terminal disease that would end horribly, so I’d chosen euthanasia instead. The procedure was scheduled for the next day. It was my last evening on earth.
In the dream I walked around my neighborhood, a typical suburban landscape. The sky was heavy with clouds, and soft rain fell. I tipped my head back and let the rain fall on my skin, my eyes closed. This is what I’ll miss the most, I thought. The sky and the feeling of the rain.
I remember that dream as vividly as I remember anything: the gray sky, the rain, and sharp knife’s edge of grief as I said good-bye to the world. What hurt the most was understanding how much I took for granted, how many small moments I missed. In those final hours, I knew what mattered. I was fully present to life.
Last fall I visited the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site outside Munich, Germany. It was a rainy day much like in my dream, the clouds low in the sky, the rain falling in a fine mist. I stood, shivering, listening to the tour guide talk about this first concentration camp. How it began as a method for transmitting fear and compliance, and later became a factory for death.
At the end of the tour, after we’d walked past rows and rows of former barrack sites, where overcrowding, exposure to harsh winter weather, and lack of basic hygiene were described in plain, raw detail to our hushed ears; after the crematorium, where inmates crowded naked into a room labeled “Showers” never to see day again; after the museum full of photographs of the murdered bodies stacked like firewood; after all of this, I found a path into the woods. I walked alone among the trees, the silence settling in.
The trees watched it all, I thought. They saw it all.
At the end of the path, in front of a stark grey concrete wall, I found a stone marker that read, in brutally plain language, “Execution range with blood ditch.” This was where the firing squads were held, especially in the last days of the war, when focused extermination turned to chaotic slaughter and killing the only answer to desperate questions. Here people lined up, innocent people, and faced guns and died, their blood gathering in an earthen ditch.
I stood in this spot for a very long time.
Eventually, I reached into my backpack and pulled out an apple. Earlier that day, I’d received a message from my friend Daria. She asked me to bring an apple to Dachau and to eat it, as I was visiting on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. “We eat an apple dipped in honey for a sweet and healthy year,” she wrote. “Please enjoy some for those who weren’t able and would have savored even the tiniest piece of apple peel.”
I turned my face to the sky and felt the rain falling down and thought, This is what I will miss the most. I wondered if nature offered any comfort to the doomed people who stood here 70 years ago, to be with the trees and the sky in the end. I bit into that apple with more passion than I’ve ever eaten anything, even at my most hungry. I bit into that apple fiercely. I tasted the sweetness and it felt like rebellion, like fury, like bottomless grief. I chewed that sweetness and swallowed, taking it into my body. I ate that apple there in the rain for all those people whose names I’ll never know, robbed of their stories of what they love about the world, about what they would miss the most once they were gone.
I thought of Adam and Eve and that other apple. How she bit first. I wondered if perhaps Eve’s transgression wasn’t disobeying orders, but eating the apple that opened her eyes to the realities of life. Once she knew, she couldn’t un-know, so she left the safety and naïveté of the garden to launch herself into the wide world, heavier but wiser.
I know things now I didn’t know before Dachau. I peered into the darkness and saw my own humanity reflected back to me. I want to believe that I would have resisted the Nazis had I been a German in the 1930s and 1940s. But I don’t know that for true. I, like most Germans of the time, may have kept my head down out of fear, minding my own business and praying, praying, praying for an end to the madness. I may have let blindness overtake me. I may have closed the curtains on my heart.
I made my way back to the visitor’s center, pausing to photograph the stark iron gate that reads, “Arbeit Macht Frei,” Work shall make you free. The ultimate lie to the prisoners as they entered Dachau. Arriving five minutes later than our tour guide designated, I found the group gone, back to Munich without me, and I had to find my own way home.
I took the crowded bus to the train station, where I bought my ticket from a machine with the help of a kind German couple. I then helped a Polish couple buy their tickets with my newfound expertise. On the platform, I listened for English until I found two couples from Iowa who assured me I was at the right place to catch the train to Munich central station. We chatted for a few minutes in the smiling, pleasant way you do with strangers, especially strangers from Iowa, where everyone is terrifically nice. We said good-bye and wished each other well and I took my place, alone, to wait for the train.
This is what I’ll miss the most, I thought to myself, listening to the cheerful symphony of Iowans and Poles and Germans, all together, all waiting for the same train to take us away to whatever lay unseen down the tracks.
Cynthia Briggs is a professor of counseling, a speaker and consultant, and a writer of fiction and creative non-fiction. She’s the co-editor of Snapdragon: A Journal of Art and Healing (snapdragonjournal.com). Her memoir and essays have been published in numerous print and on-line journals. She teaches expressive arts and writing in her hometown of Winston-Salem, NC. Visit her at her website: waywardsister.com.
Image: Will Langenberg