Stumbling on Ghosts

When you know something isn’t right.

By Rose Ernst

Near Munich. Photo Credit: Author

This morning, I found the perfect walking path.

Or so I thought.

When I’m living in a new place, I always seek the greenest places for a long morning walk.

At 6:30, I quietly closed the door to my housesit, though I doubt the deaf-blind cat I’m housesitting noticed my absence.

Determined to ward off the autumn chill, I speed-walked down the quiet suburban street in Munich, heading toward the green belt running along the S-Bahn. A flat pebbled path beckoned me, the thick green forest on one side and the raised tracks along the other.

Savoring the clear air and the grumbling gravel under my feet, I sped past the forest and toward an open field. In the distance, a village sat squarely in the middle of the farmland, as if it had closed in on itself, not wanting to touch the forest surrounding it.

A man approached me on the path. Though my many experiences in Germany have taught me it’s a 50–50 chance I’ll receive a smile or a frown from a passerby, usually being the only ones along a dirt road demands some basic acknowledgment.

But this man kept his flat affect, just staring at me. I shrugged it off and walked into the village. Normally, I’d make a beeline for the heart of the town, but something made me turn to the left, moving me along the outskirts overlooking the fields.

Another person approached, this time with a dog. Determined to be friendly, I said, “Morgen.”

But he and his dog gave me a disinterested glare.

Something wasn’t right. It wasn’t simply that they hadn’t said hello or acknowledged my existence. Something else wasn’t right.

I hurried along the road, past a cemetery with gravestones standing at attention, and began to jog back home. The forest seemed too dense. And the train didn’t seem so friendly anymore. The wheels clacking weren’t soothing. They recalled something else.

Have you ever traveled somewhere and thought, this doesn’t seem right? It’s not that you feel immediately threatened. Often, quite the opposite. The birds are singing, and the setting is beautiful. Perhaps people are even smiling.

But your gut tells you otherwise. A tragedy occurred here.

I’ve discussed this “emotional residue” effect before, but I haven’t considered how traveling recalls these states and what it means for us. Do we have a responsibility toward these ghosts? Perhaps they’re nudging us to learn more about why they’re haunting a place.

I neither know nor care whether ghosts actually exist. What I do care about is understanding why this happens and what it means for the living.

After returning to Gioia, my understandably surly deaf and blind cat, I couldn’t shake the feeling. I tried working, making coffee, and staring out the window. I couldn’t even pet Gioia because she’d hiss at me.

So I turned to Auntie Google, of course.

“Nazis and Ottobrunn,” was my first query. Ottobrunn is the Munich suburb near the village, and I knew it had been built in the 1950s. Sure enough, “Hohenbrunn” popped up with “Nazis.” The map told me it was that village.

In 2011, children found the body of an eight-year-old on a gravel hill. This hill turned out to be a children’s mass grave of forced Ukrainian and Russian laborers for the Nazis. It was on the edge of town.

This prompted soul-searching and research by German historians, and finally a town memorial to these victims in 2015. It turns out that Hohenbrunn was a “model” Nazi village. I’ve visited many of the major concentration camp memorial sites such as Auschwitz/Birkenau, Buchenwald, Oranienburg/Sachsenhausen, and Dachau, but I’d never heard of model Nazi villages.

From a propaganda standpoint, I should have realized such places existed, but what’s more horrifying is that this tiny village had a munitions plant abutting it (not hidden) where these 4,000 forced laborers lived and worked and died from starvation and exhaustion — hence the mass grave.

And it’s also only 40 kilometers from Dachau.

The Holocaust, White setter genocide against Indigenous Peoples in North America, and German genocide against the Herero and Nama in Namibia all surface in my mind.

So do current Russian atrocities and genocide in Ukraine.

I’d like to offer a tidy ending to this story. Some action, some thought, something. But it would be hollow or simply a platitude.

All I know is those ghosts asked me to write this story for you.

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