In late December, I was asleep in the car on a road trip from western Germany to Vienna, while my friend drove through the snow.
I was in and out of a jet-lagged haze, and I finally opened my eyes near the Austrian border. The first thing I saw was a road sign for Pocking, announcing the exit. I blinked, and leaned forward. Yes, that definitely said Pocking. My breath extinguished.
Pocking was the site of the Nazi concentration camp where my grandfather had been imprisoned when he was liberated by Allied Forces in 1945. It was a name I’d known all my life, but it never crossed my mind that it would be on route, that it was a place one could simply pass by. I quickly told my friend we had to pull off.
My grandfather was 18 when the war broke out, and just shy of 22 at liberation. He didn’t talk about it much; it was too horrible. Even when he told me the “good” stories about someone’s kindness saving his life, he’d have night terrors for weeks. I learned not to ask about it.
But, I do know a few things. Before Pocking, he’d survived two years in the Minsk ghetto, a brush with the Treblinka death camp, a selection at a camp in Poland where he was branded with a KL tattoo on his wrist (German for “concentration camp”), and three other forced labor concentration camps.
Then, in the spring of 1945, he was transported by the Nazi machine to the concentration camp at Pocking, a small satellite camp of the Flossenberg concentration camp system, which was known for its exceptional brutality.
At Pocking, Jews were treated as a disposable labor pool, and worked to death. The camp doctor was mentally ill and had been given a choice between being the camp’s doctor or being committed to an insane asylum. He performed unnecessary operations on prisoners without anesthesia and deliberately spread typhus through the camp. My grandfather was young and still able enough to work in the Nazi factory.
Away from the camp, he was absent for some of the Actions (exterminations), which saved him. At least 1,700 people were killed at Pocking, and when the Allies liberated the town, they had to step over the bodies of Jews that the Nazis left behind when they fled the approaching Allies.
There were 190 survivors in the camp when the Allies got there. They were starving, sick with typhus, and so weak that only nine could stand on their own strength.
The story my grandfather told me — one of the precious few — was that when he woke up on May 3, 1945, the camp was eerily quiet, and the Nazi guards weren’t there. Some of the inmates broke into the kitchen in search of food, where many died of refeeding syndrome.
My grandfather took only a bunch of grapes, and walked to the entrance gate of the camp, which they were still locked inside. From this part of his story, I know that he was one of the nine who could still stand. At the gate, he encountered American soldiers.
The soldiers were so horrified by what they found at Pocking that they gave my grandfather and the other survivors everything they had. One gave him a piece of chocolate. Another gave him preserves. One even gave his own boots.
I held my breath as we pulled off the Autobahn and drove through a narrow, snowy country road toward the camp. We were in the middle of nowhere. I could see a few houses across a field of snow.
Nothing from the camp remains. The gate where he met the American soldiers who saved him doesn’t exist anymore. The wooden barracks where they slept, froze, starved, and died are gone. I saw a factory nearby.
Then, I stood in front of the memorial to what had happened there, a simple obelisk in a tree lined enclosure off a nothing country road, covered in fresh snow, my mind reverberating with these stomach clenching facts I knew by heart and my skin stinging from cold. I was disturbed by the cold, and thought of the thin striped pajamas he’d have worn. I wanted to leave.
The thing that got me the most was a plaque honoring the 65th Infantry Division, US Third Army. It was an African American unit; the US armed forces were still segregated then. They saved him.
As I reflect on my visit to Pocking, I wonder how my grandfather would have felt that I visited it, if he’d rather I hadn’t seen the place where he suffered. But it was also the place where he was saved. Saved is different. Saved is good.