Some of the most wrenching moments of our lives are triggered by the inevitable collision of humanity and human nature.
I had long suspected that my grandfather, Don Ritzenthaler, who was among the American soldiers who liberated the infamous Dachau concentration camp during World War II, was a victim of that kind of emotional conflict.
For more than 67 years after his experience there, Grandpa Ritz had never been able to talk about Dachau, other than to say he was there, and that what he saw was horrible. After reading about the place and what the Germans did to their mostly Jewish prisoners, I wasn't surprised that the mention of Dachau rendered my typically effusive grandfather mute.
But there always was something in Grandpa's reaction that made me wonder: Was he haunted by more than just the ghosts of what he'd seen on April 29, 1945?
Over the course of five days, I, my mom, and my aunts and uncles visited with Grandma and Grandpa in the assisted living center they now called home.
Age had robbed both of my grandparents of much of their short-term memory but, cruelly, had left the experience of Dachau firmly implanted in Grandpa Ritz's consciousness. He couldn't remember where I lived, when I'd arrived in Ohio or when I was headed back home, but he could still picture Dachau's gates to hell, smell the stench of scorched flesh, see the corpses so tightly packed into rail cars that they were still standing upright like commuters to hell.
Grandpa's stories eventually shifted across the Atlantic, to his landing in France, progress through Austria and finally into Germany.
Then came the unexpected. A reference to Dachau.
"We were some of the first ones in," he recalled. "It was a terrible place."
We'd heard that much before, and nothing more. But I always sensed that there was something more. I even had a pretty good idea just what that something was.
"After what we saw, we shot any German guards we saw on sight," Grandpa continued.
He grew quiet then. Tears welled in his eyes as he stared blankly toward the brick wall of the building, but I knew he was really seeing the Germans he and his buddies had mowed down in an explosion of rage.
And that was it. As was his custom, Grandpa quickly shifted to a funny story to lighten the mood, but I don't remember what it was about. I was still processing what he'd revealed minutes earlier.