The Poetry of Dachau

“I tell you this to break your heart, by which I mean only that it break open and never close again to the rest of the world.” – Mary Oliver

My heart was broken open today in ways that are hard to put into words. I think everyone felt a rush of emotion as we walked through Dachau silently, taking in the weight of the suffering felt by thousands of people on the very ground we were standing on. We spent six and a half hours at Dachau, with ominous dark clouds and drizzling rain setting a somber mood. As I walked through Dachau’s barracks, roll call yard, and crematory, I came face to face with the darkest moments of humanity. It was bone chilling to see the place where people from all over Europe were stripped of their human dignity, rights, property, and, for over 30,000, their lives. It’s one thing to read about the Holocaust, watch videos, and go to museums, but touching the walls of barracks and standing inside the crematory made the horrors so real.

Inside one of the main buildings in Dachau was an informational board about poetry written in Dachau. One man wrote a poem called “My Shadow in Dachau” while he was in the camp. It is about his sadness and fear of forthcoming death and leaving his mother. Writing poetry in Dachau could lead to a death sentence, so this was a huge risk. He said that the impressions Dachau made on him cried to be written down, but he also made an important revelation that “no power exists in the world that is capable of destroying humans as spiritual beings.” Poetry helped him and other prisoners at Dachau to connect with God and process difficult emotions. Even in such a dark and hopeless time, it speaks volumes about the presence of God that this man never lost faith. Writing and reading poetry was essential to retaining a small part of their human dignity. Another man read the poem and gave this commentary: “The value of this poem for me? It contains everything: the agony of captivity and the elegy of freedom, and the greatest earthly love, maternal love and something else that is banished from the normal thoughts of youth and human suffering: forgiveness.”

Poetry is man’s way of attempting to understand the world, and it proved crucial to another prisoner at Dachau in finding himself and his humanity again. Their poetry provides an artistic, raw take on the emotions felt by real people who were treated as numbers at Dachau.

I recently discovered my love for poetry and the power it carries in its attempt to make sense of all aspects of life. Mary Oliver is currently my favorite poet with her poems about nature, spirituality, and youth. Her lines about heartbreak end a tragic poem about death, and I believe that it perfectly applies to many experiences we have had in Germany overall. The purpose of our visit to Dachau was not just to observe the structures and learn facts, but rather to soak in what occurred there and never forget it. The intention of Dachau as a memorial is to preserve what happened and ensure it will never happen again. We must not be numb to history, but rather open our hearts to the world to respond with love. That is my goal for the rest of CR- to have a heart open to learning and growth in whatever form it may take.

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