When team Hohenshwangau was in the Residenz museum in Munich, we met a nice guy who worked there. We must have looked totally lost because he asked us, “Ausgang? Exit?” After a bit of small talk, we told him we were going to Dachau the next day. He warned us that weather conditions feel more extreme there. A bright, sunny day becomes a smoldering hot day; a cold, raining day becomes a freezing day.
Dr. Pitcock proceeded to tell us it was going to rain, so prepare for the cold. So naturally I wore chacos, shorts, and a T-shirt. While my mom would probably freak out if she saw me walking out into the cold in what I had on, I’m so glad I made the choice to not dress warmly. Even when being in the physical location of such atrocities and injustices, it can be hard to wrap your mind around what went wrong. It’s hard to understand the reality of what happened. And while I may have been shivering, I don’t think being comfortable in a concentration camp would feel appropriate. One of the ways the SS would torture prisoners was by making them stand outside in the elements. That’s it. They would stand there and endure hours of role call as a form of torture. That’s how horrible the conditions were: even standing outside was unbearable to them because they weren’t properly clothed, fed, and were constantly on their toes to make sure nothing they did would get them killed.
Standing in the location of where Roll Call occurred was difficult, but I’m so glad I took the time to stand there and absorb the environment around me. Just beyond the walls of the camp were trees, a flowing creek, and the beautiful nature of Germany. It reminded me of how often we take naturally beautiful things and pervert them into dangerous and painful places filled with hatred.
I decided it was time to move into the building with the sort of museum portion of the camp inside to give myself a break from the rain. This museum was the culmination of everything we had learned from the last two cities. I was able to see the Nazi’s rise to power, the persecution of anyone who posed a threat to or disagreed with the Nazis, and the torture the Nazis put their prisoners through.
The Nazi ideology viewed Jews as objects without rights or dignity, or intrinsic value. Every nasty joke was met with applause, every bit of indecency was met with vile laughter. Health care was a joke, the only viable explanation for how the medical system worked inside the camp was “the more Jews that died, the better off the Nazis were”. Life became savage for the prisoners. A spoon or a plate could be the difference between life and death, and they were valued much more than we could ever imagine. Punishments ranged from whipping, to tying a human’s arms behind their back and hanging them from their wrists, to executions. Nothing was too inhumane for the prisoners because the prisoners were not viewed as human beings.
Human beings are not tools; and whipping them does not change their physical capabilities. A certain guard asked a prisoner to operate two machines at the same time. When they told him it was not possible, he replied with “then I’ll just write a few reports – after a few of you get whipped, the rest will work.” Everything the Nazis did was to achieve death of Jews: either in spirit or in body. Prisoners were not allowed to seek shelter during bombings, medical tests were conducted on them to see which organs fail first during hypothermia or how malaria affects the body, the list goes on and on.
Eventually, the Nazis realized that the conditions were so bad for the prisoners that they were not going to be able to achieve the work they were counting to win the war. Imagine that. Conditions were improved not because of some great revelation that what they were Doing was objectively wrong, but because they needed the labor of their prisoners.
They eventually had a reward system set up for the humans inside the camp. What crushed me was that the highest reward a prisoner could receive was a visit to a brothel. Labor trafficking thus fed into sex trafficking during this time. Nazis were rewarding their prisoners with more brokenness.
It took me about four hours to get through the the building. Needless to say, my spirit was crushed after reading everything I read in the building that many of those atrocities took place in. But as I opened the doors, something remarkable happened: the sun came out. The cold and the rain disappeared, and the air was warm. I didn’t understand at first what God was trying to tell me, and I still don’t think I fully understand it, but I think it has to do with the fact that human beings are seeing this information and being hurt by it. That hurt allows us to remember what happened and stop it from happening again. The purpose of visiting a concentration camp is not to feel sorry for all of the pain and suffering that happened to all of those people. The purpose is to pass down the memory of injustice so the small things like racist jokes, sexist comments, bullying, and a lack of empathy can be stopped before they take root and become something much worse.It’s on the people who have walked in the footsteps of the oppressed to remind the world that “it has happened, so it can happen again.” The sun came out when as I exited the building because the informed can bring light to the darkness and warmth to the cold by having empathy and heart.