Friday, February 27, 2015

The Sound of Terror

Somehow, I managed to grow up without ever having seen The Sound of Music. However, when I was in my early 20s, I visited Salzburg, Austria, the setting for the film about the von Trapp family in the Nazi era. All I knew about the film was that it was a musical starring Julie Andrews, whom I had liked in her earlier musical, Mary Poppins. I strolled through the Residenzplatz, a lovely Salzburg square where I discovered two things. The first was Mozartkugeln, the chocolate marzipan delicacy named after Salzburg’s most famous resident, composer Amadeus Mozart (Long after leaving Salzburg, I would continue to import Mozartkugeln to satisfy my addiction to it). The second thing I discovered in the square was a movie theater. As I had some time to kill, and the weather had turned inclement, I decided to spend the afternoon indoors, taking in a film. The marquee advertised it was now showing The Sound of Music. Ironically, I had traveled halfway across the world to see a movie everyone at home had already seen.

Still, I was looking forward to finally seeing it. I thought the film might be playing as a tourist attraction, so I was startled when the movie began and all the dialogue was in German, not English as I had anticipated. Perhaps the film was aimed at the local populace or maybe the theater management expected moviegoers to understand the language of the country they were in. As I did not comprehend German, I had to pay close attention to discern the plot. I was surprised to learn the movie not only took place in Salzburg, but that some scenes were filmed in the very square I had walked through before entering the theater.

As I gazed at the familiar setting on the big screen, it was as if I were looking out a large bay window into the square behind me. The Technicolor Residenzplatz on the screen looked identical to the one outside the theater door. At that moment, several Nazi storm troopers barged into the square, shouting their commands in German. My blood ran cold, as I heard the harsh, guttural German words – not understanding the meaning, yet certain of their intent – and watched the Nazis tear through the now familiar Residenzplatz. The Surround sound lived up to its name, as it seemed the Nazis had surrounded us. I heard them not from the screen itself, but from behind me. I saw the storm troopers follow the path I had taken to the theater, and for a brief moment, wondered if I were indeed looking at a celluloid window and if the Nazis of four decades past were waiting beyond the theater door.

It was a Twilight Zone moment – the intersection of fantasy and reality had been a bit too real for me. I had not merely watched the terror of the von Trapp family on the screen, but had shared it.

My experience in the movie theater was made more frightening because I had been alone, unarmed, in a foreign land. I was far from home and the safety of my own country, I knew no one there, and had no way to defend myself. I was at the mercy of strangers, and of a government that not only lacked the constitutional protections of my own, but had relatively recently oppressed and killed its own citizens. I felt threatened because it was not inconceivable that things that had happened before could happen again.

I felt more comfortable after crossing into Germany, because there, I was with a group of American tourists. The idea that there was safety in numbers instilled a false sense of security within me; the irony that Germany had been quite efficient in the wholesale slaughter of millions of human beings never occurred to me. Oddly enough, I felt secure in the company of other Americans who shared my values, spoke my language, and wore similar cameras strapped to their necks.

I wandered into a bookstore and soon became separated from my companions. I reentered the street, gazing about for any sign of them, but found none. I set out for my hotel, walking the streets of Berlin alone. Bright lights and marquees, trendy shops and discotheques lined the streets. It could have been any major city in the world – Paris, London, New York. But it was none of these. It was Berlin, and had I been walking these same streets forty years earlier, I would have been hauled away by the SS and banished to a death camp.

It was a surreal juxtaposition: the Berlin of Nazi Germany and the West Berlin I found myself in. How could the same place be so completely different within the span of a single lifetime? The old men I passed – had they fought in the war, or served as concentration camp guards? Did some of them still believe in The Thousand Year Reich and consider the rise and fall of Nazism to be merely a disappointment and not a mistake? I needed a drink.

The hotel bar was deserted that afternoon. I found a sympathetic ear in the young German bartender, who was about my age. He regretted what his country had done, but felt unfairly tarnished by it. “I’m not to blame,” he said. “I wasn't even born then. Why should my generation continue to suffer for the sins of our fathers?” It was a fair question, it seemed. Or perhaps the whisky had dulled my mind. Either way, I had no answer for him.

It was only much later that I realized the answer. Of course, there was nothing he could have done about events that took place before his birth. But there was a lot he could do to ensure history never repeats itself. While not to blame for the sins of their fathers, perhaps the horror and the magnitude of those sins bestowed upon succeeding generations an obligation to speak out whenever totalitarianism, fascism, or anti-Semitism rear their ugly heads, and to fight against those who would resurrect the demons of the past.

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