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.
In May of 2012, aware that my grandparent's health was failing fast, I traveled from my North Carolina home back to my native Ohio to spend some time with them. Grandpa had turned 91 a week earlier, a day after he and my grandmother, Mary Ritzenthaler, celebrated their 71st wedding anniversary. He'd had multiple bouts with pneumonia over the previous few months, each leaving him weaker than the one before.
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.
On my final visit before heading back to North Carolina, my grandparents, warmed by the afternoon sun as they sat outside, seemed to share a long spell of lucidity. They told old stories -- about how Grandpa first introduced himself to Grandma in math class at the same high school I would graduate from decades later; about Grandma's long trip from Ohio to Texas to visit Grandpa during his Army training; about Grandpa nearly ruining the reunion by failing inspection and being restricted to the base.
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.
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