The words of great meaning, uttered by my father, were “hey, we can get some pizza over there.” The words were accompanied by him taking his right hand away from the stick shift and pointing vaguely forward and to the left through the raindrops collecting on the windshield. Raising my eyes, I peered between the two front seats, and could see the red neon sign with an electronic marquis below it. The word “pizza” vaguely registered and I heard my sister’s voice respond to him with an almost-muted “sure”.
Rendering these words electronically in this written piece, my mind attempts to imagine itself from your perspective as the reader. I would be wondering, almost reflexively, how noticing a pizza place on a rainy evening could contain enough meaning for any sort of writing assignment.
I felt the car slowing down along with the sounds of downshifting as the black Peugeot easily made its way across the oncoming lane into the parking area just beyond the restaurant with the pulsating red sign. The click of my sister’s seatbelt coming undone was like an audible tap on my shoulder for me to get moving. Sweeping the blanket borrowed from the hotel in Vienna off of my legs, we were soon beating an almost brisk path to the entrance, which was on the side of the building, nearly around back.
The story of my sister taking time off from college to become an au pair in Austria and how she encountered some difficulties in the position is an interesting one. This and how I was suddenly missing a week of school to fly with my father to Europe to go see her could fill an essay in and of itself.
The pizza remark occurred during this week and becomes significant only when considering the six preceding hours.
The three of us were part of a group of strangers thrown together by virtue of the English language. Our guide had competently been explaining the historical significance of many of the mostly red brick buildings on site. Some we passed, some we entered, and like at many historical places, the mind tries to imagine what it would be like to have been there long ago. I noticed the beauty of a lone, tall tree and realizing that it could be quite old, thought about people passing it when it was perhaps only twenty feet high. Would they have noticed it? Would it have made them smile or perhaps been a catalyst for a reflective and peaceful moment? Our guide was a thin, good-looking man in his early thirties and we would come to find out at the end of the tour that his mother had been a tour guide here for over 30 years, and that his great grandfather had also worked there.
I shifted my focus from the tree back to the tour as our guide now motioned for the group to move through the door into the building. Not a typical-looking structure, it seemed built into the side of a hill and actually had grass growing on two of the sides and top. As we filed towards the very substantial-looking doorway, I pictured for the briefest of moments, sod houses from 19th century American history, and then I looked at my father’s eyes, which were rapidly tearing up. Suddenly, any musings about trees, beauty, or sod houses were long-gone. The entire group was now inside. The thick concrete walls completely lined the room, which appeared to be maybe twenty by thirty feet in size. The guide’s words then dared my gaze to move towards the ceiling.
“And the Zyklon B was then dropped through those small openings you see above your heads.”
No one had noticed the beauty of that twenty foot tree. Although sod houses may have been part of what some of them had learned about American history in school, no images of Nebraska crossed these people’s minds. Just before we filed in, the guide had explained that where we were standing was where the mostly old people and children were forced to strip naked. The tree went unnoticed but bore terrible witness. There was no ruse of a locker room leading to fake showers. This gas chamber was a bunker that had been hastily converted to a slaughterhouse. Inside the room, my mind forced itself to visualize what had transpired exactly where I now stood. In an instant I visualized the crying children clinging to their shrieking mothers and broken grandparents. I could see in my father’s eyes that he was similarly transported and his face reflected a simultaneous rage and sadness that I had never seen before. It hurt too much to sustain those thoughts very long. It was almost like a mental version of putting your hand into a flame. You may want to do it for some reason, but your mind senses the damage being done and forces you to recoil.
We waited a long time for the waitress to take our order. It seemed odd as there was just a mother with her young daughter at one table and an old man at another. The mother and daughter looked like they were celebrating something and the old man was quiet. My mind flashed to the gas chamber again, now with the pizza place patrons, along with my loved ones, trapped within. It was a relief when the food arrived to our table and I could be distracted by pleasurable sensations of taste and smell.
We paid the check and left the restaurant. Comfortably ensconced once again under the hotel blanket, the Peugeot rental made its way back on the road which would take us to Vienna and points homeward. The words then came audibly clear in my mind.
The light in which I view “humanity” has dimmed. I am grateful to know this truth, yet with this truth comes a profound disappointment in my very species. I am somewhat placated by the notion that since we are being educated about history, that we may not be condemned to repeat it. The words “never again” from social studies classes past come to mind, yet I know that such atrocities happened before the twenty foot tree and have also occurred since. I rack my brain for some big picture view with a happy ending but it eludes me at the moment. As my father guided the rental south toward the Czech Republic, I took my hand out of that flame and curled up under the blanket to ponder, with new appreciation, the simple pleasures of pizza, family, and home.
© Copyright 2016 Rick Shaw. All rights reserved.
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