Studying and understanding the grounds of the former concentration camp in Dachau proved to be both heartbreaking and exhausting. In the midst of the heavy sense of history, viewing graphic images, and reading tragic accounts of a gradual loss of hope within the prison, I experienced moments of a rare and stirring hope.
This concentration camp typifies some of the darkest moments of this time period. Being the first concentration camp opened under the Nazi regime in 1933, Dachau marks the beginning of the torturous system of forced labor, maltreatment, and eventual extermination of anyone deemed unfit or different. Dachau housed only political prisoners at first, but eventually expanded to include Jews, German and Austrian criminals, homosexuals, Catholic priests, and still more. The prototype for gas chambers eventually used for mass extermination was developed at this camp. Dachau served as an example for the other camps that worked together to murder over 11 million people of varying backgrounds. Last week, I had the opportunity to explore the grounds on my own, taking in details and making meaning of both intentional and unintentional aspects of the memorial.
After I walked through the same entrance that the prisoners of Dachau walked through, I immediately noticed the flowers dispersed throughout the grounds. I am a person that finds beauty in flowers. The patterns in which they are arranged. Their color. Most of all, the way they sprout in surprising locations. These flowers at Dachau probably meant very little to others, but they ultimately helped me make meaning of the memorial. They were not beautiful flowers but were dandelions and some small white flowers–plants many would consider weeds. But at Dachau, these dandelions were part of the lives of prisoners and represent the redemptive power of nature in spaces of destruction.
First, the flowers were very literally a source of sustenance for prisoners as they attempted to survive off of the small amounts of food provided. An information board in the museum quoted a prisoner saying that they would eat the dandelions for food. Further, there were not even enough dandelions to go around. These plants provided minuscule additional nutrition to these prisoners while still not being enough to feed them. No person should have to eat weeds, which would not have given prisoners any strength to do the work being asked of them and essentially demeaned them to the animals of the field. So, in a sense, these flowers are not only symbols. The fact that they were eaten within the camp reinforces the degrading conditions within the camp. These flowers offered little hope as a bite of something for the beyond starved prisoners. Today, they remind us of the basic dehumanizing nature of the Holocaust.
Somewhere within the memorial, I experienced a brief moment of confusion that flowers would be allowed to grow there. To me, Dachau should not have even had grass along its fences. Dandelions seemed like a sorry attempt at beauty and coverage of ugliness in a place of death. The flowers were a facade, one that mirrors the camp’s depiction in press coverage and visits by outsiders.
As I walked through the museum, I found myself drawn to boards that described how Dachau was presented both in newspapers and to German and foreign visitors. In the newspapers, photos were captioned with phrases that described the supposed favorable working conditions, including “spacious kitchens” and “modern machinery.” The photos in a particular article leave out the dark truth of the camp–overcrowding, starvation, beatings, and death. Not even journalists, who in today’s time are able to inform nations of strife and maltreatment, could have access to information that so desperately needed to be reported on. No newspapers were allowed to alert the outside to the evils of Dachau as the prisoners were stripped of all rights.
Furthermore, if outsiders were ever allowed to enter the grounds, meticulous steps were taken to hide the truth behind the mechanism of the camp. A prisoner describes what would happen when outsiders would come in:
But shortly before the commission arrived–look there–a miracle: The wheelbarrows had disappeared, the prisoners had disappeared, the roll-call area is empty, peaceful, quiet, God-fearing and there, playing in front of the camp canteen, that is suddenly open, is the camp orchestra.
In brief moments of my exploration of the memorial, I was caught in the natural beauty of the place. These visitors would have been content with their visit with little desire to investigate further and see if anything was going on behind the scenes. Trees lined the outside. Green grass had grown in many places. And the flowers, not gaudy or pompous, had humbly placed themselves in this place. This nature could have easily distracted from Dachau’s meaning, but visitors today must understand the darkness in the camp. Visitors back then, though, had no insight into the truth so no opportunity to recognize evil and convene.
As I finished studying the memorial, I stood in front of one of these patches of flowers, as they had been a common thread throughout my understanding of the space. I came to view them as redemption. Nature allows beauty to redeem places of destruction. If I were a flower, I would not have chosen Dachau as my home. At the end, though, these flowers became a sign of hope. They may have been unintentional weeds, but they provoked my thought and reflections. In memorials, thoughtful reminders of historical eras, the unintended nature sometimes begins to gain meaning. And for me, the flowers showed that darkness will give way to light even following the darkest times.