My 40th Birthday

I am writing to you from the front lines of my 40th birthday. While I know that for many people, this day is often … um… memorable, this day has been one for the books. Today, I witnessed one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever seen, and I experienced one of the purest delights.

It’s been a day.

First, let’s talk about the former, then end with the latter (better to end on a high note, right?)

I knew the first half of the day wouldn’t be joyful, exactly, and it wasn’t. But that wasn’t the most disturbing part; that part was so innocuous, I didn’t even see it coming.

It was only a word. Nine little letters: brausebad.

It’s German for “showers.”

I woke this morning, the dawn of my 40th birthday, in Munich, Germany. It was a crisp but overcast day. The ground was blanketed with a smooth coating of Christmas white. We had driven up from our home in Italy to meet our amazing friends and embark upon a two-family road trip across Germany, Austria and France.

To be clear, I didn’t plan to spend my birthday at a concentration camp but we were near Dachau and felt compelled to go. I knew it wouldn’t be fun, of course, but that’s not the point, right?

Holocaust survivor and human rights activist Elie Wiesel once said, “Whoever listens to a witness, becomes a witness.”

We live in a time when some are forgetting or even denying the atrocities that came before (and frankly happen still). As time passes and the number of direct witnesses diminish, it becomes more essential than ever for others to witness. So we gathered our families and went to Dachau, to add ourselves to the collective weight of witness.

Of course it was sad. Of course it was atrocious. Of course it was horrifying. But then there was that word.


Suspended over the thick metallic door.


They weren’t showers. We all know that now, don’t we?

They didn’t know it then, the people. They thought it was what it said. On the sign. Right over the door.

The room itself is closed off to the public, but you can see it from two large metal vents; vents the Nazis opened to drain poisonous gas from the chamber, after.

It wasn’t showers.

It was genocide.

Nextdoor and across the snow strew path lay the crematoriums; the ovens. The first erased the bodily evidence of over 11,000 lives before its capacity was outstripped and additional cremators constructed.

I didn’t expect it to be pleasant – of course not. But I also didn’t expect to become physically ill from the sight of that single word. I hadn’t expected that at all.

It was only a small word, so miniscule in comparison to everything around it; on the burial grounds of some 31,951 souls. But there was something eviscerating about that word. And that door.

They weren’t showers.

They weren’t showers.

I will never unsee that small dirty plaque. And there’s not much more to say than that.

As we drove away from Dachau, we read the story of the Warsaw Ghetto, the efforts of good people who tried to stop the Nazis, and the remarkable story of The Cats In Krasinski Square. We read quotes from Elie Wiesel, who said:

“Even when it seems hopeless,
I invent reasons to hope.”

Elie Wiesel

When we emerged from the car, it was into hope embodied; the over 600-year-old Munich Christmas Market.

I have never been in two such drastically different places, in such a brief period of time.

Tiny wooden cottages bedecked with Christmas lights and garlands nestled together under the glow of Marienplatz Square against the surreal Rathausturman backdrop. Its gargoyles and dragons overlooked the Bavarian wonderland of lights, color and laughter. High atop an ornate balcony, a choir sang, bedecked in heavenly pink.

Below, each tiny shop overflowed with decadence: sugared nuts, cheese-dipped pretzels, candied apples, gingerbread, Nutella crepes, sausages and sauerkraut, marshmallow fluff, and more. And oh the nutcrackers, Santa’s, angels, ornaments and snowflakes; the handicrafts, candy canes and Christmas trees. Everywhere you turned was a feast for the eyes, the ears and the taste buds, a veritable world of wonder.

In only a day, we traveled entire worlds away.

Now, I’m hunkered down in a funny little bunk bed hostel-hotel, writing these thoughts and listening to the soft sounds of my slumbering family. Only 11 minutes to go and my 40th will officially be at an end.

In these quiet moments, I can’t help thinking that while no two places could ever be less alike, nowhere has ever made me more grateful for the extraordinary privilege of turning 40; for more time to enjoy this somehow still wonderful world, which, despite everything, is still so full of hope.

6 thoughts on “My 40th Birthday

  1. Beautifully, painfully written with such etched clear reactions your sights produced. Unforgettable! So good to read your adventures again! Love and sugar plums! Merry Christmas❤️


  2. Life is black. Life is white. Your writing tumbles me into all that horror again, an obsession I’ve had with the Holocaust since my childhood. The darkest chapter in history. But I’ve had firsthand experience of the joys of a German Christmas too. – Thank you, will


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