My time at Dachau was an extremely difficult and emotionally challenging day. For our final day in Germany, CR10 spent the day at the Dachau concentration camp just outside the city of Munich. The Dachau concentration camp was a Nazi instrument of terror for twelve years, and in it, so many unspeakable horrors occurred.
From the moment I walked into the main central memorial area, I felt extremely uncomfortable. The path we took led us straight through the Jourhaus, the entrance gate to the concentration camp. As each prisoner stepped through that gate, they lost their freedom and dignity – set on a path that would lead to their unwarranted death or to a past that could not and should not be forgotten. “Arbeit Macht Frei,” or “work sets you free,” is the phrase that was ironically placed on the gate. It made a mockery of the people as they entered. The notion that Dachau was a labor camp and a correctional facility played down everything that really occurred behind closed doors.
Looking out on the prisoner camp, I began to realize the sheer size of it all. The prison camp was only a small portion of the entire camp, which means the entire camp was ginormous. How preposterous is it that the Nazi’s would devote so many resources, so much time, and so much land to systematically oppress all sorts of people who weren’t part of the “superior” race of Aryans?
I spent most of the morning walking the entire course of the camp and trying to take it all in, wondering how in the world this could have happened. I tried to imagine placing myself in the prisoners’ spots. Attempting to place myself in the prisoners’ shoes helped to make sense of all that was around me. I tried desperately to imagine myself walking through the entrance gate. I tried to imagine standing completely still during roll call, having to keep still even when a neighbor collapsed to the ground or seeing a dead man dragged to the position next to me. I tried with all my will to understand the gravity of the situation. Yet, I am fully aware that I can never even come close to truly understanding without being put in a situation like that. All I can do is try.
What got to me most was the final section of the camp, the crematorium. Harry Zaslow, a Jewish-American soldier, took part in the liberation of Dachau. In a recorded interview, he mentions smelling a putrid stench coming from somewhere and looking up to see smoke coming from two buildings near the back of the camp. He approached the buildings and opened the door to the larger building to discover a room full of dead bodies, piled on each other to the top of the ceiling. After already witnessing the hundreds of bodies laying around the camp, this only added to his horror. Harry continued on and opened another door to find another room of bodies also stacked to the ceiling. At this moment in the recording, I stood in the middle of the two chambers, unable to put together any coherent thoughts. TWO large rooms filled with dead bodies?!?!? Not to mention the significant number of those dead in the box cars on the train tracks. How horrifying!! The recording continued and Harry described stepping into the furnace room, and looking into one furnace. What he saw must’ve shaken him to the core. There, in front of him, lay bodies slowly being roasted going into the furnace. Only then can I imagine did this US soldier fully grasp the barbarity of the Nazi regime.
In the large crematorium, I also got to see the gas chambers. Here, one hundred and fifty prisoners were stuffed in a room under the belief that they would be receiving a shower for once! This small room was then heated up and filled with noxious air that would cause those inside to suffocate for fifteen to twenty minutes and then die. In the past, whenever I had heard any mention of gas chambers, I had assumed that it was a quick death, not realizing that it was meant to be a slow and torturous process for the people stuck inside. Words cannot describe how quickly I ran through that room, knowing all that had occurred there. The few seconds I spent scampering into and out of the room were enough to make me feel its heavy weight.
Even days after visiting this haunting memorial, I can’t help but feel anger towards the injustice, sorrow for the so many lives lost, and shock for the extent to which the Nazis cruelly dealt with the thousands that were brought to the Dachau concentration camp. Despite my reeling and despair, I was able to leave the site not feeling completely overwhelmed and depressed.. The Protestant Church of Reconciliation provided a feeling that had evaded me all day – hope. Its design stands in stark contrast to the design of the concentration camp. This church was created with different sized rooms and a lack of any ninety-degree angle – a symbol of the Nazi murder system. Another design created random protrusions along the church walls to emphasize the importance of depth.
“Depth can frighten or threaten you, but also be a shelter or protection. It’s important that experience of depth doesn’t destroy you. Out of the depths a person may complain, may weep, may cry, may pray.” – Helmut Striffler (the architect)
We can’t run from depth; we can’t run from the things we find gruesome and horrifying. If we don’t choose to face what we find deeply disturbing, we fail to honor and acknowledge the suffering so many people went through. Failing to address past atrocities can lead to an unwanted repeat in history. We also CANNOT let this sickening experience destroy the hope we hold. This quote brought me so much comfort in realizing that I absolutely needed to feel despair and anger to better understand all that went on in Dachau. With this quote came a bible verse from Psalm 130: “Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord.” I cried out to the Lord while praying, utterly devoid of hope. He was attentive to my cry for mercy for my unrestful soul, and in that moment, I felt some solace. This religious memorial actively fights against the belief of discrimination and causes me to actively fight against it too. The Dachau concentration camp is meant to honor those who died and to show the world how the Nazis were able to carry out their plans. With this information, we have the responsibility to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
NEVER AGAIN can we stand for discrimination, racism, homophobia, and prejudice that led to the brutal murder of so many innocent lives. NEVER AGAIN should the entire world be blind to the maltreatment of entire groups of people. And NEVER AGAIN will we allow a tyranny to extinguish the lives of millions.
– Marat Rosencrants