Lately, I wake in the middle of the night unable to go back to sleep. My insomnia is induced by my memories of a weekend in Weimar Germany, 26 years ago. That weekend was a transformational moment in my life, as it inspired me to interview other Germans in the following three years. My inquires began with an elderly retired school teacher named Kriemhild.
According to German mythology, in the story The Nibelungenlied, Kriemhild was a woman who had premonitions in dreams. In 1991 I was fortunate to meet a real life Kriemhild, Kriemhild Pachal.
The Weimar Republic, created at the end of World War One, lasted until the Nazi takeover in 1933. At that time, Kriemhild Pachal was forced to move to Weimar. Kriemhild, a school teacher, kept her opposition to the Nazis hidden, as did most Germans who opposed Hitler. She witnessed first hand, the death marches to and from Buchenwald Concentration Camp nearby. Carefully peeking through the cracks between her window curtains, Kriemhild saw the emaciated bodies of prisoners literally dropping dead on the street in front of her apartment building. When American troops liberated the camp in April, 1945, Kriemhild was in the streets welcoming the American soldiers. Then she quietly endured 40 years of Soviet rule until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
In 1991, Kriemhild’s granddaughter, Elke, brought two California friends, Rob and Bob, to Weimar to meet her grandmother. Kriemhild was excited, as it would be her first interaction with Americans since the liberation of the Camp 46 years before.
Just as the mythological Kriemhild had a premonition, so too did Kriemhild Pachal, and she also had a plan. She laid out her lesson plan for the two Americans as if she were back in the classroom.
Kriemhild took her responsibility as a teacher seriously. She wanted to send her students out into the world prepared for struggles they could never imagine on their own. She brought a maternal caring aspect to her lessons, like a mother who wanted to protect her children from the hardships she herself had endured.
Kriemhild cleared the breakfast dishes from the small round table in her dining area, then piled it with photo albums and other props. Kriemhild, who spoke Russian, French and German, sat between Rob and me at the small round table. Rob, a Georgetown University linguistics major spoke English, Spanish and Portuguese, with some understanding of French and German. I sat on Kriemhild’s left, a typical American with my native English and a very rudimentary understanding of German.
Kriemhild never saw the language barriers as a problem. She was a master at her craft, never hesitating to forge ahead. Like a skillful actress in an impromptu skit, she juggled words and pantomime so successfully, we understood everything she said. I can still hear her soft voice as she leaned over the table pointing back and forth between two photos of her daughter, one as a child and another as an adult. “Liselotte, Liselotte,” she would repeat the name each time her finger moved from one picture to another. Then she would smile and go on with her narration once we nodded that we understood. Then to continue the theme, she would repeat “Goethe, Schiller, Hitler, Die Deutschen!” She repeated it several times with different hand motions until we understood. Whatever the Germans do, they do it well, whether it is for good or bad!
After hours of Kriemhild’s presentation, it became clear to me what motivated her. When she mentioned fascism in America, I was immediately reminded of another moment in my hometown four years before. My cousin Carolyn was visiting her mother in my hometown, Danville, Illinois. Carolyn was accompanied by her former German landlady, Rosie Rauscher from Amberg, Germany, east of Nuremberg. We discussed Ronald Reagan’s successful effort to dismantle the Fairness Doctrine. There was a lively discussion at the time about how the fairness doctrine had been an effective tool against the kind of unchecked propaganda Hitler had used in his rise to power. In the midst of this conversation I was taken aback by Rosie’s very firm assertion that fascism would in fact come to America! “In Germany we say ‘never again’ and this is true for Germany. Now it begins in America. Slowly you will lose the truth. Then a madman will come to tell everyone: ‘I will save you!’ This will be a lie, but many people will believe it is the truth. Fascism will happen again, but not in Germany! It will happen in America.” Rosie said. This came in the midst of five years of struggle as my friends died all around me of AIDS, while Reagan turned his back on us. I was no fan of Reagan, so I found no reason to dispute Rosie’s point of view.
Kriemhild continued her lessons by illustrating what it was like to live in constant fear under an authoritarian regime. She told of the Gestapo forcibly removing neighbors from their apartments, never to be seen again. She walked to the window, carefully pulling back the drapes, explaining that she could have been shot for watching the death march as people dropped dead in the street below, on their way to and from Buchenwald Concentration Camp. She told us everyone could be a spy and no one could be trusted any longer. She told us there was no longer such a thing as truth, that only what Der Führer said was true.
The next morning Kriemhild insisted Elke take us to Buchenwald. It was a sobering end to the lessons of the day before. In the absence of any real administration, because the Soviets had relinquished control and West Germany had yet to gain full control, I was able to act upon an impulse. I climbed onto a mass grave, laid upon my back in the soft green grass and closed my eyes. In that moment, the victims spoke to me. It was not a dream. They came into my heart and twisted it in ways I never imagined possible. They made me understand that no one can know what they would do until faced with the harsh reality of unbearable pain, fear and evil. They made me understand that in times of great darkness of that magnitude, no one is innocent!
Today I am haunted by the words of Kriemhild Pachal and all of the other German women I interviewed in the three years after. One after the other, they all spoke of the line that was crossed, where reality and truth were the construct of an authoritarian ruler instead of personal experience. They all spoke of the process where many of their family and friends became strangers married to an ideology instead of reality. They told of how the alternative reality was so pervasive they could even deny the stench of burning flesh from the crematoriums. They spoke of how they were unable to walk down the streets without fear of being stopped for identity papers, then the fear of becoming one of the disappeared ones. They told of their own personal transformations, going from believing things were so bad they had to get better, from thinking “it could never happen here,” to the realization that they were powerless because all the institutions they had relied on to protect them were now in the hands of pure evil! I hear them all crying the same regrets. “If only we had stopped it before it was too late!”
In day 45 of a new president, whose every word and action scream “Fascism”, I awaken each morning with the same question on my mind. “Is it too late, or do we still have a chance?”