Though today took the least amount of physical effort on our trip so far, it took the highest emotional toll. This is an outcome I immediately anticipated upon reading our syllabus and noticing that we would be visiting the concentration camp in Dachau. As a person of the Jewish faith, I have learned about WWII and the Holocaust all throughout my life, both in my regular history classes as well as during my time at Hebrew school. I have read books, seen movies, visited Holocaust museums, heard the tales of survivors in person. Though it never gets easier to hear about, I thought I had a good idea of what I was going into. I have already heard all of these terrible things before, I told myself, I’m pretty prepared for our visit. In the back of my mind, though, I wondered if I would cry. Is it embarrassing if I do? Am I a bad person if I don’t?
We met our guide, a very knowledgeable older gentleman that I believe Dr. Feick knew from previous visits. He started with a brief history of WWII and Dachau, and I think many people might have been surprised by the fact that Dachau was not a death camp, but a work camp. It was the first concentration camp that was established and served as the blueprint for many more to come. Another fact our guide mentioned that many might not have known was that Hitler did not create nor visit the concentration camps. This was done by Heinrich Himmler, his right hand man and leader of the SS. I only first learned about Himmler this year at Pitt in my seminar class, so I was impressed that this information was being shared with the group and that I could tie it together with what I had learned in class.
Now for the hard stuff. We walked through the terrible “Arbeit macht frei” gate (work will set you free) and entered the are where prisoners would line up for roll call, sometimes spending several hours in the extreme heat or cold. We saw from where they would retrieve their food, and an interesting fact I didn’t know before is that the bunkers are hierarchical, with the lowest classification of prisoner being in the bunker that is furthest from this food retrieving area. We entered the bunker that still remains standing (the others were destroyed for sanitary purposes, though you can see the rows of where they once stood) and learned more about the marking system and the unfavorable living conditions. I learned that visiting a concentration camp is a requirement for all German students, which is a testimony to the country’s dedication to learning from its history. At one point, Dr. Feick asked if I was okay, and I surprised myself when I was a bit choked up trying to reply. Soon, we headed through the gas chamber and crematorium. When we were left to explore on our own, I found myself alone in a room where you could listen to audio accounts of stories, which are always very hard to hear. I faced another wave of emotion as I was retreating back through the gate, because I was easy able to leave while so many others before me couldn’t. I am grateful that our visit to Dachau was the only scheduled event for our program today. We got the chance to reflect on this morning’s events on our own and take a mental break. I took the opportunity to call my incredible mother, because it’s Mother’s Day. I also called my lovely grandmothers, who were especially happy to hear from me and about my trip. Tomorrow we have a politics talk in the morning, followed by a visit to KUKA.