“You are without rights, dishonorable and defenseless. You’re a pile of shit and that is how you’re going to be treated.” -Josef Jarolin, 1941
This was the first quote that I saw in the museum on the grounds of the Dachau concentration camp, and as I read it I felt something inside of myself that I had never felt before. I was not mentally prepared for the horrors that Dachau had in store, and that quote just affirmed what I already new in my heart; this experience would be difficult.
“What really stirs up in our hearts is the helplessness, the complete impotence, the feeling of being at the mercy of anyone who comes along. To be a plaything of his mood, and without having the primitive right of being considered human.” -prisoner account of Rudolf Kalmar
It was easy in Berlin and earlier in Munich to attempt to rationalize the things we were seeing. But when faced with the overwhelming imagery and quotes and videos and standing on the ground where tens of thousands of people died, my need for rationalization went out the window and I just felt empty. People were murdered where I stood, and as hard as I tried, I couldn’t wrap my mind around it. I saw where they slept, where they ate, where they walked, and where they died.
Looking at images of people who were denied their most basic human rights struck a cord within me. They were victims to whoever wanted to exert power over them, and they couldn’t resist. I have a strong moral compass, sometimes to a fault, and looking at that people being deprived of something as basic as being considered human made me feel weak.
Walking out of Dachau, I didn’t feel right. I wanted to cry, or be angry, but more than anything, I wanted to be able to do something about what I had just seen. I didn’t want to feel helpless against the crimes against humanity I had just witnessed.
I went back to my journal from a few days before and found what I was looking for. It came from the Documentation Center in Munich:
“Where is the guilt of the
Where does it begin?
It begins there,
Where he stands to one side
Unperturbed, with arms relaxed
and shoulders shrugged,
Buttoning his coat,
Lighting a cigarette and saying:
There’s nothing we can do.
Look here, that’s where the guilt
of the innocent begins.”
In reading this, I realized what had made me so uncomfortable in Dachau— the feeling of helplessness. The feeling that the worst of crimes had been committed here, and I was just a witness to the aftermath. Seeing all of the people who perished in such an unjust way, I felt guilty. I wanted to bring them justice, I wanted to fight for them, I wanted to have had their back.
The Documentation Center brought me great joy for this reason. It showed me the people who resisted, to the best of their ability, and took action against the injustice they saw. I felt filled with pride when learning about the incredible things Anita Augspurg and Lida Heymann, along with many other women, did to fight for women’s rights and pacifism. Toni Pfülf and the Social Democratic Party’s work to call upon people to fight the Nazi party was admirable.
The feeling that I had in Dachau of helplessness stemmed from feeling as if these tens of thousands of people had no help. I saw victims, I saw injustice, and I wanted to fight it. But remembering the documentation center was vital— it showed me that there was resistance, there were fighters for justice and righteousness. I felt proud to see people standing up and facing almost certain death because they knew what was going on was wrong.
I’ve always stuck to my convictions and called out anything I don’t agree with. It’s something I would consider both a strength and a flaw. I realize now what I couldn’t wrap my mind around—the idea that no one saw what was happening and thought it was wrong. But after going back and seeing that there were people who stuck to their beliefs, I felt hope. There’s a reason the Nazi’s lost, and it’s because of those people. Be it the small acts of resistance or the large ones, they all made an impact and they all helped in the end. And while many of those protestors died, they died knowing they were doing what was right. They died on the right side of history. These people give me hope, they give me inspiration, and they give me purpose. I strive to be like these passionate leaders, and I will never forget the good things they did.
“Engage in passive resistance. Resistance wherever you are. Disrupt the running of the atheistic war machine before it’s too late. Before the last of our cities live in ruins, like Cologne, before the last of our youth had bled to death for the hubris of a subhuman. Do not forget: Every people deserves the government it tolerates!”
-excerpt from White Rose flyer, 1942
Thank you, Dachau, and thank you to the documentation center, for showing me that there were good people doing what was right and standing up to the evil taking over. And thank you for reminding me to never stand to the side when I see injustice. The guilt of the innocent will remain in my mind and my soul forever.
There’s always something we can do.
Goodbye, Munich. You are one I won’t forget.