Posted by: CeCe | April 13, 2012

Ghosts of yesterday

I’m sure everyone has gathered by now that I truly love history.  I believe that my love of history was an inevitable result of some of the conversations I had with my parents when I was growing up.  We did a lot of traveling, particularly while I was a very young child and my dad was still healthy enough to do so, which meant that I got to see some really interesting things.  We went to Washington, D.C. when I was about 8, and my dad told us about some of the monuments and what they meant.  We also went to several Civil War battlegrounds, and a battleground from the Revolutionary War (Kings Mountain, on the border of North and South Carolina); I remember walking around and my young imagination enabling me to see the dead and dying, and hear their cries as vividly as though they were still there.

From that point on, I was a sucker for history.  I was fascinated by houses that were built long before my parents were born; I had an appreciation for old cemeteries, and often wondered what the people buried beneath my feet had been like.   I loved old books, loved thinking about the lifestyles of those who lived before me, adored old movies and art and architecture and movies.  Some of the first books I ever read were the Bobbsey Twins books, several of which I now own.  They’re not first editions, but they are darn close; the oldest was published in 1904.

History speaks to me.  To me, history is not a bunch of dead old guys who did stuff that doesn’t even matter.  History for me is alive.  When I see streets that I know were built decades before, I don’t just see them as they are now; I see them covered in cobblestone, with the clip-clop of horses echoing, and I hear the voices of those long-dead, and strains of opera playing from a phonograph.  Instead of seeing the lines of ugly modern houses, I see wide open spaces, because that’s what they must have been once.

I’ve been inside castle ruins, and I see them as they must have been once, not as they are now.  I see them with tapestries on the walls, and straw on the floor.  I smell roasting meat, vegetables, ale, rot, and sweat.  I hear laughter, tears, and then silence apart from the laughing tourists, and the moment is over.

When I went to Dachau back in ’07, I was so affected by it that it still leaves me a bit breathless and darkens my mood to think about it.  I didn’t see Dachau as it is now.  I saw it with the emaciated inhabitants, thousands of whom died there.  I smelled the disease, the death, the hopelessness.  It crushed my spirit and the whole time I walked those grounds, my eyes were filled with tears threatening to spill over.  It’s one thing to know what occurred there decades ago.  It’s quite another to feel it as vividly as I felt it.  I’m not sure if I believe in ghosts or not, but Dachau is one place that, if ghosts exist, there are hundreds if not thousands of earthbound spirits there.  It’s a dark, miserable place, in spite of the efforts of the German government to make it a worthy memorial to the people who were so ruthlessly slaughtered within those walls.  Arbeiten macht frei, indeed.

So for me, history is very much alive.  All of those who walked these same paths before me have left their imprint on the world they left behind when they passed away, even if that imprint is visible to only a small few.  These were ordinary people like you and me, with their own thoughts, dreams and wishes.  They had their own minds, forged their own opinions, and probably rebelled against their parents and longed for a different world or felt alienated in the world in which they lived.  Maybe they submitted to the norms of their culture not because they wanted to, but because they had to, just like we do now.   They were just like us.  How could I not feel close to them?

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