Reflections on Dachau

Written Friday April 18, 8:00 am* Just left Munich Hostel, on a bus to Prague.

Dachau. What are the words to describe how I felt being there? First impressions of my first visit to a concentration camp…the desolation despite the tour groups shuffling about was a mixture of eeriness and loneliness. The Nazis burned all of the barracks down during the liberation, so very little breaks the monotonous horizon when I enter. I could stop and scan the vast campus and see nothing of interest within its barbed borders for acres. All is grey, dull, and dead, and only when the cold air stings my cheeks am I awakened to shuffle over stone to the museum. I looked down at my feet and wondered who else took these same steps into the main building when they first arrived here…I wanted to know who each and every one of the prisoners were. I felt obligated to know each person’s story not just of who they were in the camp, but who they were before the camp – on their way into the main building, just as I was.

In the main building, which is now the museum, the prisoners were ordered to strip down, their hair was shaven, their personal property confiscated, and their identities written down as data. The display cases held photographs and passports taken from prisoners. I felt the urge to touch and hold each one and look at every face, say each name in my head. And these were only a handful of the 60,000+ who were imprisoned here. Videos played and I watched a survivor recount getting his head shaved. He went into great detail about the process which would normally be ignored in conversation as superfluous or uninteresting, but I hovered on every detail…I felt obligated to hear his story. And of course every detail does matter…for some, the hair cut may have been the first time they were injured in custody, as many bled from the haphazard shave.I read through the displays about the conditions leading up to the creation of the camp in 1933…the effects of World War I on the economy, the Treaty of Versailles blame on Germany, the rise of the Socialist Party enabled by their promise of the return of German pride…in every paragraph I searched for the answer to “why?” How could this have happened? How could a place like this be built? I was particularly interested in the role of the media – where were the newspapers? What did the surrounding town know? Why was this accepted, and for so long? 

The truth was not reported. It is mesmerizing the depth and breadth of the Nazi regime into every aspect of society. Propaganda depicted the death camp in a far more humane light – these people were political prisoners who were being “re-educated” and would re-enter society as willing workers for the Party. Red Cross investigations interviewed guards dressed as prisoners, and corpses were hidden in medic vans. The deception was meticulously calculated and amazingly controlled to allow the Nazi crimes to continue unchallenged for so long.

I moved further into the museum where the prisoners “showered” or were basically hosed down en masse. The brock (sp?) and steel whip was displayed in the center. Here, prisoners were whipped for as minor an infraction as missing a button, and were forced to call out each flog. If they passed out, they had to start over. Hooks high above me strung up  people by their wrists. In the next room, medical “examinations” were conducted. Photos of a man undergoing experiments about the effects of air pressure were displayed, and I read about the “doctor” on site. What kind of person permits himself to treat another human being in such a way, especially when it is his job to care for them? I wondered how that doctor could look that man in the eye during the torturous experiments.

The names and faces of the guards and commandants of the camp were displayed. I thought, My God, these people will always be remembered like this…as monsters…as murderers…as scum. And yet…the scariest part of it all is the fact that they were people too. Each guard was someone’s son, had children that they cared for, believed in a God…They each had their own stories too. This is what frightens me most of all – the capability that is in each one of us to be evil. And given the right conditions, as they were in place from 1933-1945, that ability can become a reality.The one barrack that stood was a reconstruction – all of the others had been destroyed by the Nazis during the liberation.

The conditions depicted were unimaginable…People slept in wooden shelves, basically, and had no possessions of their own, and no identity besides a number and a symbol on their outfits. I wondered what kind of companionship and comfort they found in each other, these strangers thrown together and suffering together, literally piled on top of each other.

The gas chamber was very difficult. I felt a deep sadness in there, like a wailing was coming from the walls. It was dark and small and my eyes fell to the floor where so many had fallen. I touched the walls. I shivered at the peep hole. And I left – I couldn’t stay in there very long – only to enter the crematorium. The kilns looked like pizza ovens! This was a factory of death.  I left quickly, lingering only in the room where the liberators found corpses piled to the ceiling.  

Pebbles and dust crunched beneath my feet as I closed the steel gate into Dachau behind me. Not everyone left this place breathing the cold crisp fresh air as I did. But I too, left the camp as a different person from when I entered.

We are stepping off the bus now, to tour Von Ludwig’s Castle. Today should be a lighter day. I know there are more stops like Dachau on our journey to come, but the ability to live life and enjoy it is still a reality, thankfully, and so we must continue to celebrate living now as much as we must remember life lost.

*I hand wrote and/or typed each reflection on the date and time included with the post.

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