(Re)Collection #10: The Unforgettable Fire
I was on a bus with a group of other college students traveling to East Germany in late Fall 1986. The weather was wet, cold and the skies dull. As we crossed the border into the DDR, I looked out the bus window and noticed there were no more streetlights, no more lights on in people's houses.
The air smelled of coal. People burned it to heat their homes and apartments. Buildings were uniformly gray. It could have been the low clouds and the half darkness that gave that impression. Or the fact that everything was coated with coal dust. I am pretty sure that painting buildings was low on the priority list in a Communist country that was struggling financially.
In my imagination, I was stepping into a black and white photo of Germany during the second World War.
Our first stop was the concentration camp Buchenwald. Then we would make our way down to Weimar to tour Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's residence and eat lunch. I was not ready for what awaited me at Buchenwald.
At the top of the entrance gate there is a motto written in steel, Bauhaus-style script: Jedem Das Seine. There are a number of ways of translating it, but the closest versions are "to each his own" or "to each what he deserves." You get what you deserve. You get what is coming to you.
It was a grim visit. The Nazis built the camp on the exposed side of a hill overlooking the town of Weimar, which sat about 4 miles away in the valley below. The wind whipped through our clothes and it started to snow. Whatever I had on was inadequate to shield me from it.
We had a brief tour. Many of the barracks had been burned in a prisoner revolt toward the end of the war. After the war, the Soviets demolished the barracks that were left to make the camp site into an anti-Fascist museum. A few significant buildings remained, such as the main entrance building, the crematorium, and forensic pathology lab where Nazi doctors conducted experiments on detainees to try to figure out a cure for typhus.
Walking along that barren hillside on the paths that detainees walked every day over 40 years earlier, I imagined what it must have been like to be a prisoner there. As I got colder and colder, the wind ripping through me, the snow stinging my face, I felt despair. A little piece of history came to life. I cried, but I hid it from my friends.
After our visit, I was understandably underwhelmed by the Goethe residence and museum.
The harshness of Buchenwald was too real. It is hard not to be disquieted by the stark contrast of the concentration camp on one hand and the writings of Goethe and Schiller and the music of Franz Liszt, all residents of Weimar, on the other. It was too complicated for my teenage mind to grasp.
The next day of our East German trip, we visited Dresden. Again, I was not prepared for what I felt.
After a lunch of pickle soup at an old estate on the way, we arrived in Dresden midday. It was overcast but not as off-putting as the weather in Weimar. The city of Dresden was once filled with grand buildings in a style similar to cities like Prague or Budapest or Berlin. It was a railway hub and manufacturing city as well.
At the end of World War II, in February 1945, the Allies bombed it two times with a mixture of explosive and incendiary ordnance. The city was blown up and burned to the ground. Our tour guide told us that upwards of 200,000 people had died. A 2010 study of the bombing estimates that between 20,000-30,000 people died. Either way, it is a massive number of people.
This is something I could not imagine. The city you live in burned to the ground in one night. The temperature reached 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit in that blaze.
We stopped at the ruins of the Frauenkirche downtown. There was a memorial to all those who died those two nights. The remnants of the church were left piled up behind it. There were no fences, so you could climb on the pile. Being stupid, we did. As I stood on top of the pile of thousands of tons of jagged stone and masonry, it dawned on me that under that stone were people who had been buried alive. I got down from there pretty quickly. This was not a joke. I was standing on a cemetery. Hallowed ground. Once again, the gravity of it hit me. I cried. I hid it from my friends.
I was a boy in a man's body. War was on my mind a lot in those years. In the summer of my 18th year, I submitted my Selective Service registration card. I knew that if there had been a war, I would have gone.
Everybody around me talked about how they would go to Canada or Mexico. I knew in my heart that I would not dodge it. I could not run away from something like that. I read many books about young men going to war. I was searching for some understanding. Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front stood out. That book haunted me.
I would pop U2s October or War into my Walkman and read. The music and the books made sense together. I secretly yearned for the adventure of war, and I was scared to death of it. I am guessing that many young men have similar and conflicted romantic thoughts.
The Unforgettable Fire is soul-searching, romantic music. It was my companion on this trip. It was the appropriate music for a young man setting off and exploring the world.
The ambiences are epic and often ominous. The guitars ring out with plenty of mystery and fanfare. Bono's soaring, anthemic voice sings words cryptic, earnest and full of urgency. I sensed he already knew something that I was just starting to come to terms with. I needed to know what he was saying. He was talking to me. I was ready for it.
I still search for music that feels that important. I rarely find it. It is a rare commodity and should be. But when I do find it, I respect that it is a life-changing and exceptional gift. I am thankful for it.