Oh shit, I hope this isn’t the end. I don’t want to die in this little room in Munich. I was half-joking but held some serious fears as I lay burning up on the fourth floor bedroom of our boutique hotel room at number 10 Paul-Heyse Strasse.
It had been twelve hours since we arrived by rail to the Bavarian capital, Munchen Germany, the second European city of our somewhat hastily planned December tour. We had soaked up our last morning in Vienna, rushed a viewing of the majestic Danube and spent five hours in a shared carriage with intoxicated bratwurst-eating locals (clichés are real).
I had then made the error of grabbing a snack from the first food wagon at the Bahnhoef train station, soon after arriving in Munich. Being a vegetarian with Coeliac disease makes food acquisition a little tricky whilst travelling the Rhine region. I hadn’t eaten since earlier that morning so I went for an odd coloured cheese and olive salad purchased from a middle eastern basta. It had looked appealing at the time. It took but a few bites to realise its questionable origins. Still, we only had two days to explore this city, so I consumed the lot, suppressed the queasy tummy and put on a brave face. I need to do this, I said to myself. I was thoroughly determined to walk on the stone pavers, to breath the air and try to understand where and how the source of such virulent Nazi hatred had sprung almost a century before.
Identifying as a proud Ashkenazi Jew in 2019, I was wary, but deeply motivated to find meaning. I had already driven my family crazy, seeking out Jewish landmarks, memorials, and Stolperstein* all over Vienna. We quickly headed out to explore the city, departing the Art hotel and eastward for the four kilometre walk toward the old town and Marienplatz. First impression was grating; gothic and darker than I had envisaged. It felt very different to Vienna; it was more than the food, I was feeling off, but decided I must soldier on. We made it to the very crowded, old town grand Christmas market.
It was somewhere between the Gargantuan cathedral and the hot cider barns that it struck. I felt hot, then cold, clammy, confused, maybe even a little scared. As century-old gargoyles bared down on me, my head started to spin and I was filled for the first time with a genuine sense of panic. What was happening? Was I having a physiological reaction to this place? At that stage I didn’t know that I had some kind case of listeria or worse yet, salmonella. I needed air. I needed to flee but the kids wanted to keep moving. There were people literally everywhere. So, I made my way to a massive pylon and crouched down to wait. My family hunted me down and I pleaded with them to leave.
For some reason Google maps decided to give up on us too and we walked in circles for what felt like hours, stumbling upon what seemed to be the sole memorial to the decimated Jewish community in that part of town. At this point, someone managed to flag down a taxi and I dragged myself into the car. I collapsed into bed, a soaring body temperature, muscles aches, lethargy, nausea, and thumping headache. The symptoms were getting worse as the minutes passed. My hubby sat by my bedside and tried to cool me down. Outside it was maybe three degrees but I forced him to open the hotel windows and let in the crisp air. Anything to relieve the stifling heat and the aches.
There is little joy in becoming ill whilst away from home, worse still when you already have an underlying health condition and in this case even more acute, here in this place, as a child of post war immigrants with too much knowledge, Holocaust education and a rather vivid imagination.
I was experienced with sickness but this was something else. It was violent and intense. I felt a deep sense of pain, like I had been in this spot before. I was probably starting to hallucinate. I couldn’t even fathom how I would make it to the planned visit to Dachau the following day. I wasn’t sure I would make it out of the hotel.
As it happened, I did make it out. I struggled to my feet and took our curious teenagers to the site of the Nazi’s first concentration camp, built in 1933 as soon as Adolf Hitler came to power. It was eerie and difficult and took a great but necessary effort. I spent the next twenty hours, semi-comatose and prayed that I would be fit to make it to the bus that was booked to take us out of Germany through the Alps, the next morning.
I did recover from whatever struck me down in Germany, though the after effects persisted for some weeks. I am not entirely convinced that it was just a bug. Since returning home, I have been plagued by this feeling there are still unresolved pieces in Munich. The march of Covid also opened up time and space to go deeper. Step one: a compulsion to understand more, to learn the language of that place. And so I have commenced learning German (and some Yiddish too). It feels easy, somehow strangely natural to my tongue. Step two: I went back to my family history and as I dug and dug, it was revealed that indeed, on my maternal father’s side, there was family that hailed from Munich. Is it possible that they were calling to me that day? I promise to return, once I can do so…stay tuned.
* A Stolperstein (German pronunciation: [ˈʃtɔlpɐˌʃtaɪn]; plural Stolpersteine; literally “stumbling stone”, metaphorically a “stumbling block”) is a sett-size, 10 centimetres (3.9 in) concrete cube bearing a brass plate inscribed with the name and life dates of victims of Nazi extermination or persecution.