“Head down, keep walking.”
If I keep walking, maybe the horror won’t sink in.
“Head down, keep walking.”
If I keep my head down, maybe they won’t see my tears.
“Head down, keep walking.”
If I avoid it long enough, maybe I will wake up and realize it’s all a bad dream…
But I didn’t wake up. I didn’t keep walking. I didn’t keep my head down.
I looked up.
I’ve been learning about the Holocaust since the fifth grade when Mrs. Mooring dedicated an entire semester to the atrocities that occurred during World War II. From then on my curiosity about the events only grew, leading me to seek knowledge in other sources including books and first person accounts from people who lived during the tragedy. While I always thought it would be interesting to see a concentration camp for myself, never did I imagine that I would actually get a chance to go to one. Once I got accepted on CR, I knew that this once far fetched idea was going to come to life. I was going to see a concentration camp for myself. I was going to come face to face with the darkest parts of humanity.
In a journal before CR, I reflected on what I believed Dachau would be like:
“When I imagine the day we step foot on Dachau soil, I imagine the sky being an ominous grey, the sun trying to peek through, but the clouds being impenetrable to its rays. When I think of Dachau, I can feel the lump in my throat that, despite constant swallowing, won’t seem to go away. When I think of Dachau, I imagine the tragedy, I can see the tragedy, and I mourn the tragedy. That day, we will be broken.”
As we pulled up in our bus to the Dachau stop, I found my predictions to be all too accurate. The sky was grey from the soft rain. The air was cool and brisk. The only sounds that could be heard were the movement of gravel under my feet coupled with the occasional chirping of birds. Desolation echoed through the long pathway leading up to the Dachau gate. Despite being surrounded by my fellow CR familia, I have never felt more alone.
Entering the gates, I was struck by the monotony of the complex. The barracks and main house blended in with the sky and the gravel. Everything was the same. This similarity reinforced the idea of deindividualization. Much like the buildings, each human life that walked through that gate was subjected to dehumanizing acts that allowed the SS to view them as inferior subordinates. By taking away their humanity, they were able to categorize each individual as one in the same; looped into an all encompassing box. As I walked into the main house that now served as the Dachau museum, I was able to see these dehumanizing tools for myself. The hair clippers, the striped uniforms, the removal of personal belongings, all of it intended to demoralize. The Nazi Regime utilized every avenue and calculated every detail to ensure the prisoners recognized their inferiority.
“You are without rights, dishonorable, and defenseless. You’re a pile of shit, and that is how you are going to be treated.”
– Josef Jarolin, protective custody camp leader to the new Dachau prisoners, 1941
This heinous quote and many more littered the museum. Around every corner, there were more and more examples of the capabilities of evil in humanity.
“…the more prisoners that die, the better.”
How can someone say this? How can we be so inhumane? What’s worse is this quote is in reference to the treatment of prisoners by medical professionals. As an aspiring physician, I wrestled with this quote a lot. Doctors are supposed to be lifesavers, not life takers. They are not called to decide who lives and who dies. Their one job is to ensure they do everything in their power to help their patient. This is outlined best in the Hippocratic oath, which has been taken by doctors since its initial conception in 275 AD. In it, it states:
I will apply dietetic measures for the benefit of the sick according to my ability and judgment; I will keep them from harm and injustice.
Dachau is the epitome of harm and injustice. Those who worked there spared no mercy upon the innocent lives. As I continued to walk through the museum, this idea of insensitivity only strengthened. Families were broken. People were starved. Labor was gruesome. There was no right to live. One after another, these atrocities compounded. By the time I left the Dachau museum, I had become numb to the pain. It was easier that way. But as I walked outside, I ventured near a memorial in front of the main house. Two things stood there: the ashes of the unknown and a memorial that read “Never Again.”
I stood there for a while, looking back and forth from the ashes to the sign. Up until this point, death was guarded by words on a page. It wasn’t real. Now it was right in front of me. People’s lives in a box. At this realization, I turned toward the barracks. Like a wave, everything I’d ever learned, heard, or seen about the holocaust hit me at once. I burst into tears.
I walked through the barracks, I walked through the crematorium, and I walked through the gas chamber. I walked on the paths to the shooting range. I wanted to keep walking, knowing that if I were to stop, my emotions would only escalate. I kept my head down, hoping that people wouldn’t see the tears in my eyes. I couldn’t come to terms with this horrific reality. How could this happen? In the middle of a path, I prayed for clarity, for peace, and for hope. In my brokenness, I could only find solace in God alone. This led me to the Carmelite Chapel.
Walking into the chapel, I felt unworthy. I felt separated from such a perfect and loving God, knowing how broken I am. Yet at the same time, I could feel His love, His guiding hand on my shoulder telling me to look up and face the world. Until that point, I was timid and afraid. I couldn’t face the tragedies of this world on my own. I wasn’t strong enough. But when I walked out of the chapel, I lifted my eyes to see the world. I had a sense of peace that wasn’t there before. I was reminded of the goodness in humanity with words I’d seen in the museum. A story of a Jewish doctor who willingly risked his life to treat fellow patients with typhus, knowing that he would one day contract the disease and die. A story of two selfless victims carrying the burden of four men because the other two men were too weak to carry the load for themselves. In the face of indescribable hate, love prevailed. People were good.
Dachau was needed. I needed to be broken in order to see the extent to which hatred can divide the world. But even in that darkness, love lived. Not even the most elaborate attempts at demoralization could suffocate the power of love. Much like white juxtaposes black, so love juxtaposes hate. While it may be difficult to come to terms with the hate in this world, we must realize that turning a blind eye isn’t the answer. We must face these problems head on and look for answers. We must show love.