This morning I met my friends Kevin and Dustin at the train station so that we could go to the Dachau Concentration Camp together. This was the first concentration camp I ever visited and though I’ve read books and watched movies on the subject, nothing can really prepare you for all the emotions you will feel walking the same path so many people walked to their death. It was a very solemn and humbling experience, and I cannot even fathom the horror and terror the prisoners must have felt.
The very mention of “Dachau” once spread fear and terror throughout Germany. In March 1933, it was one of the first camps created and the only camp to have existed during all twelve years of Nazi rule. Dachau served as a model for all future concentration camps. During its existence, over 200,000 people were imprisoned and 41,500 were murdered.
“When we arrived in Dachau, dragged from the train to the camp and beaten in a corner there, a kind of public interrogation began from an entire herd of so-called officers…Every nasty joke was received with applause. Every bit of indecency was met with vile laughter.”
– “Times without mercy”, prisoner account by Rudolf Kalmar (1938-1948 in the Dachau concentration camp)
We took the bus there and already the atmosphere on the bus was solemn as though nobody felt comfortable laughing or smiling. When we arrived, we walked the rocky path to the main entrance. I saw the ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ sign. I saw the cramped beds they had to sleep in. I stood in the room where they had to wait before going into the ‘showers.’ That part really got me…just standing there looking at the four wooden walls, trying to comprehend what they must have felt, but knowing that I never would.
The museum told many horrific stories. Stories of people being forced to work naked when it was freezing outside and forced to work in heavy coats when it was hot. Stories of prisoners being beaten for no reason – punished for imperfectly made beds, for traces of finger prints they left on a locker, for buttons that were missing or not done up, for having their hands in their pockets. Stories of for being forced to do pointless tasks over and over again, of having to do work at a running pace simply so that they could provide entertainment…
“When it was hot, we had to do knee-bends in our coats. Whoever couldn’t keep up had to undress and roll around naked in stinging nettles. At night we had to jump out of bed on command and crawl under the beds. On command, we had to bark like dogs and snore.”
– Prisoner account of Adolf Gussak (1938/39 in the Dachau concentration camp)
on the treatment of Roma in Dachau concentration camp, 1958 (excerpt)
It was a sunny day as we walked the grounds – the sky was blue, the birds were chirping. I remember reading The Devil’s Arithmetic in grade 8 and being struck by a part in the story where the main girl says something about looking at the sun and thinking about all the people in the world outside enjoying it, while she was suffering. As I walked the grounds on that sunny October day, I thought again about all the sunshine and all the suffering in the world. I looked at pictures of people standing in rows, heads bowed, faces grim – some of them as old as my grandpa, some of them younger than me. I looked at pictures of Hitler standing in front of the Munich Town Hall with the Swastika flag on it – a place where I had stood not even 24 hours ago. I looked at pictures of revolutionaries protesting by the Brandenburger Tor – a spot where I had spent so many summer days sitting in front of.
Visiting Dachau was heartbreaking. It’s heartbreaking to acknowledge that we were so cruel to each other. And maybe the most heart breaking thing is that these cruelties aren’t so much in the past as we’d like to believe. These horrible things are still happening in the world. I keep reading stories on Human of New York of siblings being sent the heads of their brothers, children seeing their fathers blown up or beaten, families being torn a part. There is still so much evil in this world. Still so many Hitlers in this world, only called by another name. The horrors of the concentration camp are still alive today. There are still people who make the world a bad place. And I hate them for it.