The other day I visited an American wars museum. Just a small, sad, strange place in downtown Cape Coral, filled with memorabilia and a musty smell. Our tour guide was odd yet informative, making jokes that weren’t funny and trying his best to make us love the place as much as he does. Run by Vets, free to enter, it’s a place where local Vets gather for coffee or a meal while surrounded by uniforms and weapons from every war America has ever been in.
For this peace-loving hippie chick, it was a little unnerving to be in the midst of so much actual, real-life war stuff. The Japanese uniform with the hole in the back of the jacket from the wearer being stabbed freaked me out a bit, although the lock of George Washington’s hair didn’t bother me. And then we arrived at the WWII display, and I went from unnerved to seriously disturbed.
The wall of pictures from Auschwitz and Dachau were horrific. (I will not attempt to describe them here, but those images will be burned into my brain forever. Trust me, you do not want to know.) The level of inhumanity was and is astounding. And then, because I could not look anymore, my eyes slid to the right and landed on a small case containing armbands cut from concentration-camp uniforms. Right there, prominently displayed at the top, was a scrap of gray and white striped material with a pink triangle sewn on.
It felt like I had been punched in the chest and my breath left me. My eyes filled with tears as I realized that someone had actually worn that on their arm. That they had been forced to do so. That they probably had someone they were in love with, had made a life with, before they were rounded up, stripped of all rights and dignity, shipped to a place of horror and shoved naked and terrified into a concrete room to be murdered with hundreds of others by poison gas. All of this became so very real to me as I looked at that little scrap of cloth. That anonymous “they” that all this happened to? They became me, and I became them. I wanted to take that little piece of material out of the case and cradle it and honor the person who wore it with my tears. The person who went before me and suffered so much so that I could be out and proud and married today.
And then my wife touched my arm and pointed to another armband in the case. This one had a brownish triangle patch on it, and the placard had the word “gypsy” printed on it. And I began to cry in earnest. I had no idea. I am of Gypsy descent and I had no idea. I did not know that the Nazis considered the Romany people to be unclean, immoral criminals. I had no idea that tens of thousands were rounded up and murdered. That in one camp, the gypsies armed themselves with the tools of their forced labor and fought back when the soldiers came to lead them to the ‘gas vans’ for extermination. Or that the Nazis then relocated all of the able-bodied men from that camp and came back to kill the old, the sick, the women, and the children.
Our tour guide was eager to continue, so I wiped my eyes and tried to pull it together. I managed to finish the tour and to participate in his questionable banter. I don’t think he noticed, but I was not the same girl who began the tour. I had been forever changed by a few moments in front of a small glass display case. I had walked in to the strange little storefront museum with an air of disdain, confident that I would get nothing from the place, that it would be boring at best. And I walked out humbled by a bone-deep connection that I didn’t know existed. I will forever carry the suffering of my ancestors, both homosexual and Roma, within me.