A couple of years ago, my husband and I visited Berlin. He’s a serious student of World War history; I’m fascinated by the war, too—maybe, in the beginning, for the simple reason that my mom was an English war bride and if there’d been no WWII I’d never have been born. Before we left, we read a wonderful series of thrillers by John Russell set in Berlin during the war years, which was fun because part of what we did while we were there was explore the stories’ geography, imagining the characters in the places we saw. Reporters hanging out in the Adler Hotel just beyond the Brandenburg Gate, spies meeting in the cafe at Zoo Station ,Nazi soldiers on guard at the Stadtschloss.
I love to visit the places I’ve read about in books that moved me deeply and shaped the way I see the world. Standing where real people or fictional people stood, seeing what they saw, understanding the boundaries of their existence in a visceral way enriches my imagination, and a deeper, more sympathetic understanding of what it means to be human settles into me.
I remember the preserved set of barracks at Auschwitz that showed the evolution from what looked like rustic (if crowded) cabins, one prisoner to a bunk and space for a table and chairs, to nothing but wall-to-wall shelves where prisoners slept head to toe. I remember standing in the space between the barracks and the administrative building, where prisoners were forced to stand, sometimes for hours, freezing in the winter, broiling in the summer, waiting to be counted or punished. I remember entering the gas chamber, never used, but—still. And the moment I looked at the opening of the oven where bodies were burned, realizing that bodies would have had to be handed it through it one by one—by a person, probably a Jew. Somehow I had thought it was less personal than that.
It’s the seemingly small things, like that oven door, that can create what feels like a cataclysmic shift in your understanding of history. Wandering through the German Historical Museum in Berlin, I came upon an exhibit of toys from the WWII era, among them a dollhouse-sized kitchen, its table set with tiny plates and beer steins, tiny bread and salami for the meal, a tiny red candle set into a tiny silver candlestick. There’s a white bowl of fruit on a sideboard, a cuckoo clock on the wall; flowered curtains trimmed with lace cover the windows. There’s a sink, a stove, a tiny vacuum cleaner.
The walls are papered with tiny images of Hitler Youth. Lined up, saluting; marching in pairs, bearing the Nazi flag; sitting around a campfire; hand-in-hand in a circle, playing some kind of game; at work, pushing a wheelbarrow, carrying sheaves of wheat. Between the two windows: a miniature photograph of Hitler in a silver frame; some kind of medallion with a swastika at its base.
I couldn’t stop looking at it, thinking—
Someone had the idea to manufacture this dollhouse.
Someone designed and manufactured this wallpaper for it.
Someone shrunk and framed the photograph of Hitler to dollhouse scale.
Someone made the mold for the medallion that hung on the wall.
Someone bought it for his daughter.
I imagined a blond, blue-eyed girl playing with it on the floor of her bedroom, the perfect Aryan
doll family that surely came with it. Moving the mother, blond and blue-eyed like herself, to set
the meal on the table; calling in her pretend-voice, “Vater, kommen Sie. Es ist Zeit zu essen.“
Picking up the father doll with her little fingers, arranging him in one of the chairs. Then
“Kinder, du kommst auch,“ because there would certainly be a little blond boy doll and a little
blond girl doll to join them, perhaps dressed in Hitler Youth uniforms, excited to tell their
parents about the important work they’d done that day for the fuehrer.
Who isn’t horrified by the idea of Hitler Youth, the formal indoctrination of children in beliefs that resulted in terror, cruelty, and the death of more than six million people? I certainly am. But not as horrified as I was standing before this toy that had been designed to corrupt a child’s imagination, to turn healthy play into an exaltation the Nazi way of life, thinking about how many children grew up thinking this was perfectly normal.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how so many terrible things have begun to seem normal to us, and how dangerous that is: the kind of cultural change that happened in Germany didn't happen overnight, it evolved. It took a long time for German people to go from being maybe a little alarmed at Hitler’s message but still believing that nothing truly horrible would happen to book burning and death camps and manufacturing Hitler dollhouses for little girls.
I’m deeply troubled by the escalation of hateful, cruel, threatening, and exclusionary messages from the far right since the presidential election, fearful that we’ll wait too long to heed them, terrified what might happen if we do.
Children are hearing these messages, too, and it makes me worry about the games playing out in their fertile, unformed minds.