Today was most likely the heaviest day on Cultural Routes that we will experience. We spent over seven hours at the Dachau concentration camp to see exactly where some of the monstrosities of Nazi Germany occurred.
Some things that most people have heard or learned in history classes include the death count, how long the concentration camps were in use, what kinds of people were sent there, and other pieces of information. What was unique about standing in that space was having the ability to visualize countless rows of prisoners lining up for roll-call, seeing exactly where thousands of people were cremated, or seeing the barracks where prisoners were horribly over-crowded in horrific conditions and malnourished. Some of the details about the punishments and torture were so specific and graphic that I understand why they aren’t taught in school. However, it is those gruesome details that help the global community to remember what happened in Dachau.
I am someone who usually is very steady emotionally, but today I had sustained feelings of anger and sadness that lasted just about the entirety of our visit to Dachau. One moment that contributed to these feelings was when I realized that even though Dachau may not have had the most murders on its grounds in comparison to other camps such as Auschwitz, it was the concentration camp from which many others were modeled. This includes both its physical structure and its ideologies for treating prisoners. There were some camps where the leadership was “too lenient”, so new leadership trained in Dachau went to inject the “Dachau spirit” of malice and harshness that SS officers learn at Dachau into those camps. I realized I was standing in what was essentially the birthplace of the countless horrors of other concentration camps. Another one of those moments was when I found the ravine where Dachau prisoners were executed by firing squad. I was walking in a wooded area when I stumbled upon this plaque in the ground commemorating the victims who died by firing squad and realized that I was standing in the same exact spot where so many prisoners had their lives taken from them. It was at this point when the weight of where I was came crashing down over me and I couldn’t help but shed some tears of rage and sadness.
Being able to visit a place like Dachau and properly respect its memory is very important for honoring those who lost their lives there. I am very proud of CR11 for doing it the right way, but the same can’t be said for everyone we saw visiting Dachau today. There were many people who were walking, talking, laughing, and posing for pictures without a care in the world. There is something special about going to a place of horror and despair and just letting yourself mentally go back in time to visualize what it would be like to be in a victim’s place. CR11 is normally a fun and rambunctious group, but today we were somber and contemplative, which is the way to be when visiting a place such as Dachau. Honoring the memory of a tragedy helps to digest what happened and process it fully.
All who enter Dachau see this phrase on the front gate. In English, it means “work will set you free”. This gate is a representation of the facade that the Nazis showed the rest of the world while this camp and others were in operation. When outsiders looked into the details of the camp, they were convinced that the camp was just a re-education and work camp and that prisoners were freed after a short while. In the beginning of Dachau’s years of operation, they did release some prisoners, but that did not last. In the museum on Dachau’s grounds, there was a story where representatives from the Red Cross came to visit with Heinrich Himmler, and he convinced them that the facility was well-kept and had a decent standard of living for the prisoners. He even convinced them that they were planning to build recreational facilities for the prisoners to exercise and play sports. Little did the Red Cross representatives know, the prisoners had been forced to beautify the compound in preparation for the visit in order to impress the Red Cross. It was not until liberation when the world found out exactly what the concentration camps were.
One aspect of visiting Dachau that was especially tough for me to consider was the fact that if I lived in Germany during the World War II era, A large portion of my family including myself most likely would have been arrested and taken to a concentration camp. All my family on my father’s side is Jewish, so unless they somehow hid or escaped Germany early enough, they would have been prime targets for the Nazi regime. Even though I am a Christian, two of my four grandparents are Jewish, which means I would have been labeled as a “Mischling”, essentially meaning half-breed or mongrel according to the Nuremberg Laws. With this in mind, Dachau became a much more personal and frightening experience.
Visiting Dachau is an experience I will never forget. Seeing firsthand a place where death and destruction occurred during the Nazi’s reign of terror has helped me not only to understand more about the history of the era, but it has also shown me how important it is to continue to remember and understand the consequences of what happened in Germany during that era. Overall as a nation, Germany has done a good job of remembering what happened, accepting responsibility for it, and learning to move past it while still not forgetting the tragedies. The United States could learn some lessons in this regard when it comes to educating the nation about the tragedies and injustices of the past. Eliminating racism, anti-Semitism, and other forms of discrimination obviously is not something that happens overnight, and Germany is not perfect in this regard either. However, what matters is that opportunities for learning are present because education of the events and relationships between vastly different people and communities are what will help make steps towards moving forward from these tragic events of the past and slowly whittle down and eliminate the prejudices that stem from systematic discrimination.