Recently, I saw a young German woman with violet hair slowly sipping her coffee, disregarding the bolt-it-down German philosophy. Chatting with her friend, she exposed a black upside down triangle just above her wrist. The Nazi mark of the social outcast being reclaimed by this modern German. Pierced and laughing wildly, this punk was rebelling against the terrible legacy left to her from generations past. She was simultaneously acknowledging it and joking with it.
Germany is a land that is constantly reconciling with this past. It has been over 70 years since World War II, and the places of power and fear are now landmarks of grief. Forgetting is not an option. The horror and terror of that much devastation lives on. No matter what our distance in space or time from such tragedy, the weight of such grief leaves an impression on every life.
Despite my deep American roots, even I cannot escape the history of this place. I can track my surname to this southern part of Germany where I now live. I bear the name Romer for the Romans who were once abandoned here in Germany as the Roman Empire fell. But other things bear this name as well.
Just outside of Munich lies the Nazi’s first concentration camp, Dachau. Knowing that the ashes of thousands of people were forever mixed in with the soil on Old Romer Street leaves an unshakable impression. It has been almost three years since I was there, but the dust of Dachau still clings to me.
In a special box in my mother’s closet, there is a tattered old photograph of my grandfather kneeling with other smiling soldiers around a Nazi flag. For many years after I first glimpsed that photo, I was sure my grandfather had been on the wrong side. Only as I entered my teens did I learn that my grandfather and his fellow soldiers were holding the flag of a concentration camp they had liberated. My grandfather lost hundreds of hours of sleep reliving the nightmares he saw at that concentration camp. The images clung to him even on his deathbed over 50 years later.
Perhaps the Germans can teach us all something about how to live with the unbearable tragedies of this world. Pain is universal, and grief is huge. Yet the humanity is marked just as fiercely by joy and love. Like the girl with the triangle tattoo, past horrors may mark us, but we must rise above—we must live but never forget.