Empty. The best word I could possibly use to pinpoint the way I felt leaving the Dachau Concentration Camp in Dachau, Germany.
Yesterday, CR visited Dachau, one of the most prominent concentration camps during WW2 that was first opened in 1933 with the intent of holding political prisoners. Dachau eventually held Jewish prisoners, Catholic clergy, Italians, Slavians, members of the Soviet resistance, homosexuals, and more groups.
Each of us walked through the grounds individually on a bright, sunny day – an ironic paradox to what Dachau represents. Surrounded by green trees with grass sprinkled with daisies, there was beauty in the midst of the madness. However, the open grounds of Dachau, the wide area of the knocked down barracks, and the roll call square created a feeling of immense isolation. Everything was much more intense. The sun was not cheerful; it was blinding, and every gust of wind was freezing even in the midst of the warm weather. The forest behind the crematorium with birds chirping was full of people, but everyone felt alone. It all felt unreal. The most treacherous moments in the history of humanity reveal themselves in Dachau. I will never be able to wrap my head around the extremities of cruelty against the people who were trapped in this wretched place.
I have never experienced something more difficult and heartbreaking than to stand on the grounds where 31,951 people were brutally murdered. 31,951 people. How humans treated other humans in this way is unfathomable. Was it mob mentality? Was it psychopathic? Was it out of fear? Why? I tried to put myself in the shoes of the people that were in this camp and quickly realized that the pain and suffering they experienced was unimaginable. I equally can’t fathom how Nazis and camp leaders returned home to their families each night convinced they were doing an honorable thing.
“You are without rights, dishonorable and defenceless. You are a pile of shit and that it is how you are going to be treated.”
I came across this quote in the Dachau museum from a Nazi officer. These words were spoken by camp leader Joseph Jarolin to the prisoners. Words that implied that they were not even human. The museum contained cases that included belongings of the concentration camp victims. Watches, wallets, passports, rings, necklaces…
These were people. Like you and me. People who were loved; people with families; people with complex souls and hopes and dreams; people with stories. Yet the Nazi Regime denied every ounce of the prisoners’ humanity as well as their own humanity and instead viewed them as inferior. They viewed them as a detriment to society for no good reason, so much so that they were denied the right to live. The notion of viewing any human being in this way is simply nauseating. It is pure evil.
Toward the final years of the Dachau Concentration Camp’s existence, crematoriums were built to get rid of the bodies faster since the Nazis were killing so many people. Prisoners were led into a room where they were told they would be showering next. Instead, in the next room they were shot or hung, and then reduced to ashes. Murdered. Eventually, the furnaces were too slow for the number of people the Nazis were brutally murdering and they began stacking the malnourished bodies in the “death chambers” where American soldiers discovered hundreds of them on Liberation Day. I stood on the very ground where these bodies were stacked up, and my heart sank to the floor. Something told me I should leave the space out as quickly as I could, but something also told me that I should stay and reflect on those who lost their lives. I payed my respects, and left the room questioning everything I had ever believed. I came across more stories of scientific experimentation on humans, beatings, mockery, brutal punishment in the Bunkers, terrible living conditions, starvation, and other outrageous forms of cruelty.
I have been learning about the Holocaust since Elementary School. It has always been a difficult topic to discuss, but being in one of the places where the institutionalized genocide of millions of people occurred was an entirely different experience. All I could do was weep.
I wish there were some magic words I could say to make everything better. I am left with a hurting heart and a questioning mind. What I CAN say is that the most important part of the Dachau Concentration Camp is that they didn’t win. The regime of hatred ultimately failed, and although millions of lives were lost, goodness, light, and love ultimately prevailed. But why such a thing ever occurred in the first place is out of my scope of human understanding.
I left Dachau feeling empty, but I was reminded that we as people have a duty to fight evil, racism, discrimination, and injustice in our world. Primo Levi once said, “Just because it happened doesn’t mean it won’t happen again.” Dachau was strong reminder of this truth. The title of my blog is the first line of a famous poem by Martin Niemöller, German Lutheran pastor and theologian who was interned at Dachau. The poem is as follows:
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me –
And there was no one left to speak for me.Martin Niemöller
We cannot only care about the issues that effect us directly if we want to be true advocates against world injustice. Dachau has motivated me to spread love and fight for justice, speaking for persecuted groups across all demographics. Human rights are not specific to one kind of human. This is something the Nazis did not believe, but it is up to us to uphold this truth forever and always. While still in Berlin, I came across a quote on the Berlin Wall that said “He who wants the world to remain as it is does not want the world to remain.” How true that is. It will always be our job to fight hatred and advocate for love, acceptance, and equality across all groups.
I left Dachau with a changed soul. Hearing the excruciating stories and stepping through the places where so many human lives were taken raises a lot of questions of the goodness of humanity and the goodness of God. I felt like I was staring the issue of theodicy in the face.
There was a dichotomy of forces existent in Dachau. In the back of the camp, chapels and religious memorials were built. It was a beautiful thing to see the way people have found solace in their religions and meaning in faith. But it was equally difficult as a religious individual to understand how God could ever let such evil to occur. I have always wrestled with this question and have always wrestled with God, but am doing so now more than ever.
One of the aforementioned memorials toward the back of the camp grounds was the Protestant Church of Reconciliation. The chapel was slightly underground, but ironically was still filled with light. On my way down the path into the chapel, I stumbled upon a small sign describing the symbolic architecture of the space.
What stuck out to me was the last part of the paragraph. “Depth can frighten or threaten you, but also be a shelter or protection. It’s important that experience of depth doesn’t destroy you. Out of the depths a person may complain, may weep, may cry, may pray. ‘Out of the depths, Lord I cry to you…’ These first words of Psalm 130 from the Hebrew Bible are engraved on the wall.”
These words remind me of a concept we heavily discussed in my honors religion class this year – religion as a sacred canopy; a place of solace and shelter. We can either flee from depth or we can embrace it, even if it is uncomfortable. We can seek meaning and pay our respects to the depth of the human condition throughout history, no matter how dark it may be. It was extremely challenging to visit Dachau, but it was one of the most moving experiences of my life and I am thankful for the opportunity to reflect on and honor the lives lost because of hatred. We cannot run from things that disturb our sense of comfort; we must stare the atrocities of our past in the face so that we can ensure such hatred and evil will never occur again.
After Dachau I realized that I could have two lenses on the experience, or perhaps a mixture of both. I could shake my fists at God and curse humanity for its evils, or I could rejoice in the fact that love was eventually triumphant and find beauty in the way those in the concentration camp showed love to one another. There were stories of doctors risking their lives to save others from the typhus epidemic, knowing that they would become infected. During the hours of excruciating labor where prisoners were ruthlessly mocked and beaten, prisoners would lend a helping hand to those who were falling behind. Choirs and soccer teams were formed; even resistance groups who snuck banned books into the camp library were born. One imprisoned artist described his encounter and friendship with one of the youngest men in the camp, who was around the age of 13. He drew a picture of the boy and detailed in his journal that the boy did not know where his parents were but prayed he would find them. Others secretly tried their hardest to keep track of each and every person who entered the camp. To be named, accounted for, and remembered is so valuable, and this secret documentation was an act of love. One prisoner smuggled in newspapers to inform his fellow people of the state of the war. Songs of hope were sung together amidst the brutal suffering. I hear all of these stories and sit back in awe, deeply moved by the way these individuals showed love toward one another in an abyss of hate. For these people, love and faith were constant. Although it is difficult, I would like to believe that God was constant in the same way, and still is.
I would like to end my stream of consciousness blog (just for the record, THANK YOU if you are still reading) with a beautiful poem I discovered at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, written by a father who lost his daughter, coping with the absolute horror of the Holocaust.
“My little daughter, my first one, Lorotschka
Probably would have been a grandmother by now.
Yet for all time she remains a little child
One out of the bloody number of six million.
It sometimes seems to me in the silence of a sleepless night that
I hear moaning, I hear weeping, a child is screaming.
This moaning, this weeping penetrates to the depths of my consciousness,
Although the years pass, the feeling and the shivering do not diminish.
That mortal enemy, that common criminal wanted
To wipe out children’s laughter in my people.
That lunatic wanted to chop the thread that links generation to generation,
To burn it so that only ash remained.
But the thread will not be severed. Oh no.
I am leaving a deep imprint on this Earth.
The madman with those crazy ideas rotted away long ago.
My children will have grandchildren.
My descendants grow with every passing day – my lovely beautiful Elena.
Like flowers in the spring
Marinushka and Ilya have come into bloom.
The sky will be bright blue.
There will be wedding celebrations – weddings of the young and wedding anniversaries of the old.
And my grandchildren will become grandmothers and grandfathers.
So let the music play – the great march of Victory!
Nobody, never, in the whole wide world
Should ever dare besmirch the sanctity of childhood. On the whole earthly, living, human planet
Grant peace and happiness.
Peace and happiness – to the children!
So that the horror is never repeated
I sing this, my song of resurrection.”
Matvey (Mordechai) Kaplan
April – May 1984
May love always prevail, may we remember those we lost, and may we sing this song of resurrection so that the horror is never repeated.