“So when the Devil stamped his foot in rage, the force was so great that it left an actual footprint here in the entrance to the cathedral,” said Liz, who was showing us around Munich. It seems Beelzebub had seen the cathedral half built, and it struck him as a dark and gloomy place that would drive people away from God, so he told the architect, “If you don’t put any more windows in it, I’ll send my friends down at night to help, and you’ll finish the building in just 20 years.” Back in the 12th century that counted as lightning speed, and the architect, with dreams of glory in his head, quickly agreed. When the cathedral was finished, the Prince of Darkness returned to gloat, only to discover that there was plenty of light from a window – installed before the bargain was struck – behind the high altar. The church was already consecrated, so the Evil One could only rage helplessly in the foyer, leaving his footprint stamped in the stone floor.
Just ten miles outside of Munich, there’s another spot where the Devil left his footprint: the Dachau concentration camp, now a memorial park. Rich and I went there with a small tour, and as we gathered, one woman told me, “I’m here with four other women, but they thought Dachau would be too depressing for their last day of vacation, so they decided to go shopping instead.” Well yeah. I guess it would be more fun to spend the day buying cheap fake lederhosen and Oktoberfest t-shirts for the folks back home. But I suspect the real reason those women stayed away is that they were, like me, terrified of the place.
Those who designed the memorial, and our young American tour guide, Tom, made every effort to undercut the horror with a bland, matter-of-fact presentation of the facts. The first permanent concentration camp, Dachau was opened in 1933 and served as a prototype for all the Nazi camps that followed. It was designed as a work camp for political prisoners, mostly men, and more than 200,000 people from all over Europe were incarcerated there during its 12 years of operation. Towards the end of the tour, Tom took us to see the ovens and the first model gas chamber. But by the time we got there – in fact, from the moment we passed through the famous gate that said, with cruel irony, “Arbeit macht frie” (“Work makes you free”) – I mostly felt numb. I was walking around inside a Devil’s footprint that was so huge that my mind and heart could simply not take it all in.
After the tour, Rich and I went back to the neighborhood we were staying in, a mix of Persian restaurants, strip clubs, and soulless modern apartment blocks. As we sat over mast-o khiar, jujeh kabobs, and beer, I looked around at the other customers, most of whom were Iranian, many of them women in full purdah. Outside people of every race, culture, and lifestyle were strolling along the sidewalks; no doubt many of them were on their way to commit all sorts of acts that were forbidden under the Nazi code of conduct. And I felt my spirits begin to lift at the thought that sometimes you actually can beat the Devil.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
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