In the last year of high school my favourite teacher was Mr Harris, who taught history. The highlight of the year was World War II. No other subject compared with his enthusiastic and often graphic retelling of this tale of horror. I remember the large canvas map of Europe which he would yank noisily down from its holder. He would tap the colourful blocks of landmass with his stick as he detailed the forward and backward momentum of the front line. Hitler fucked up I thought. If he hadn’t invaded Russia the Nazis would have won the war. I wanted the baddies to win. I wished I had been there.

I devoured my older brother’s war books and comics, the more blood-soaked the better, but I don’t actually meet any Jews, or Germans, until I leave New Zealand. A is at film school with me in Melbourne. I meet her Jewish parents who fled from Poland into Russia as teenagers, preferring the Soviets to the coming Nazis. Their story is as far-fetched and exotic as the gefilte fish I nervously try. I wish her parents were my parents. Another friend is German. Her father had been called up as a young man at the very end of the war. I picture him cycling around broken Berlin then hiding in shell holes as the allied troops pour in. I wish it had been me.

The perfect excuse

I read Gitta Sereny’s Albert Speer: his battle with truth. It’s like standing on the edge of a precipice looking down into the darkness. I want to go there, to that dark place. Even my sexual fantasies circle around war scenarios where I am the sadistic conqueror, never the conquered. I worry that I would have been a Nazi myself. Graham Greene is supposed to have said that there is a ‘splinter of ice in the heart of a writer.’ Was mine an iceberg?

I hear Miranda Richmond Mouillot on the radio speaking about her book A Fifty Year Silence. Her grandparents, French Jews, escaped the holocaust, but after the war they fell out with each other so completely that they refused to speak to each other for the last fifty years of their lives. The words that catch my attention, as barbed wire catches a jumper, are simple. Her grandfather was an interpreter for the Nuremberg trials.

The voice of the enemy

Fucking hell. I must have said it out loud. J comes in from the other room. A Jewish man became the voice for the people who tried as hard as they could to wipe his people off the face of the earth. That language, those excuses, prevarications and lies pouring into his ears, and he must faithfully speak them out to the world. No wonder there was no room left for love. I know it is a film I want to write.

But the book is disappointing, the great majority of it concerned with Richmond Mouillot, an ordinary American, relating her ordinary love affair with some French chap. I research more widely. There’s heaps written on the trials. The facts are easy enough to find. But I want my heroine to be a Jew, so what I need is the feeling. The feeling of being on the losing end. I need to get inside, to crawl down into the darkness. I need to stop my morbid love affair with the fascists, put down my gun, cross the platform and be pushed and shoved into the stinking railway carriage.

Some Bavarian Alps

Berchtesgaden is a pleasant alpine village, if you like that sort of thing. It’s growing cold and the trees are orange. We arrive into a huge ostentatious railway station building painted with heroic images of an idealized landscape. Built in the late 1930s it was intended to service what would have been the Nazis’ second, summer capital. Now it services tourists and the small population who seem to have slipped back into an alpine torpor. Perhaps it goes off in winter. We intend to go up to Kehlsteinhaus, the Eagle’s Nest, where Eva Braun sunned herself in a bikini as Hitler strode about, seemingly never at rest.

The bus lets us out halfway up the mountain in Obersalzberg. The Nazi houses have gone, bombed by the Americans who came here before Berlin, nervous that Hitler and his leading men would hide out in bunkers in the mountains. If they had gone to Berlin first then maybe they would have beaten the Russians.

A museum has been built on the site, detailing how much Hitler loved this retreat. He finished Mein Kampf here. When he achieved power (and money) he took over the whole mountainside for him and his close friends. Hermann Göring and Martin Boormann had houses here, and Albert Speer a house and studio. Locals reluctant to sell had their children incarcerated as encouragement. There are pictures of Hitler casually waving at stiff rows of SA men, dressed in long brown shorts and white socks, while in the background glorious mountain peaks rise from green meadows. They look like overgrown boy-scouts.

Looking down on the town, I think it is lovely. 300 metres above us the Kehlsteinhaus is drowned in fog. No use going up there. So we go into the mountain instead, down into elaborate bunkers and underground tunnels that the Nazis built as a back-up plan in the unlikely event they were defeated. While these are fascinating on an abstract level, all I feel is cold.

The Germans give great museum

Autumn Berlin is furiously cheerful. We stay in former East Berlin, which is more Fitzroy than Fitzroy. Everywhere you look there are people on bikes, hair flapping like pennants as they sail through placid traffic. The cafes, bars and restaurants are filled with big boisterous ridiculously healthy Germans eating big ridiculously healthy meals. If you ask, their English is excellent. The architecture is fascinating. The trains, trams and buses clean, cheap and punctual. The beer fabulous. It’s like Melbourne on steroids. With a face-lift. But unlike Australia, the Germans no longer hide their dirty past.

In the heart of Berlin, close to the Reich Chancellery, is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. I enter the field of grey concrete stelae. It’s surprisingly peaceful, like a graveyard. I walk along the narrow pathways and think about the victims, but my brain veers off. I think about how thirsty I am and then I think about how outrageously many of the other visitors are behaving. They are taking photos and selfies, grinning stupidly at the camera, even chasing each other and giggling. A couple of them even stand on the blocks and a man shouts at them “get down!” I enjoy that.

Underneath the memorial is a holocaust exhibition. There’s a queue, and a lot of German spoken, which surprises me. Do the Germans themselves still want to look at this? Stalin, that other butcher, was rumoured to have said that one death was a tragedy, but a million is a statistic. I was always shit at maths. It’s the pictures of families – children and women, smiling at the camera, blind to their fate – that make it hard for me to swallow. Still, the usual distractions distract. Too many people. Look at her nice bag. He’s a space-invader. Someone round here has BO. I can only do quiet contemplation for so long. Not long enough. Outside into the carefree sunshine we go and the creeping shadows are dispersed.

Testing shoe leather

In Shoah (Claude Lanzmann, 1985), a survivor of Treblinka gazes at the meadow growing over the bases of the barracks and says “impossible!” Impossible, because the horror has disappeared underneath the grass? Or because the whole thing is so hard to comprehend?

To visit Sachsenhausen concentration camp you take the train from the Hauptbahnhof in Berlin. At the station the usual ghastly fried fare is missing, replaced by delicious brown bread rolls stuffed with cheese. I need to eat before the camp – all this Nazi business makes you hungry. It’s a short walk through lovely tree-lined streets, past well-kept suburban houses and then you are there. It’s all quite ordinary.

We pick up the English audio guide and trek down the long road towards the camp itself. Woven into the gate are the words Arbeit Mach Frei. This shocks me. I know to expect this, but it seems I have to see it with my very own eyes. Then the dates shock me. It all began so early. From 1933 prisoners were brought here, first Hitler’s opponents, much later Jews. This was a model camp for other camps. Best practice as it were.

Most of the barracks here are gone, but their footprint remains. The sheer size of the operation is staggering. I think about how many Germans must have been involved in the camp system. One of the bathrooms remains. In the middle of the small room two large tubs stand like concrete mushrooms or fountains without a water-spout. Along the wall, tiled partitioned holes for toilets. No cover, no running water, no privacy. Then outside, a strange half-circle track in full view of the watch-tower. Where prisoners tested boots for soldiers. Running in leather boots, hungry, thirsty, falling. It’s ridiculous, almost farcical, this peculiarly German mix of terror and bureaucracy.

Again, the sun makes a mockery of it all. The trees are green. The air smells sweet. My heart is heavy, but I’m not impaled by it. Is this is the impossibility of understanding something so distant to me? Is this film idea ridiculous? A vanity?

Flirting in the court of death

We go to Nürnberg (Nuremberg) on the train. The trains are amazing in Germany, but I have caught some kind of vaginal infection. Pissing is incredibly painful. I feel anxious, neurotic about my health at the best of times. I visit a German doctor, and then a gynaecologist in the same morning, and receive the very best of care. My painful staph infection is yet another diversion.

At the courthouse where the famous trail ran, noisy school children are doing the usual annoying flirting, teasing and bullying. For them the Nazis are boring. Old news. In the court exhibition we read that Germans had no stomach for prosecuting Nazis once the American’s were done. Many Germans saw the trials as victor’s justice and in the 1950s there was a wave of pardons for the condemned. With so few survivors remaining, the crimes themselves could be quietly forgotten. Remembering was too much of an effort.

The museum is so detailed my brain turns to mush. Can we go now? Can we walk through the beautiful medieval city? Can we be normal tourists again? But even here you cannot escape the war. I see photos of the city in 1945. It was absolutely devastated. It’s been pieced together so perfectly you would never know.

And on the right you can see

New facts keep arriving. I didn’t know how important Nürnberg was for the Nazis. It was here they threw their extravagant annual parties, full of food and drink, songs and triumphal marching. In the bus that drives us around the Nazi rally grounds middle-aged Germans peer out at the gigantic, almost preposterous remnants of Hitler and Speer’s grand vision. We clutch our A4 sheet of paper with a cursory English explanation, while they are treated to half an hour of what I imagine to be fascinating details in German.

In the Documentation Centre museum I watch video footage of two elderly German sisters laughing about how much they loved the party rallies. They used to count how many times they saw Hitler during the week-long events. “13 times!” one of them says. Excerpts from Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will screen. What perfect symmetry, a beautiful machine made up of parts like these sisters once were, young men and women full of lust and dreams. I think about how I would have loved such a party.

In tourist-filled Munich we gawp at the kitsch glockenspiel show in the main square, and spend half a day in the massive royal palace of the Bavarian monarchs, gorging on Rococo and other obscenely over-decorated rooms. We stand in the place where Hitler’s Beer hall Putsch was staged. But there is nothing here. The Nazis are gone, their bones are dust, their significant places now banal. There is only one moment on the whole trip when I am overwhelmed, and it’s not to do with the Nazis at all.

A million souls

We are on the train, travelling out towards the border with Austria. We must change at Freilassing, right on the border. At the Freilassing station there are many German police. Polizei. In black vests with guns. There’s a funny sort of tension in the air. In the underground walkway from the platform people look strange, closed in. I realize I feel nervous. We walk up the stairs to the station building and there is a large white tent set up on the platform with more police inside and red tape running along the platform, cordoning off a train.

Then I see them. Refugees. A stream of them coming off buses and being led to the waiting train. People lugging large bags and packs, holding the hands of children, mostly silent, moving in a tired, resigned sort of way. In the train, faces looking out at us, waiting. Snatches of a different language. My stomach lurches. It feels like someone’s punched it.

Here it is, the feeling I’ve been looking for. I’m completely surprised by it. It’s complicated. I feel for the refugees, I can see their hope and their hopelessness. I understand why they would come. I would do the same. But I also feel for Germany. This beautiful country which has worked so hard to repay its debts. How will everyone fit together? How can a million strangers not change this place? Should I even be thinking this?

Later I think, was I the German there, seeing her Jewish neighbours being taken away? How absurd, ridiculous, it must have felt. Germany, a sophisticated culture. Loading the Jews onto the trains. Where were they going? To work camps of course. Who could believe the truth? It’s easy for us to judge because we already know their future.

History is full of ghosts. For me, the holocaust is grief and horror. But the living refugees of war move me, frighten me, make my heart thump. Perhaps it was an echo of the past, of those thousands of trains filled with people going to their destruction, lapping up against the present. With this feeling, is it possible for me to write Jews, Germans and allies in 1946 in the aftermath of war? Mine is a future not written yet. Only time will tell.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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