I’m afraid this post is about some terrible things, but they are true, and we need to remember them, or they will happen again.
On Tuesday morning, September 11, I was on a trip through Europe with my Biblical Archaeology class. On our last day in Germany, we visited an awful place about ten miles from Munich.
Dachau was a concentration camp, where anyone the Nazis deemed “undesireable” was sent to be used for forced labor or to be put to death. During the Holocaust, over 200,000 people were taken there as prisoners, and over 30,000 died at Dachau– shot or beaten by the guards, worked to death, killed by disease or starvation, or used in medical experiments. We don’t actually know the full number of people who died there, and no one can calculate the amount of violence done to people’s lives.
A museum there recounts the ugly history of the place. There was too much for me to take in at once; I’m afraid I don’t remember a lot of specific images from the black-and-white photos, but there was one showing the belongings of people lined up in a corner. Where were the people? They had just been killed. I saw the propaganda of the time that sought to portray Jews as less than human; the drawings nightmarishly distorted their faces. There were the gold stars of David that Jews were forced to wear, and the pink triangles forced on homosexuals. Other documents talked about the mentally and physically handicapped in terms of monetary cost to society; it would be better for “everyone” just to get rid of them, they argued.
This was not something that could only have happened in Germany; I knew that America had a strong eugenics movement at the time, and we still hear some of the same arguments today about the “cost” of a disabled child or an elderly adult to society. We still hear anti-Semitism and the hatred of people just because they are different. One of the saddest things for me was to consider how many Christian churches in Germany didn’t see, or chose to ignore, what was happening. It seems like only a few, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Corrie ten Boom in the Netherlands, put their lives and freedom on the line trying to do something about the evil that was taking place.
We saw the wooden barracks that the prisoners were crowded into, and the ovens used to dispose of the bodies. I saw a memorial with a phrase in bold letters repeated in several languages. The one at the top was Hebrew. I scanned down until I found the English translation: “NEVER AGAIN.”
As you can imagine, seeing Dachau was a sobering experience; we didn’t speak much on the bus ride back. But it was important to see, especially when I consider that there are people who try to argue that the Holocaust never happened. I saw where it happened. Someday, there won’t be any survivors still on the Earth with direct memory of the concentration camps under the Nazis, but I will remember what I saw.
We spent a little time walking around Munich and getting lunch. I feel bad that there is so much heaviness in this post, because Munich is a beautiful city, and I don’t want everything I say to be negative. The whole class had lunch at a huge table in a restaurant, and we scared the waitress when someone initially asked for separate checks for each of us. Her eyes got really big, and she said, “So, you want… eins, zwei, drei…” and her voice trailed off as she continued to count. We could tell we had made a mistake, so we told her a combined check would be fine, and we would figure out how much each of us had to pay.
The class split up into smaller groups until mid-afternoon, when we began to gather at the Munich train station for our trip to Italy.
The scene when I got there was surreal. People were standing everywhere, watching the news on large screens. I could not understand what the German reporters were saying, but I could understand the proper names in the captions, and the billowing smoke in the video spoke for itself. There had been an attack on New York City.
Some of my classmates who had been at the train station longer explained what they knew. Terrorists had hijacked passenger airplanes, killed the pilots, and steered the planes to collide with the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. I continued to watch as the news showed one of the towers collapsing under its own weight and disintegrating in a huge cloud of smoke and dust. Then I saw the same thing happen to the other tower. I felt like asking someone if what I had just seen had really happened– the Twin Towers, which I had seen close up just a few months ago– were gone? Until then, I had assumed that they were just hidden by smoke.
Another video showed people blocks away from the towers running as the smoke and dust billowed out towards them. It looked for all the world like a scene from the movie Independence Day, a silly alien invasion movie. The destruction in that movie was offered as entertainment. Why had we thought it was entertaining to imagine? This was real. I don’t watch that part of Independence Day anymore.
The shock seemed to break down some of the social barriers. People shared their reactions, feelings, and worries with anyone who spoke English, even total strangers. Rumors spread– some partly true, some totally false.
— “A terrorist named Osama bin Laden was behind the attack; he was also responsible for the bombing in the 1990s.”
— “There might be a million people dead in New York.”
— “President Bush told Colin Powell, ‘Go get bin Laden now.’ Our troops are already on their way to Afghanistan.”
— “Another plane hit the Pentagon in Washington. There might be more attacks on other cities.”
— “A plane went down in Pittsburgh.”
That last rumor shook me. My grandparents lived in the Pittsburgh area. Also, how many planes must the terrorists have if they were using one to attack Pittsburgh? It can’t be that high up on the list of important targets in the United States. It scared me to think there might be that many more attacks.
Of course, you probably know now that the source of that rumor was the account of Flight 93, which was hijacked and was likely intended to hit the Capitol or the White House in Washington, D.C. The passengers were able to learn of the other attacks, and they sacrificed their lives by fighting the terrorists, causing the plane to crash in western Pennsylvania before it could reach its target. I am amazed at their choice to fight back despite the danger and cost. As deeply as the attacks hurt Americans, can you imagine what that day would have been like if the White House or the Capitol had also been destroyed?
As is typical of me, I didn’t talk much or even reach much outwardly; I just turned my thoughts over in my head. What an experience this trip was turning out to be. Was I going to be in Europe for the start of World War III? The first two started there, after all. All things considered, I was probably safer here than in America right now. I said a prayer for my family; I wondered what they were doing. My mom was probably worrying about me. I prayed for the people in New York and elsewehere who had been hurt by the attacks, and for their families, and for the President. God was in control, even in terrible times– I reminded myself that he was not unaware or caught off guard by anything. I didn’t know how anything good could come out of this, but I believed that God can bring good out of even the worst situations.
I wanted to talk to my family. My parents had given me a couple of calling cards in case I wanted or needed to call home, and I decided to give it a try, even though people were saying that all the phone lines to the U.S. were overwhelmed. To my surprise, it worked! I got through to my brother Jonas, who was watching over the house while my parents were on a road trip out West. He asked how the trip was going, and I told him it was pretty amazing. I asked him if he was watching all that was going on today. He said that he had been working on something for class– what was going on? I told him he might want to turn on the news and told him what little I knew about the attacks.
Jonas said that Mom and Dad hadn’t called yet, but he had heard from them over the past few days, and their trip was going fine. I told Jonas just to tell them he had heard from me, and we were all fine. I didn’t know what was going to happen to the rest of our class trip or when I was going to get home, but I was fine. My mom later told me that she was really glad to hear that when she called Jonas to tell him she and dad were cutting their trip short and coming home.
The class eventually gathered in the same place. Dr. B. explained what he knew of the situation, and he told us that as far as the rest of the trip went, we were going to follow our planned itinerary and go to Italy. There wasn’t really anything else we could do anyway, as all flights in and out of the U.S. were grounded, and no one knew when it was going to be possible to fly again. We would have to wait and see what things were like four days later when we were scheduled to fly back to Newark from Rome.
Some students had tried to get in touch with their parents but had had trouble getting through. One of my classmates was very upset, because her father was an airline pilot, and even though she knew he probably wasn’t on one of the planes, what if he was? Dr. B. had a relative who worked in the World Trade Center, and he hadn’t heard from him. We all prayed together that God would keep us, our families, and our country safe.
Finally, it was time to board our train to Italy. We sat down across from a young woman who recognized that we were from America and asked us where we were from specifically. “Ohio,” we told her. “Oh. So not very near the disaster,” she said. “No,” we said, but it still felt very close. We rode on in exhausted silence. A while later, I asked my classmates if I could read Psalm 2 to them. Its words had been on my mind.
“Why do the nations rage?”