Posted on April 3, 2016
Those three words, seared into the mind, bring a pain I cannot define. I want to reach out and feel the cold iron letters, erasing their significance ~ “Arbeit Macht Frei”
The naïveté when I first read this motto ~ “Work sets you free” still burns. I stepped through the gate into my new home at Dachau, holding fast to this false promise of hope. Hope because hard work and quality were where I hung my hat.
I’ve since learned.
The cold today still gnaws at me within my bones, the chill a constant reminder of Dachau. I adjust my covers fully aware the feeling will never leave, so I lay quietly, shivering. One thought creeping around my mind like a serpent, a repeated whisper: “give up, give in.”
My mind drifts back to those first months. Every piece of my body ached, the world seemingly dissolved around me; work was not setting me free, it was killing me.
“You do what they say, nothing more and nothing less. Be invisible.” Shukhov, my bunkmate smiled to me as we gathered our mess tins for breakfast. “There is no life to be had here. The sooner you understand this, the better off you’ll be.”
It had been the worst months of my life and I was fading fast. Shukhov took me in and taught me to survive. “Giving up is inevitable, and in prison, it is an absolute necessity. If you remain stubborn, they will break you.”
Not wanting to hear those words, I ignore him but asked, “What do you mean, giving up is inevitable?”
“Everyone gives up at some point, be it in life or in prison. For young ones like yourself it is difficult to grasp, but as you get older, giving up gets easy.” Shukhov’s toothless grin was followed by a push toward the mess hall as he continued his speech:
“As you age, you realize what’s happening: life is, basically, like sinking in quicksand. It’s slow at first and takes you by surprise, but there’s a point at which you realize there’s nothing you can do. You’re going under. Once you realize you’re sinking in quicksand… the best thing you can do is try not to thrash around, instead prolong the experience, and make it as pleasant as possible. That’s what giving up is.”
– “On Giving Up” by The Casual Theorist
“Give up…give in.”
I began to ponder these words as I stumbled down a blurred hallway, my eyes quickly swollen shut from a slew of punches, a result of bumping into an SS guard. I fought with the idea of giving up before realizing: Dachau is the worst kind of quicksand, and fighting it would kill me.
“A piece of advice you best take to heart,” Müller, a warder and past friend from my neighborhood whispered to me. “Do not give anyone a reason to draw blood…you will need every drop if you expect to make it in here.”
His meaning echoed the words of Shukhov, “Give up…give in.”
I roll out of bed, put the coffee pot on and wonder aloud if people today share the attitude of “giving up” as written by The Casual Theorist, the rationale of short-term thinking to take an easy way out.
Are people unknowingly casting their freedoms away when they choose to slide by with as little effort as possible?
Around me, I see it everywhere. Eat crap. Watch crap. Drink crap. Talk crap. Gone are aspirations to seek a purer life. Instead, we quickly get older and life becomes more difficult. Giving up is a chronic habit. We’ve become too lazy to seek and pursue quality in life.
The whistle on my coffee pot goes off, snapping me out of thought and I slowly get up and shuffle my way to pour a cup. There is a certain art to making a great cup of coffee, art mastered over the years ~ the aroma, the steam, and the color moving together as it flows from the pot to my mug.
A sign of quality, and it takes me back to a time when I first discovered the importance of this word.
The darkness of solitary confinement had continued my free-fall. I wondered if I would make it through another day, and then as Müller clicked my peephole shut, it did not close. A blinding beacon of light sliced through the darkness.
Drawing myself up, I saw in the distance the simple beauty of broken rays of sunshine filtering down through a tree. With imagination, I saw tomorrow and my eyes filled with tears.
For the first time in Dachau, I saw a quality of life I had forgotten. Now giving up had meaning. It had a partner: quality.
The Statue of the Unknown Prisoner holds power, the resemblance to Shukhov is uncanny, the words just as wise.
Den toten zur ehr den lebenden zur mahnung ~ ‘An honor to those who died, a warning to those who live’
Dachau was filled with days upon days upon days of nothingness. Bitter cold, fear and constant hunger left just enough energy by lights-out to crawl back into bed and do it all over again tomorrow.
Such times were deafening and defeating, but there was an unknown consequence to such days as well. My mind became more in-tune to the smallest pieces of quality. Something simple and pure, and while it may have lasted only a few seconds, it felt like a victory.
This instinctive, private search for meaning was feed by an invisible curiosity. It kept me sane. The misery of cold and hunger blinded the spirit, but when quality arrived, it made the day almost happy.
Shukhov lit a small cigarette and spoke thoughtfully, “I’ve figured out we have roughly ten minutes in the morning another ten at night…the prisoner’s own time.” He looked out the window at the guards getting ready for roll call, and Shukhov added, “All remaining hours belong to the camp.”
Grabbing his bag, he kept talking. “A ridiculously short time, but it never surprises me the quality we can fit in.” He got up from the bench tapping my shoulder to hurry up, “a fine balance we keep. Prison life will not give you time to do anything but give up.”
I laugh at this thought. In such an environment, the modern mind couldn’t function, but then again the mind can be so strangely efficient when pushed to the brink.
Finishing my cup of coffee, I begin to prepare my oatmeal, more out of habit than hunger. I no longer feel hunger, just a rationalization to supply fuel for my body.
It leads me to wonder, “How could anyone ever understand the true meaning of hunger…?”
Meals. “Every day, my mind was sharply focused on each spoonful. Slowly chewing even if there was nothing to chew, just moving it around my mouth trying to trick my stomach into thinking it will be getting more than it actually would…” A story I often share when asked.
As for a story I never share: if you had offered me a choice between “my meal” or “freedom from Dachau” ~ I’d have chosen the meal. Every time. We all would have.
Hunger. Humility. Dachau demanded it.
The dullness of a day steals time until years feel like it is all just one long day. Prison life cannot help but defeat a mind, staring at the hours of nothing. I use to wonder if the mind could ever find its way back into reality.
I look around me today and I see the same. People mindlessly giving up, allowing the dullness of a day to stretch out into years.
Pulling my collar tight, I shiver with the oncoming cold.
Cold mornings always woke me early. The few extra minutes before reveille were precious. I never wasted a thought for a few more minutes of sleep, too obvious. Instead, I began my plan to make it through the day: the hope for a few more grains of oats at the bottom of the bowl, an honest cut of bread and if possible a drag on a cigarette before the workday began.
Never forgetting I belonged to Dachau whose only goal was to break me.
A cold breeze sweeps over my face – a breeze I know comes not from the cool winds outside my window but from a distant memory a lifetime ago.
In Dachau, the human trait of giving up served me well. I survived and I began to understand the balance between “accepting the inevitable and giving up” and its silent partner, “the inevitable curiosity of quality which leads to the pursuit of life.”
The balance is dynamic, evolving as we age. Every morning we reconciled within our minds ~ weighing two thoughts: which shall I focus on today?
Posted on February 27, 2015
A small sparrow was weaving her way down along the tree line, darting in-and-out of its branches before quickly changing directions and taking a steep dive over the riverside grasses. With a slight shift of her body she then swiftly rose again, up over the treetops.
The morning air lifting her higher and holding that crispness of winter that she found so refreshing. It was the same bite of cold that sent all her friends south, leaving her alone.
She chirped happily remembering how her loneliness was quickly replaced by the call of adventure. To explore the winter world and its forbidden culture.
The beginning of this quest happened during her migration south, when she became enchanted with the most graceful and serene bird she had ever seen, the red-crowned crane.
The mythical status of the crane was well-known in her world, a symbol of longevity and peace: the prince of all feathered creatures. Until now, their secret world was impenetrable, for as a lowly sparrow such a life was impossible to imagine…until fate intervened.
As was often the case, she was again late and had to wake up early, prior to daybreak, and fly to catch up with her host of sparrows heading south.
She darted around the landscape but could not avoid the feeling her life was about to change. She rounded a bend within eyeshot of her host when she became drawn to the frostbitten dew below; glittering as dawn’s rays were captured in frozen prisms along the river.
She saw this as an invitation of adventure; the chance to create a new path and without hesitation she slightly arched her left wing and veered from her patterned route and soared into a new world.
“They thought that it would be a disgrace to go forth as a group. Each entered the forest at a point that he himself had chosen, where it was darkest and there was no path. If there is a path it is someone else’s path and you are not on the adventure.” – Joseph Campbell
Amid the fog, an impressive red-crowned crane was enjoying his quiet morning. The frost and fog along with the thin shield of ice along the riverbank had made fishing for his breakfast much easier, so after eating his fill he had time to appreciate his surroundings.
He had wandered far from his friends, uncommon for red-crowned cranes of his stature but he did not care. His mind drifted off to a very strange sight, a simple sparrow balanced on a low-laying branch mesmerized by the frozen dew crystals dancing with the morning sun.
While normally a common sight in autumn, he knew a single sparrow perched along the side of the river in the dead of winter was a very, very rare thing.
With a grace he had only recently acquired with age, he danced along the water as if he was the Gene Kelly of the avian world, and called out to the sparrow, “Why, little sparrow, are you resting here along the riverbank as winter takes over the land?”
“You should be well on your way south, along with your friends…”
The sparrow looked up and smiled, “I was, but then I saw this river and the beauty of winter so alive this morning that I thought I would stop and join you.” She opened her throat as to sing a song, but an unexpected shiver interrupted this plan.
The crane looked at the determined sparrow, and said “when I saw you careening through the trees, along the grasses and then skimming over the river, you added rare elegance on a cold winter day…”
The sparrow tweeted happily and briefly the crane thought if birds could blush, this sparrow would look more like the fabled red robin, aglow in feigned embarrassment.
The crane looked into the proud eyes of the sparrow and saw the strength he long admired: a species of bird famous for the fact they would rather starve themselves to death than be bred in captivity.
The sparrow started singing, and the crane could not hide his admiration for the great spirit of this little bird.
As she took off for another quick flight, the red-crowned crane thought about her feathers. Like all sparrows, her feathers were simple and unadorned and fall flat in comparison to other birds, especially the red-crowned crane. Guiltily, he caught himself looking at his reflection in the river.
Humility, such an honest and great trait to have he thought to himself.
As the sparrow alighted on the crane’s back, the crane turned and shook his head slowly and added, “this winter weather has turned for the worse today and seeing as you are only in a light coat of feathers this is not a good thing…”
The sparrow, looked up and was a bit shocked at the increasing chill even with the sun coming up, and merely nodded and fluttered her wings.
A seed of despair entered her mind as she thought about her decision to break from her host, but it was quickly erased with the possibility of the day.
“What you say is true” shivered the sparrow, “I do not fully understand why I did not migrate, yet it does not matter as that moment has passed. Rather, it is our talk and experiencing this winter-wonderland I aspire to…” and quickly she took off in flight to warm herself before resting onto the crane once again.
“My days are filled with song, flight and freedom which makes every day an adventure.” The sparrow chirped and sang proudly, “and while true we are rather insignificant in the avian world, we are rewarded with a richness of life most can only dream.”
The crane smiled at this energy and sang too, although knowing his voice was no match for that of a sparrow.
A sharp chilling wind whistled down the river, and the two birds looked at each other. “What I will do this winter is what I always do. I will share with you my song, my spirit and make do with what life brings my way…” the sparrow gracefully stated.
The red-crowned crane whooped and pranced around, and for a moment the sparrow felt humiliated, scolding herself for even considering why such a regal bird would create even a little time for her.
She took a deep breath and set off into the cold wind to find whatever destiny lay ahead when the crane began to speak.
“To spend such time with a living creature such as yourself, someone with strength, vitality and perseverance seldom found in this world would be an honor for both myself and my friends.” mused the crane.
And as he spoke those words, he struck a pose as if he was courting the queen herself!
The sparrow laughed, and sang a song sweeter than any crane had heard before. In return, the crane broke out into a little jig, not caring how ridiculous he looked. This caused the sparrow to sing even more beautifully.
“There may be mythical stories about us as we keep to ourselves and our population is few compared to sparrows…” the crane spoke breathlessly, “but in the end we are all brothers and sisters.”
The song of the sparrow took on a different tone, and the melody changed as the beak of the sparrow started to chatter a bit more as the icy northern wind swooped in.
The crane laughed, not an unkind laugh, but an admirable one at the courage and spirit of this little sparrow. In front of her stood a brutal day of winter, a day that would certainly lead to her demise, yet she was still full of hope. Inspiring.
The little sparrow flitted around the crane and swept its right wing just over the water causing a ripple…before returning, shivering to his shoulder again; hope and honesty in her eyes.
“Little sparrow, come with me back to my home and you can bathe in our hot springs and dine on our fine grasses…”
Seeing a small sign of relief on her face, the crane added, “your song is angelic, enough to turn any bone-chilling winter into a warm cup of tea…and may I ask in return you teach us your songs of life so we may dance and sing ourselves throughout this winter and learn more of your wonderful world.”
Such words were music to the sparrow’s ears as the cold was quickly making both flight and song difficult. She smiled and tucked herself next to the crane and together they parted~ to make it through the cold of the winter and into the glow of spring.
*** This story was partially inspired by an old Burl Ives children’s song The Robin my twin sister Kim and I used to listen to over and over again when we were young (and for my Mom’s patience for letting us do so). Also it reflects the debate in China of choosing a national bird, with both the sparrow and red-crowned crane being the top choices.