With a few hours to kill before the overnight ferry to Bergen, Norway, my boyfriend Joe and I explored a short curve on Denmark's coastline. It was spring but freezing, and the salty wind off the North Sea was bitter on our exposed faces. Just north of Hanstholm, we came across an abandoned bunker pressed against the tree line. It was shocking, this relic of war squatting on the ocean-side like a fugitive from another decade. There was nobody around, and I got that feeling of dread deep in my stomach, like I was doing something wrong, or like Hitler himself might walk out of the dark entrance, dressed in uniform with the red swastika band on his bicep. We had just been through Nuremburg and Buchenwald a few days earlier. In Germany, I had looked in the eyes of people who were kind to me and wondered if they'd had Nazi parents.
We had driven some Australian guys from the hostel to the Nuremburg rally grounds, and as I read the graffiti and looked out at the barren gray stone, one of them walked to the concrete lectern and threw one arm out wide in the Nazi gesture we all recognized from old news reels. Even as I watched him, struck by my shock and anger, I saw dandelions growing through the heavy gray bleachers, nature beginning to reclaim the stadium.
For me, being an American Jew has always meant occasional conversations about avoiding Germany or not buying German products. Typically, in my family, these conversations were begun and carried out by foreign in-laws or people my grandparents' age. We'd sit on a plush couch, CNN on in the background, and someone would say something about Lebanon, and someone else would compare Arab extremists to Germans, and someone else would mutter, "fucking Nazis." As a child, I was mystified and fascinated by the Holocaust. Now, as a young adult in Germany, I found myself sadder for the Germans than for a history that didn't directly affect my life in any significant way. In most of the other countries Joe and I visited, being a tourist in museums and churches and castle districts meant that by the time I left a country, I had a sense of its long history, of what had changed over its centuries of existence. But in Germany, it was only the last century that got trotted out again and again like an apology that could never be sufficient.
Nuremburg is also a city founded before the turn of the eleventh century, with thick walls surrounding its center to keep out invaders. It had the first red light district I'd seen in Europe. It had been home to Albrecht Dürer: artist, mathematician, Renaissance man. To me, the rally grounds looked like a guilty conscience on display, and I wanted to go further back in time.
The Nazis believed in the credo they forced their prisoners to walk through at the labor and death camps: arbeit macht frei. "Work makes you free." I always felt ashamed when I read that phrase and thought that in some way, it made sense. Obviously, the Germans were speaking literally, while my interpretation, even at a young age, was metaphorical. Still, it resonates: when I did stand in the rally grounds, the crematorium at Buchenwald, the entrance to the Nazi bunker in Denmark, I was looking into horror without blinking. And after those experiences, when I made friends with Germans and learned that there was more to the country than Hitler, I felt better about an oppression that I was taught to feel but never did. I felt free from the shackles that my family members had unwittingly chained to me. Work, the work of judging how much to cry, or when to turn away, when to leave the crematorium, allowed me to feel that my love for Berlin was acceptable, and it was okay to like German food. I'd fulfilled some rite of passage that allowed me to see beyond the atrocity the country kept laying at my feet.
The bunker was like this: a giant circle laid into the earth, above which, at ground level, there would have been a giant gun facing Norway. I felt too uneasy to go inside. If there weren't Nazis or skeletons, surely there were rats. Joe went in, described the route around the circle, the antechambers off the main hallways. It was wet inside, and dark, chips of the foundation along the floor and unreadable graffiti on the walls. The gun pit, the only part of the bunker I could see from outside, was twenty-five meters wide and five meters deep. I imagined falling down into it, sixteen and a half feet. Joe came into the pit from inside at one point, and I was sitting on the edge, dangling my legs into it. He grinned up at me, said I should join him, disappeared through a different doorway.
Our time at the bunker was an in-between moment, a moment of waiting—for the ferry, for the experience of a new country and its region, for the Iraq War, which had begun several days earlier, to really get underway. I wanted to feel the richness of place the way I had in Romania, in Greece. I wanted the food to taste like its country, the sights to feel impossibly fitting. The bunker was none of these—it was corroded concrete and a second or third look at what we'd already forced ourselves through in Germany.
I had felt compelled to visit the rally grounds, the concentration camp, the Nazi casemates back in Brno. But I didn't feel compelled to go into this dank bunker, and I didn't feel like I was doing wrong by my people to sit with my legs dangling into the gun pit. If anything, the bunker represented a bit of closure for me in the story and history of suffering: I was willing to be present enough times and in enough places that I felt entitled to opt out of this one.
We drove our car to the meeting spot when we arrived in Bergen, and Erik, Joe's distant uncle, stood with four other people, holding a sign that said FOSS, his and Joe's shared surname. We got out of the car and Joe shook hands with Erik, who introduced us to the others—a few of his cousins and their families. There was a little girl, white-blonde and wide-eyed, who turned to her mother and said something Joe and I didn't understand. The others all guffawed until Erik caught his breath enough to translate: "She says that she can't believe how beautiful Americans are."
The girl's mother turned to us, still smiling. "She wasn't sure what to expect."
Tension, during travel, is like the first days of living in a new place over and over. We cycled between comfort and discomfort regularly, sometimes feeling immediately at home, sometimes being turned around time and again. This rise and fall, in the first months, was adrenaline-filled, enjoyable, part of the reason we set off in the first place. By mid-March, four months in and with no ticket home, I began to tire of this routine. I wanted stability, time in one place, a comfortable bed for a long stretch of time. I didn't know it when I thought about all this on the ferry, or when I laughed along with the Norwegians in our first moments together, but Erik offered us exactly what I was in need of: our own apartment and a willingness to play tour guide.
And this is the other thing I learned about travel: whatever I needed the most would be provided at the appropriate moment. When I needed to stop visiting churches, there was a place to snowboard. When I needed to leave Nazi history behind, we were about to board a ship for Norway. When I felt tired of museums, I happened to be in Amsterdam. Even better than the hearty breakfasts and space to ourselves, Erik happily toted us around the city. He knew what we'd want to do, where we'd want to go, and he took us there, taught us the city's history, the famous people who'd lived there. His English was impeccable. We hadn't been so well taken care of since we'd first arrived in Europe, and our friend Susana carted us around the Costa del Sol for a week. Letting someone else take the reins was a pleasure, and we gave Erik total control.
On our third day in Bergen, Erik directed us out of town to visit the ancestral farm of the Foss family. The word voss is Norwegian for "waterfall," and there exists, near a fjord north of Bergen, the "Foss voss." It is on the property of a dairy farmer, back behind the barn. The farmer brought us into his kitchen, fed us lefse and herbal tea. I forget all of the history they told us, but I remember the wood paneling of the home, the farmer's weathered face, the gentle way he handled the cows when he showed us the barn. I stood with one of the cows, looking into her eye and breathing in the manure smell. Outside, a light rain fell, making the greens of the new plant life more vivid. Leaving the barn felt a little bit like waking up in Oz in the early spring, plants were growing explosively.
Unlike Joe's, my family hasn't chronicled backward very far. It's impossible, since my great-grandparents were persecuted out of Russia. And what would there be to keep track of? A shtetl burned? A memory of violence? This difference in our experience only a few generations removed made me feel very distant from Joe. I thought about his ancestors, working this farm, raising the predecessor to that cow in the barn, making families that would be safe, cradled in the curve of northern Europe.
What would have happened to my ancestors if they'd stayed in Russia and Eastern Europe? I felt my Jewishness in that moment, and the sadness equated to never knowing the towns of my ancestors, the certainty of their deaths had they stayed, the few possessions they passed down. I also felt the power that comes from being white, Christian, European. I imagined Joe as a Viking, rowing toward a future, letting nothing stand in his way, and believing that it was his right.
Being at this waterfall, in this moment, with this man, was jarring to me in a way that the bunker, the concentration camp, and the rally grounds weren't. In those places, I felt like the world was taking responsibility and pushing education, choosing a collective consciousness that was morally necessary. But in this moment, we were looking at a single personal history, and the knowledge that my own version of that was intentionally obscured felt devastating, even as I smiled up at the Foss voss.
I wanted to be able to go to Russia, to see the shtetl, to imagine a hovel filled with children and fear, because that was true. I wanted to know the relatives I would never know, the great-uncle or cousin or whatever Erik was of my own life, the person who would take me around and say, "This is where we hid when the pogroms were happening, and over there, that is where we buried the children."
–Erica Sklar (from The Summerset Review)