For two weeks this summer, I chaperoned a WWII-themed European tour with 28 students from my high school. Our tour was a jam-packed, non-stop journey across western Europe, but one stop in particular made me collect my thoughts immediately. Below, largely unedited from the text I wrote on the bus after the visit, are my reflections from visiting the Nazi concentration camp, Dachau.
Saturday afternoon (20 July 2013) our tour took us from Munich to Dachau. Dachau was the first concentration camp opened by the Nazis in 1933, and it held many of the political prisoners of the Nazi Party. Eventually it took in the “undesirables”; Jews, Sinti, Roma, homosexuals, etc. Dachau became a model camp and was visited by leadership in the SS because of its organization and administration.
The Dachau camp is right on the edge of town, a shock to me. While Dachau did have gas chambers, they were never used. However, the dead were burned in a crematorium, a stench that must have hovered over the town for ten years of more. How did the townspeople not know? Why did they not act?
I was well prepared for our camp visit; little what I saw shocked me. We walked the same path of prisoners into the camp and through main gate, which read “Arbeit Macht Frei,” or “Work will set you free.” We watched a 20 minute video on concentration camps, particularly Dachau. Then I walked through the main house reading displays and around the back to the barracks, where a prison was established. The main grounds, where morning roll was called, was enormous, giving me an idea how immense Dachau was, and it was a smaller of the camps. I then walked through a reconstructed housing barrack and over to the reconstructed outer gate. Standing in these areas, I tried to think how helpless I would have felt in the camp. Nowhere to go; nothing that was your own; inhumanity everywhere.
Walking to the back of the camp, I visited the religious memorials, in their simplicity, and I prayed for those victims, families, and the unknown who were subjected to such inhumanity. I pray all who visit Dachau bear witness to man’s inhumanity and push to eliminate it at all cost.
Another shocking part of the visit was the crematorium, not because of what it was but because of where it was. The crematorium was behind trees in the back corner of the camp, probably to hide the horror. I wonder if it was there to try to keep the truth from the prisoners and any who might visit the camp. In the crematorium, the hardest room to visit was the multiple rooms for holding dead bodies to be burned. The bodies would have been stacked like firewood awaiting the furnace. While Dachau was not an extermination camp the original crematorium was ill-equipped for handling the demand of dead bodies. A second building was built to assist. Let that sink in for a moment. Dachau was not a death camp. Dachau was not the largest of Nazi concentration camps. Death was so rampant, however, that one crematorium was not enough to keep up with the demand. Rooms were added to store dead bodies waiting cremation. Dachau was small, in comparison to other camps. Its inhumanity was overpowering, and I cannot fathom inhumanity on a larger scale.
I took a long, slow walk up the road in the center of the camp, between the sets of prisoners’ barracks. Along this road were poplar trees planted by the prisoners; many of the original trees remain. This road was the only bit of humanity in the camp, and the prisoners spent their very limited free time here. Slowly walking, I tried to connect with the souls that stood among those trees. On the hot day that we visited, I paused in the shade of the populars and listened to the sound of the wind in their branches. Was it possible to escape the horrors of Dachau, even for a fleeting moment, among the trees? On the main grounds, I paused to feel the pressing heat and wondered how the weak bore the weather extremes while in the most dire health. As I exited the camp, I reaffirmed my resolve to never forget or downplay the Holocaust.
It is tough to stare directly in the face of such inhumanity. It hurts to see what one man has done to another–daggers through your heart. If you close your eyes, squint, or only take a quick glance, you miss the horror. The world cannot bear another bout of inhumanity. Unless we stare directly at past inhumanity, we risk missing the warning signs as humans start toward future horror. This must never occur.