Murmurs of a Past Laden With Sorrow

How Much Is It Possible to Forgive The Unforgettable?

WE planned to get a good seat on the upper deck. But somehow the line underwent a mysterious transmutation as the bus arrived, and we found ourselves near the tail instead of the head of it. But a woman sitting inside the coach - neat and bright, short-haired and short-skirted like a teenager - pointed to the two empty seats facing her and mimed, ``Want me to hold them for you?'' through the window. Thus it came about that we went on the day tour from M"unchen to Mad Ludwig's Bavarian castles, facing backward. The curiosity of back-to-front seats on a tour bus is not something the logical part of the psyche can too easily accommodate. It's true there was a table between us and our considerate teenager (who, it turned out, was from the Southern United States and had successfully reared two children to college age) and her husband, who now showed up, so perhaps the bus designer's idea was a four-hander at ``Monopoly'' to stave off the boredom of sightseeing.

We were in a position to sightsee our neighbors quite as much as the coppers and dark greens of the beech-and-pine hillsides, the gray mountains and the various notable landmarks efficiently pointed out by our tour guide, a redoubtable German lady of uncertain age.

In fact, we probably did (with minor contortions) see as much as everyone else, but several minutes after they did. Also, every time our guide said, ``Now, please, would look to your left...,'' we automatically looked to our left which happened to be everyone else's right. This caused our new acquaintances opposite an undue amount of mirth, so we continued to do it just to keep them happy.

Actually, they didn't need to be kept happy that much: They seemed to have the knack of it already. Perhaps they were in love. They seemed to think so. Indeed, it must be admitted that it was for merriment and mirth that our group was becoming notorious as the day developed.

Our tour guide was highly informative, humorous, and extremely articulate in English. Tour guides are a breed apart. They need to be a combination of Boy Scout, university lecturer, multilinguist, nanny, and stand-up comic. Hildegard, I'll call her, juggled all these facets adeptly, and she added to them a touch of dictator.

Of course tourists are impossible, unruly, and quite often late, so a degree of dictatorship is understandable. The bus was rolling past the Justice Building when it drew to a sudden halt. Our guide announced, ``Well, now, yes, we are having to stop because a girl from Japan is late.'' A Japanese young lady rushed, embarrassed and breathless, on board, smiling and bowing. Hildegard informed us: ``Well, yes, now, here she is, our lady from Japan, and now we can be on our way.''

Later, Hildegard lost the Japanese girl again. Eventually Hildegard discovered that she had joined a Japanese man upstairs on the bus. Hildegard gave her a Bavarian talking-to.

The day wore on cheerfully. Ludwig's translation of Wagnerian fantasy into architectural conceit was duly admired - its incredibly dramatic setting most of all. And then, at last, we were back on the bus heading back for Munich, some of us looking forward, others backward. I thought perhaps I could now spend a little time finding out whodunit in my Ruth Rendell mystery.

``You can't read,'' said my wife, ``you've paid all that to look at the scenery!'' Our opposite seatmates, Suzanne and Don I'll call them, giggling as ever, giggled some more. They were an engaging pair. You couldn't help liking them.

The guide announced: ``Well, now, perhaps you have some questions you would like to ask me. I will come 'round the bus.''

I asked her an agricultural question. Her reply impressed me. She knew what she was talking about, saw several points of view, then summed it all up neatly: a little dissertation on Bavarian farming.

Then Don asked her about visiting Dachau.

Our guide's expression altered. Perhaps she had not altogether expected the question from such cheerful people. It turned out it was part of her job to conduct, once a month, tours to the Concentration Camp Memorial at Dachau - although it is easily accessible by S-Bahn from Munich center. Taking people to see Dachau was the most difficult part of her work, she said. Why would these two laughing people want to go there on vacation?

``Well, you know...,'' she started to say to them, ``well - you know, I am a forward-looking person. I think that something that happened 45 years ago....''

I said: ``I don't want to go there. I feel I know enough.'' I thought of hasty, shameful photographs of ghastly starved bodies, of dumped bodies, of Jews herded, Jews badged. I thought of Polish artist Josef Hermann telling me, ``I lost my whole family in a day.'' You have a family. You have no family. And he had added (this was in London) ``It could happen here, it could happen again anywhere.''

``Yes, yes,'' the guide went on, talking to Don, ``surely we do know enough. But then, I find that some Jewish people feel they must go to see it. It is so much part of their history. Are you Jewish?''

``Yes,'' said Don.

``Maybe, then, you should go. But...'' (she spoke her mind, this one) ``Jewish people never forgive and forget, do they?''

Don was suddenly outraged. ``Forgive? What happened there will never be right. We can forgive, sure, but we can never forget. Never.''

``But of course. That is why we keep the memorial there. To remember what was done. But, I mean,'' said the guide, ``do I hold it against you now, as an American, for the bombing of Munich? I was a child then. You know, it's the same now for the Palestinians in Israel....'' Tact was not her strong point: She poured oil on flames.

``But that is war!'' exclaimed Don. ``War is different. These things happen in war. We are defending ourselves against the Palestinians. They attacked us ... but Dachau ....''

``Of course,'' said the guide, quietly ``of course, you perhaps should go there.'' And if Suzanne and Don had been undecided before, they were, after this exchange, firmly determined to see Dachau.

But I wondered. About proportion and scale. About national identity. About forgiving. About innocence. About a German tour guide who has difficulty with recalcitrant tourists and tickets and yet had been there, in Munich, a child under the bombing.

We know about Dachau. It will never be right.

But - do we know also what that child - those many German children - went through as the bombs came? Loss of parents? Friends? Home? We do not know. But, surely, she didn't deserve what happened. She personally was not destined to carry through life guilt for the unspeakable Nazi inhumanity of which she, a German child, was entirely innocent. Or, for that matter, to bear the anguish of not being able to forgive what may - in the form of relentless Allied bombers, utterly and without mercy - have smashed her own child-time world. But she has learned to look forward.

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