My current novel took a rest last September. It had reached the point where the action reached the concentration camp at Dachau. I felt it could not continue till I had been there myself. My imagination works a story and builds its characters, but I need my body to experience a place for itself. Placing my body somewhere lets me have its scale, for one thing. I know how many strides it takes from one place to another, the direction of wind and birdsong.
At Dachau, of course, that physical side of things is only one element. They have reconstituted the first row of bunkhouses so you can imagine your way into such confines, multiply the numbers inhabiting the spaces till you've packed in the crowds that were crammed there. You can look across the vast empty square and picture it filled by desperate mass drills and rollcalls.
The visceral experience of being there is different to all that though. I walked past the gate, entered the camp, and found myself sobbing.
It's as though a weeping hangs over the place, seeking an outlet. That won't belong in the book, of course. I sat till I could compose myself then went about my professional business, my novelist's research.
This continued outside of the camp, viewing from outside the grand villas that housed the SS elite (now behind barbed wire, as a rather grand home and training ground for Bavaria's riot police).
I walked a memorial route back into town, past the railway station where inmates were deposited for their final march. And then on to the town's museum, an intriguing and lovely place that considers the communities that belonged to Dachau's agricultural past. The concentration camp doesn't get a mention. It must take effort to live with such a neighbour, to be bordered by such bleak and savage expressions of human nature.
Clusters of Jewish groups visit the camp now, and troops of the young. It's good to see the young. We need to know the worst we can do. It establishes a choice.